Small Town Shinobi: A History of “Justice Ninja Style”

Justin Tucker, Fri, 30 May 2014 05:00:00 GMT

the fair land of jefferson county often gets a bum rap compared to other places in and around the st. louis area. it has a reputation of a being an unsophisticated, uncultured collection of hamlets populated by hoosiers on meth. despite its reputation, it is a place with a rich history and culture.

when one enters going south on interstate 55, they are welcomed by the green behemoth arnold water tower, perhaps the most familiar of the jeffco landmarks. a few miles down the road is imperial and kimmswick, the respective homes of mastodon state historic site and the apple butter festival. continuing down, after you pass the i-55 raceway in pevely, you arrive in festus, which gets a shout out in the george jones and tammy wynette song (we’re not) the jet set.

it was only a matter of time before jefferson county would be represented in film. it finally happened in 1986 when the residents of desoto enthusiastically welcomed the production of the martial arts movie, justice ninja style. the tight-knit railroad community more than accommodated the cast and crew for the city’s cinematic debut with many area residents also served as extras. buzz for the shoot spread beyond de soto and across the region. later that year, the film was released straight-to-video in and around the st. louis area, at a time when home video was in its burgeoning years.

the film tells the story of brad tolan (brent bell), a martial arts instructor who moves to de soto to open a karate school. he is framed by chief deputy george (rick rykart) and his partner officer grady (roger johnson) for a murder he did not commit and is thrown in jail, uncertain if he will ever see a trial. with the help of a mysterious ninja, brad escapes from jail and must evade capture while he tries to clear his name. when george forms a posse of angry townsfolk to take out the fugitive, it is up to brad and the ninja topple george and expose corruption on the force.

the years passed and eventually justice ninja style fell into obscurity except for in jefferson county, where to this day, it maintains a cult following. some have grown up with the movie, watching it over and over again like other children would with a disney movie. others find humor in the film’s camp. it has also appeared as a bootleg in one form or another. the de soto public library has gone so far as to keep the film behind the counter to deter theft.

i first heard of justice ninja style as a teenager at a time when my interest in the cinema was being cemented. intrigued by the thought of a movie being shot miles from where i lived, i tried to seek the film out for myself. finding a copy of the flick ended up being a most difficult task. the proliferation of dvds, along with the decline of the mom-and-pop video store at the time, made the film hard to find and nobody i knew owned a copy. not even a search into the internet movie database yielded any results. my quest for justice ninja style had reached a dead-end for the time being. the years went on. i eventually forgot about the film and moved out of jefferson county.

a couple years back, i stumbled across an incredibly terrible low-budget martial arts movie called ninja vengeance, and like a kick to the face, justice ninja style and my jeffco roots re-entered my mind. since my initial attempt at finding the film, i have become a critic and scholar of the cinema. naturally, i found it my duty to further investigate for the sake of documenting the history of the movies in jefferson county. my search was made easier this time around thanks to such marvelous inventions like youtube and google, and my quest continued.

it soon led me to the film’s writer and uncredited star, the supreme master ron d. white, 10th dan.

the man behind the hood

before one can begin contemplate justice ninja style, they must first get to know its creator, ron white. with a career spanning over 50 years in martial arts, he is a four-time world kickboxing champion and has trained with the likes of elvis presley and chuck norris. he is considered by his colleagues in the martial arts to be a living legend.

before martial arts, he first fought a boxer starting at age nine. he trained at the optimist’s club and turners hall in north st. louis, where he fought his brother on multiple occasions. after boxing for eight years, he had a losing record.

in 1962, he joined the united states navy, and it was during his time in the service that he discovered martial arts. he quit boxing for after being knocked down twice while sparring a navy friend who had studied taekwondo in korea. from that moment on he began his martial arts training and dreamed of becoming a world champion.

upon returning to st. louis, white was disheartened at the lack of karate schools and would train mostly with his brother over the course of the next few years. in 1972, he found a dojo that just opened and trained for about a month until the school closed. his instructors recommend that he study under master sam brock. it was his next step towards a championship.

i attended school every night, never missed a class, and in just 88 days, i became a brown belt, he wrote, from his book so you want to be a private detective. ron soon became a karate instructor and earned a first-degree black belt within his first year of formal dojo training. in 1976, his dream was realized when became the heavyweight kickboxing world champion. it was also around this time that ron established two guinness records. his first came in 1975, when for lying on a bed of nails for 26 hours, 15 minutes, 11 seconds. he broke his second record the following year, after becoming champion, for greatest weight borne on a bed of nails at 1510 pounds. he again won three more kickboxing world championships in the years 1976, 1985, 1998, and at age 60, in 2005. his career record was 41 – 0.

when not training or instructing, white also runs world wide investigations, the private detective agency started by his father, leslie earl white, in 1951. he transformed his father’s company, having done thousands of cases and becoming one of the most renowned agencies in the field. the year 1981 saw the first printing of his aforementioned book, so you want to be a private detective, which served as an inspiration for the recurring luther gillis character, played by eugene roche, in the magnum, p.i. television series.

