(Nothing can stop this from being awesome, no matter how inaccurate/impractical) Image from Mike Fury
What is a ninja? Is it a black or white clad assassin with a deeply held yet divergent code of honor? Is it a master of the senses and of the soul? Is it one of the most obvious choices for a Halloween costume? It is all of these things yet almost none of them.
Ninjas were a real caste of warrior in old Japan. They did use stealth, they did assassinate and spy. They were certainly feared if you knew what was best for you. But not in the way that either the James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, or Cannon-Globus’ cult trilogy of films would have you believe.
Ninjas, more often than not, wore everyday clothing, rarely fought openly in battle with others including other ninjas, and no they do not exist in their original capacity. Today’s ninjas are only ever for harmless tourist fun in the land of the rising sun and stage theater. In fact, the ninjas that we consciously associate as ninja came from both encouraged rumor and those same stage performances.
Ninjas would dress like the average person and because of their bland,unassuming appearance were able to sneak up and kill their targets or effortlessly gain information for their masters.
The ceremonial garb and behavior came from centuries of myth making to make them seem more fearsome and near-unstoppable. Much like how the real pirate Blackbeard let rumors about his ferocity grow to make his actual pirating easier, so did the supernatural allure of ninjitsu flourish. East or West, regardless of the less exciting truth, one thing is generally held: don’t f**k with the ninja, unless you are also a ninja.
Again, all the way back in 1967, the fifth James Bond film showcased the abilities and weapons of the ninja in a way that wasn’t supernatural. 007 films wouldn’t have blatantly supernatural stuff until the voodoo shenanigans of Live and Let Die. Honestly, based on how YOLT frames ninjas and their activities, it wouldn’t be that surprising if Japan’s actual intelligence agencies had something similar along those lines.
The Cannon Film Group, an Israeli-American film company that became notorious for producing some of the 80s’ finest low budget B and C movie trash, reintroduced and basically codified what is stereotypically ninja to Western audiences through their ninja trilogy.
The trilogy consists of three stand-alone movies that share one thing in common: Sho Kosugi. The Japanese martial arts actor helped create, to some extent, a certain authenticity to the albeit ridiculous proceedings of all three movies. He was the fight choreographer for them all, and some genuinely impressive physical action is showcased that allows these dumb movies to have showcase real talent.
Sho plays three completely separate characters in the anthology series.
A bad “black” ninja who is the rival to the white( in both senses of the word) ninja in the first, Enter the Ninja. He is the main protagonist of the second,Revenge of the Ninja. In Ninja III: The Domination, a good eye-patched ninja in search of justice for his murdered family.
Starting in 1981, in order to get the mostly white audience to gel with this foreign concept better, an Italian film star semi-legend would be brought in to reintroduce the ways of the ninja. That man was Franco Nero and his dubbed over performance.
Enter the Ninja (1981)
(If you thought the original Django was a badass, just you wait…) Image from Alamo Drafthouse Cinema)
As the caption above infers, Franco Nero plays the American who has completed his training and become a master of ninjitsu. He heads to Manila to meet up with his old friend and war buddy Frank and his attractive love interest wife,Mary Ann.
Like a Western of all things, the land that Frank and Mary Ann own is being challenged by a hammy,evil real estate developer. Only one man can save the day; care to guess who he is?
Nero’s Cole spends most of the film not dressed as an intimidating ninja but as well, Franco Nero dressed in garb that would not be out of place for any Caucasian man in the early 80s’. In fact, the lack of overtly ninja-like stuff, save for Nero’s martial arts action against street thugs and hired mooks, is strangely absent.
The lack of ninja garbed stealthy action, throwing shruikens, firing darts and throwing smoke bombs may cause some whiplash from some viewers. The film starts and most certainly ends with that cheesy oriental fun.
The middle half isn’t bad( for what it is). The self-aware camp of the lead bad guy, Venarious( Christopher George) is one particular ingredient that keeps the charm going when the desired ninja stuff isn’t occurring. His death by Cole’s hand (or throwing star) is so hilarious it became somewhat memed. Look it up.
Whether it be the expected budget restraints of a Cannon film or just another way of easing audiences into a “new” type of action film, Enter the Ninja may require the most patience for those inclined to be interested.
Nero’s obvious dubbing of his voice, perhaps due to having too thick an Italian accent, is distracting though his physical presence is decent cover for that issue. Despite being very brawny, he does look convincing when he’s covered in white, save for his piercing eyes.
It is hard to tell you which Cannon Ninja movie is the worst or least best as all three of them, in their own subjective ways, are great. It’s an introduction into a world of shadow warriors. The action is great, the violence goes from disturbing to comically black on a dime. It is a beginning for a cinematic stereotype but has not yet been perfected.
Revenge of the Ninja (1983)
(Now, this, this is the way.) Image from The Action Elite
If there was one definitive ninja film, let alone from Cannon’s trilogy, Revenge of the Ninja is the Ninja movie. Perhaps I’m overlooking some other masterpiece, likely from Japan. In terms of a movie’s unwavering commitment to Ninja iconography, style and campy sense of self-seriousness, Revenge of the Ninja is the black belt champion.
