How well do you enjoy failed 80s television series that didn't make it past their first season order? Even if you have an undying love for the 1980s obsession with ninjas, The Master starring Lee Van Cleef and Timothy Van Patten may be a tough sell for some. However, it's schlocky good nature and dated action theatrics featuring numerous cameo appearances makes it an enjoyable ride none the less. Kino Lorber Studio Classics brings the entire series to Blu-ray with a solid video transfer and a decent audio mix to match. It may not be classic entertainment, but it's a fun ride and well worth a look.
Ninjas, man. What was with the 80s and its love for the mystical ancient black-clad Ninja? From Cannon Films numerous American Ninja films and the Enter the Ninja series to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, these silent sword swinging, shuriken tossing assassins dominated comic books, movies, and video games for a generation. Considering the popularity, it's not at all surprising that enterprising TV executives would want to get a ninja or two on primetime television. Taking the tried and true format of the wandering drifter who helps those in need, series creator Michael Sloan made a grand attempt with The Master starring an aged Lee Van Cleef as a master ninja and Timothy Van Patten as his younger van-driving sidekick. Far from being the greatest work of television, The Master provides the right amount of diverting action entertainment with just enough unintentional humor to make it a worthwhile endeavor.
In truth, there really isn't a whole lot of story to this series as it never got to come to a satisfying conclusion. The nuts and bolts of it are pretty simple. Aged master ninja John McAllister (Lee Van Cleef) leaves the deadly ninja cabal he's been a member of for the last several decades to find the daughter he never knew he had. How he learned about this girl and his relation to her is a bit of a mystery, but it doesn't matter because it gets the ball rolling. After surviving an assassination attempt by his lead pupil Okasa (Sho Kosugi). Making his way to his daughter's last location in Illinois, McAllister runs into goodhearted social justice warrior Max Keller (Timothy Van Patten) who never runs from a fight - even when he has no chance of winning. Together the pair travels the country in Max's van (tricked out with a gerbil cage on the dash), and they gather clues to the missing daughter's whereabouts.
If you've seen any episodes of The Incredible Hulk, Kung-fu, or Highway To Heaven, you're well aware of this tried and true formula. A thin plot line - in this case, a father trying to locate his daughter - propels the lead characters to move about from one location to the next, meet some colorful folks who need help stopping the local no good bad guy, fights ensue and the heroes leave on to their next location. Van Cleef and Van Patten enjoy a fun camaraderie as the elder trains his pupil in the mystical ninja arts, but there's really very little to The Master. It suffers from early first season episodes trying to figure itself out. Are there really going to be "ninja opponents of the week" for Van Cleef's body double to fight? Or are they going to go with the personal score Okasa has to settle with his former master? By the time the latter option was chosen and Sho Kosugi was being worked in as a series regular, the van our heroes ride around it had already started to run out of gas and the show was canceled off NBC's docket after 18 episodes.
Now if this show sounds familiar but the name doesn't, you may be more familiar with it's retitled video "movie" outings under the moniker Master Ninja. Two episodes were haphazardly strung together as feature-length films and resold on the home video market. Thankfully, this decision caught the attention of Joel Hodgson and the rest of the crew on Mystery Science Theater 3000. This is where I first learned of the show as it was being skewered by a hapless human caught on the Satellite of Love and his two robot pals. Even without the barrage of riffs, The Master elicits more than it's fair share of comments from the audience.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks of the series is how it stretches believability. It was already a bit of a stretch to believe that an aging Lee Van Cleef who was already enduring several serious health issues at this point in his life could pass as a sword-wielding super ninja. To the show's credit, the clever edits for close-up combat get a passing grade, but it's the wide shots with the bald-headed body double or a man dressed head to toe in black ninja garb with a dramatically different physique takes on Sho Kosugi that kills a lot of the action momentum and brings more than its intended share of laughter. Then we have the young Van Patten. He's good for a quip, oozes some charm here and there, but after a bit, his one-liners stretch your patience.