script to screen and beyond

after writing so you want to be a private detective and martial arts training manuals, ron white tried his hand at writing movies. justice ninja style was the screenplay he wrote that he wanted to be completely immersed in. this is one of five movie scripts i wrote. i wanted to take this one from the very beginning to the end. in other words: from script to screen, he explained in our email correspondence.

ron also wanted his film to stick out from other martial arts movies at the time. to do this, he focused more on the ninja and his tricks, and kept the genre’s inherent violence to a minimum. i realize you have to have some violence in a ninja movie but i wanted [justice ninja style] to be more about the storyline and less about the violence for a change, he said of his approach. more of a family friendly movie. that in itself was the inspiration.

he formed cobra productions to get the movie off the ground. in the process, he wore many hats in the film’s making. i wrote it, put together the money needed to film it, help to direct it and played the ninja. you could say i was involved. ron secured a budget just shy of $20,000. this meant he had to think creatively on how to pack the most punch with what he had. it was not only my job to play the ninja, but also to work on getting locations – not at a cheap price, but for free! remember that word? free!

when it came for locations for the film’s setting, ron knew exactly which place in mind. we were looking for small town, u.s.a., and we found it in desoto, missouri, he said. great town for the kind of shoot i was looking for. he went to de soto city hall and made the case that allowing the film to shoot would be good publicity. mayor robert carter and other city officials were convinced, and gave the production permission to shoot, though preferred the city not be mentioned by name. how did i talk them into doing this? he pondered. simply, i don’t know.

in february 1985, ron held auditions at the de soto high school gymnasium. the casting call attracted roughly 300 candidates, young and old alike, hoping to be part of the magic. some trekked from out-of-state to be there while others dressed up for the part. the event captivated the locals, swelling interest in the film and its upcoming shoot. de soto was ready for its close-up.

justice ninja style began production the following month. the shoot lasted ten days, each with twelve hours days. de soto donated city hall, the fire department, the jail, the parks and police cars. even fervent townsfolk allowed filming in their home and businesses. they were essentially given free reign over the city. that gave us anything we asked for and, of course, saved a ton of money, ron gratefully said of the people of de soto.

aside from the extras, the main cast consisted mostly of ron’s karate students and friends, including the late country singer/songwriter nick nixon, who co-wrote the #1 hit country song the teddy bear song originally performed by barbara fairchild. one of the actors trying out for a part was roger johnson, who prior was cast as an extra in escape from new york and helped perform stunts with the legendary stuntman loren janes. when johnson arrived at his audition, he recognized rick rykart, another escape extra who was cast as chief deputy rick. i realized that we knew each other from the movie escape from new york. so i tried out and rick told ron that he thought i could play grady, recalls johnson. so i was hired for the part.

every single actor and actress was in front of the camera to do a movie for the very first time, said ron of his cast. everyone did it for credits.

ron also performed some of the film’s stunts until some of the crew objected. the director [parvin tramel] had a big fit when i did it the first time. ̃what are you doing?! if you get hurt where’s the movie! let the stuntmen do the job, that’s what they get paid for.’ i guess he was right. he then just directed the stuntmen on what to do during their scenes.

all the commotion around town kept the residents’ interest and enthusiasm perked. dave williamson, now curator at the de soto historical society, was one of the many locals fascinated with the shoot, and was present at a couple locations during filming. i was way far away but could still see all the action. i was curious. i had never seen anything like that before; a film being made in a small, rural town, he recalled.

justice ninja style premiered later that year at a private screening, mostly for friends and family of the cast and crew. ray dryden, a hollywood producer best known for the 1980 horror film the attic also attended the premiere. shortly thereafter, the movie was released on video around greater st. louis. it was available from cobra productions and could was available for rent at many places from schnucks to mom-and-pop video places.

despite its small budget and limited video release, some in the film industry saw justice ninja style had worldwide potential. i signed a contract with transcontinental studios in hollywood, california, for a video release on the foreign market as well as the u.s. i believe they put it out in 4 to 6 countries, ron explains. at the insistence of the studio, additional footage was filmed to expand on the backgrounds of chief deputy george and the mysterious ninja, now named liberty king with ron having top billing. jefferson barracks park and st. louis served as shooting locations and the updated cast included master martial artist tim bui.

this version of the movie has only been seen overseas. when the rights reverted back to white, he renamed it ninja, the ultimate warrior. it was never released in the united states until 2014.

tomorrow, may 31st, you can be one of the first people to see us premiere of ninja, the ultimate warrior at the melba theater, presented in part with the de soto historical society.

there will be a matinee (12 pm) and evening screening (7 pm) featuring cast and crew in attendance. admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children and includes a free autographed photo of writer/star supreme master ron d. white, 10th dan while supplies last.

the event will also help raise funds to help renovate the historic melba theater.

each screening will feature a brief q&a session with the cast and crew followed by autographs in the lobby. autographed dvds will also be available for sale for $10.

the melba theater is located at 300 s. main st., de soto, mo, 63020.

follow me on twitter: @thejustintucker




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