Monday, March 23, 2015

Ninja Master #4: Million-Dollar Massacre

Ninja Master #4: Million-Dollar Massacre, by Wade Barker
May, 1982  Warner Books

Ric Meyers returns to the Ninja Master series with an installment that isn’t as great as his first one, but it’s still pretty good – at least, once our author has remembered that he’s writing a bloody piece of ninjasploitation pulp. Before that Million-Dollar Massacre loses its footing in a sort of padded-out Yojimbo riff, with hero Brett Wallace posing undercover as an underworld hitman.

My understanding of this volume is that, like Mountain Of Fear, Meyers was brought into the fold once the author of the first volume (apparently some dude named Stephen Smoke) turned in a manuscript that was deemed subpar by Warner Books. Since the title, cover, and back cover copy had all been devised, Meyers was required to stick to them. But whereas the similar situation he’d been presented with in Mountain Of Fear, with its redneck kingdom of sadists, still allowed Meyers to deliver a story more in line with his natural talents, the one Smoke came up with for Million-Dollar Massacre was a little more involved.

Basically, Smoke had it that in this installment Brett Wallace would infiltrate the Atlantic City underworld as a roving hitman, playing one godfather against another. So Meyers had to follow suit with his story, and the shame of it is that the majority of Million-Dollar Massacre reads like it could’ve been an installment of any other series. There’s no ninja stuff to it, and Meyers vents his frustrations with this setup through Brett himself, who toward the end of the novel basically says to hell with it and goes back to being the ninja master he is, the whole undercover angle be damned.

The novel still opens with a sadistic bang, as we meet a young Atlantic City prostitute named Vicki as she’s “entertaining” a gun-wielding john. Vicki assumes it’s just this guy’s quirk, as the bordello she works for, The Shop, caters specifically to people into bondage and the like. This is a very disquieting scene to say the least. In his previous installment Meyers proved himself an author unafraid to venture into full-on exploitation and sleaze, and boy he does so here, with the “john” screwing Vicki and then telling her he plans to kill her.

Meanwhile, in the span of just a few pages, Meyers has gotten us to care for this character Vicki, such that her terrible death – which calls to mind the similarly-horrific end another prostitute met, in Manning Lee Stokes's novel Corporate Hooker, Inc. – really jars us. It’s way over the top, with the john, who turns out to be a hitman hired to kill off everyone in The Shop, inserting his revolver in a certain part of the poor girl’s anatomy and pulling the trigger. And Meyers does not fade to black here, with the ensuing gore copiously described.

And humorously enough, hero Brett Wallace shows up…like two seconds after the girl is dead!! We’re told later that he had trouble sneaking into The Shop, but still…you can’t help but wonder if poor Vicki might’ve survived if Brett had left home just a few seconds earlier. And it’s made even worse by the later revelation that Brett’s here in Atlantic City for the specific purpose of saving Vicki! Hired by the girl’s mother in San Francisco, Brett has come here to Jersey to find her and bring her home.

Instead he finds her mauled corpse, and thus Brett’s mission of mercy becomes one of vengeance. He promptly goes about dishing this out, and it’s that patented Ric Meyers Ninja Master vengeance you know and demand, with Brett truly making the bastards pay. In particular Vicki’s murderer, who gets his balls kicked off by the Ninja Master before finally meeting his maker. This occurs after another harrowing moment, where the killer has discovered that Vicki had a baby, one lying in a crib up in The Shop’s attic; Meyers toys with us, making us think the sadist is about to kill the baby, too, before Brett intervenes.

Brett has “plans” for Vicki’s daughter, but Meyers doesn’t share them with us until the final pages. Meanwhile he decides to go undercover to find out who exactly ordered the massacre of The Shop – every single person has been killed, gangland style. Here the novel sort of sets into a rut. First Brett hires a hitman named Stillman to kill top Atlantic City don George Arrow, but instead Brett himself kills the hitman just as the dude is about to kill Arrow. It’s all an elaborate ruse so Brett can thrust himself into Arrow’s world as an important hitman himself.

Here begins the Yojimbo stuff. Posing as “Shack Sullivan,” Brett ventures about on various assassination missions for Arrow. But instead of killing his victims, Brett instead infiltrates their security and offers his services to them. Arrow’s first job has Brett going off to kill Arcudi, owner of yet another whorehouse. After screwing one of the hookers in a nondescriptive sequence, Brett sneaks around the place, only to discover that Arcudi is not only a woman…but she’s also Arrow’s daughter!

While this is certainly intriguing, the problem is that already Meyers’s storyline for Million-Dollar Massacre has been undermined. Brett decided to go undercover to find out who ordered the massacre at The Shop, and he finds out a few pages later that it was George Arrow. But instead of killing the dude outright, Brett instead continues with his undercover shenanigans. This is all quite puzzling for the reader. To Meyers’s credit, he does eventually explain why (long story short, Brett wants to collect payment for his fake hits into a savings account for Vicki’s daughter), but he waits until the very end to do so.