At the end of it all, I gotta say I enjoyed the hell out of this show. It's not good. I'm not making any assertions of its quality, but it is fun and I do have to tip my hat to the series' producers for attempting to make a big show on a small budget. Plus, each episode's cameos can be a good bit of "who's who" of familiar faces including appearances from retired/fired 007 George Lazenby, Demi Moore, Clu Gulager, Claude Akins, Bill McKinney, and Night of the Lepus star Stuart Whitman - to name a few. Like I said, The Master is not a great show, it never was and no amount of reevaluation will make it so. However, it's fun. It's a nice little token piece of the 1980s ninja obsession and fits nicely on your shelf alongside your collection of Cannon ninja movies.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Ninja makes its true complete series debut courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics in a three-disc set. Pressed onto three Region A BD-50 discs, the discs are housed inside a three-disc thick sturdy clear case with reversible artwork and a book-like slipcover similar to how they packaged Rawhead Rex last year. Discs One and Two contain five episodes each while Disc Three contains the final three and the collection of trailers.
The Master slashes its way onto Blu-ray with what turns out to be a pretty good 1.33:1 1080p transfer. Considering the show and my familiarity with it on MST3k, I honestly wasn't expecting much from this so I was pleasantly surprised. I mean this thing isn't going to win awards, but it's actually a solid effort. Image clarity is strong offering up plenty of fine details with a healthy grain field - making it all the easier to spot Lee Van Cleef's body double. Outdoor sequences tend to look the best with robust scenery details, but there are some pretty good looking night shots as well. Colors are strong and offer a pleasing primary pop. Black levels are also on point for a show of this vintage. There are a couple places here and there where blacks can get a bit thick and you lose some of the depth, but they're very brief moments. There is some slight banding here and there, a couple compression artifacts like that - but otherwise, there aren't any depreciating issues to report.
Each episode of The Master sports a pleasing English DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio mix. Obviously, this show wasn't designed with heavy surround activity in mind so the show keeps things mostly focused on dialogue with punches of sound effects when action beats kick in. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout; Van Patten's intro narrations for a few episodes can sound a bit thick and flat like they were an afterthought, but that's not a fault of the mix. Like I said sound effects are a bit on the low side of things until the action kicks in then there is some terrific side-to-side panning quality - especially during sword fights and when ninja stars are being tossed around. Scoring by the legendary Bill Conti along with Les Hooper brings the 80s-style funk with heavy sax blasts to the action scenes and helps round out the mix while thoroughly steeping the show in 80s nostalgia. All around each episode gets a clean and clear mix without any issues.
Unfortunately, the only bonus features for this show is the typical Studio Classics collection of related trailers. Considering he's become an award-winning TV director for shows like Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and a recent Black Mirror episode, I would have loved to see a retrospective interview with Timothy Van Patten about the making of The Master and working with Lee Van Cleef.
For a Few Dollars More Trailer (SD 2:29)
The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly Trailer (SD 3:22)
Death Rides a Horse Trailer (HD 1:33)
Sabata Trailer (HD 1:37)
Return of Sabata Trailer (HD 2:08)
Barquero Trailer (HD 2:36)
Enter the Ninja Trailer (HD 2:53)
Revenge of the Ninja Trailer (HD 1:41)
Depending on how well you enjoy 80s Ninja Nostalgia, you're either going to love The Master or dismiss it outright. I had a particularly damn good time picking through this show. Sure, it's not the greatest thing ever made and it's more than understandable why it was canceled, but it's fun. It's a show with a little heart and it tried its best - even if it couldn't quite convince the world that Lee Van Cleef was a deadly ninja master. It's another 80s "Dudes In A Van" show and makes for a fun time. Kino Lorber Studio Classics has done a solid job bringing this show to Blu-ray with a strong A/V presentation that is in impressive shape considering the less than illustrious reception it was given thirty years ago. Unfortunately, the only bonus features are a collection of trailers. Just the same, I'm calling this one as worth a look. I know a few folks out there who will have a fun time digging through this one.