This means that the reader spends most of the novel wondering why Brett Wallace doesn’t unleash his ninja skills on George Arrow and his minions. That’s not to say the novel isn’t fun. Indeed, it’s kind of cool how Brett uses his ninja skills to keep his targets alive. Meyers is smart in that he works in this angle where Brett gradually realizes he’s fooling himself with all these charades; Brett is a ninja, an assassin, and his purpose in life is to kill his enemies, not to use trickery to play one against the other.

Only when Brett is nearly killed himself, by upstart mob boss John Testi (who has a fake right arm with a gun built in it), does Brett realize the error of his thinking. From thence forth he drops the “Shack Sullivan” guise, pulls out his ninja costume, sharpens his swords, and goes on a killing spree. The final quarter of Million-Dollar Massacre is an endless action sequence, filled with the severed organs and gory bloodsprays of Mountain Of Fear, and again makes the reader wish the Cannon Group or some other production company had bought the rights and made a movie of this series back in the ‘80s.

The stuff before this is only marginally entertaining, mostly comrpised of Brett sneaking into this or that establishment in order to kill his latest victim, but instead spiriting the person away and offering him or her his services. The graphic content of the novel’s opening sequence is all but dropped, with even the hooker-sex Brett enjoys given cursory description. I bring this part up again only so as to mention how Remo Williams Brett is in the lovin’ department, so hyper-skilled that he breaks through the “professional façade” of a working girl.

But really, in Meyers’s skilled hands Ninja Master basically is a variant of The Destroyer, only with a ninja overlay and lots more gore. In fact, whereas the action scenes are generally tossed off in that earlier series, Meyers devotes his full attention to them here, so that the reader feels every slice of Brett’s blade. Meyers also imbues the books with an on-the-level vibe; in other words, this series, thankfully, doesn’t have the satirical nature of The Destroyer. That being said, Meyers himself wrote a few installments of The Destroyer in the late ‘70s, and one of these days I’ll check them out.

Anyway, the finale. After Arrow tells “Shack” to meet him late one night at the Million Dollar Pier, Brett suits up in his ninja gi and lays in wait. On his way into the place his senses, which are almost supernaturally developed, inform him that there are people lying about in ambush. Due to this he’s able to avoid the conflagration of gunfire which erupts from the silent bumper-cars around him. Here begins an action scene that will go on to the last page.

First Brett takes on the gunmen, hacking and slashing with his swords. After he’s killed all of them, he’s assailed by a helicopter that comes out of nowhere, a gunner in the passenger seat shooting at him with a sniper rifle. Proving his superhuman powers once again, Brett not only kills the sniper, but also crashes the helicopter! But his ambushers aren’t totally gone yet; after walking from the burning ‘copter, Brett’s almost ran over by a horde of limousines, which have been sitting silently off of the pier.

Worse yet, each limo bears a shotgun-wielding goon, and Brett’s shoulder is shredded by an errant blast. Once he’s hacked apart every single one of these guys, Brett limps for Arrow’s casino, where the don and John Testi are supposed to be having a face-to-face. Finding the casino security guards all murdered, Brett takes up the uniform of one of them and continues his battle, dazed and bleeding, against a group of ski-masked assassins.

It all culminates in Testi’s headquarters, where Brett finally determines who was behind the huge ambush – Arcudi herself, along with some barely-mentioned female character named Tamara, who we met for like one sentence early in the novel, where she was introduced as Arrow’s girlfriend. Despite the brevity of Tamara’s entrance, her exit is friggin grand, as Brett punches through her skull and into her brain!

Testi has a concrete room, from which all air can be sucked; this is where Brett almost died, earlier in the novel, caught unaware by Testi. When Arcudi orders him at gunpoint into the chamber at the novel’s end, she snidely assumes Brett won’t last a few seconds. Still, she gives him several moments in there. When later she goes in to look at Brett’s peaceful “corpse,” Meyers delivers yet another memorable moment, a veritable Friday The 13th-esque bit of schlock shock where Brett’s eyes pop open as Arcudi’s kneeling over her, and his hands go for her throat.

And with that Million-Dollar Masacre ends, and it’s a hell of an ending, an awesome cap-off from the previous fifty or so pages of mayhem. It’s also a sterling reminder of the insanity Ric Meyers is capable of, and makes one wish the rest of the novel had been up to the same caliber.

It appears that Meyers was able to come up with his own plots and storylines in his next two installments (volumes 6 and 8), so here’s hoping they will be more like it.


Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

I have a couple of these but so far I've only read #6 Death's Door. It's no Black Samurai, but it was crazy. Thanks for the behind the scenes info on this series. Enjoyed the review as always.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Kurt -- I'm looking forward to #6. I've also got the Year of the Ninja Master/War of the Ninja Master books Meyers wrote after this series ended...I'll have a review up in a few weeks for #5, by the way, "Black Magician," which was also pretty good.