In an interesting reversal from Enter the Ninja, the protagonist is no longer played by a white dude like Nero’s Cole, but instead is Sho Kosugi’s Cho Osaki. The main antagonist this time is an evil American ninja/drug kingpin who masquerades as Cho’s best friend. Cho’s a master ninja who has the fortune of also being a gifted doll artist that has made him a rich man.
Consider it. In the 1980s’, the lead is a noble Asian man in an American production. True, he is also a stereotypically super serious,honor bound Japanese man, but nontheless the hero of the story.
He seeks to protect his surviving family following a rival ninja clan’s raid on his home in rural Japan. He loses everyone except his mother and youngest son, an infant at the time.With help from Braden, the aforementioned secretly evil best friend of Cho’s, he seeks refuge with his family in the U.S. of A in of all places, Salt Lake City.
The choice of city does lend ROTN a somewhat unique atmosphere, especially with the final ninja showdown taking place on a hotel rooftop with the SLC skyline all around them. Quick, name another notable film regardless of genre set in Salt Lake City that didn’t involve Mormons. I thought so. I wouldn’t balk at Mormon ninjas.
While none of the Ninja films are long, Revenge of the Ninja is for my tastes the best paced which lends well to the sense of dumb and occasionally smart fun that is in store. At the same time, it is also the most adult, though mature may be stretching it.
Aside from the expected bloody but not quite gory violence that is endemic to ninjas and their many sharp tools, there is also nudity, sex and language, which are mostly commonplace in the Cannon catalog. Ninja III also has it but more conservatively by comparison.
This is a pretty startling contrast to the presence of Cho’s young son Kane( played by Sho’s son of the same name) being a pretty big player in the film. This is also a film series that inspired the real “ninja craze” that took over the 80’s popular consciousness and continues in some way to this day.
You can deride Revenge of the Ninja for its not really that good if occasionally just bad acting, especially from Cho’s police officer friend Dave and to some extent Sho Kosugi himself. Since he is the main character, he talks more here than he does in the two other films. His grasp on English is tenuous though it does improve in the next feature.
If you only have time to watch one of the Ninja films, this is the one. It’s third act in some Salt Lake City office building/hotel is among the best concentrations of cinematic ninja action I can think of and it is gloriously stupid. That’s to say nothing of one hell of a playground fight with dumbfounded onlookers, kids and adults alike and a surprisingly risky looking van chase.
It’s not so stupid you can’t laugh it off and appreciate the fight choreography that is very much present.
Ninja III: The Domination (1984)
(Ladies and gentlemen, your evil ninja-possessed semi-heroine/victim of the movie) Image from Nerdist)
Ninja III: The Domination takes some intriguing risks that didn’t pan out at the box office but did manage to make it fit just comfortably in the cult classic status as its two predecessors. Of all the Ninja films, this one doubles down on the mystical, supernatural angle of the ninja mythos, real or made up just for this movie.
So, get this. An evil ninja goes into a cave where he has stashed his stuff for what I am guessing is a hit contract. After ceremonially donning his equipment, he heads over to a nearby golf-course and proceeds to effortlessly assassinate his two golf playing marks, a rich man and his wife.
The tricky part for the ninja is escaping the swarm of police that chase him down. The ninja uses all of his superhuman abilities to both elude and cruelly mess with the police force of a never specified city or locale, though it seems to be SoCal to some extent.
One of his attempts to rid himself of the cops is to spring himself onto a police chopper from a palm tree, take out the cops in the chopper and cause it to crash.
Eventually, the police surround the ninja and pour on the lead in a scene that is like that one horrible shooting from Robocop but far less gory, in that there is none but slightly noticeable bullet holes perforating him. The ninja plays dead but has somehow managed to survive.
Eventually, the dying ninja comes across a hapless telephone line worker who is our female lead, Christie. The actress who portrays her also gained recognition for being the lead character in one of Cannon’s most successful films, Breakin’. The poor girl doesn’t know what to make of the strange bleeding man and before she knows it, he keels over dead but not before the titular “domination” has begun.
Even though Kosugi returns as the “good” ninja, Yamada, searching for vengeance against that same evil ninja, Christie acts as the mind controlled antagonist of the movie.
Several times during the movie, when Christie comes across the police officers that “killed” the evil ninja, she goes into a trance and becomes a female ninja of destruction. Stronger, faster and deadlier, she hunts down and systematically takes out the cops who did in her possessor.
It just so happens that one of the cops on the scene of the bad ninja’s fall becomes Christie’s boyfriend, Billy. Billy slowly discovers to his horror what Christie has become and with the help of Yamada, searches for a way to save her without having to kill her.
It’s the most overly plotted of the three, due to the supernatural possession angle. It is no less charming for it. At the same time, Ninja III diverges so much from what is expected of a ninja film that it can be something to get used to. A lot of the film showcases the incredibly 80s’ life of Christie and her incredibly hairy boyfriend cop Billy.
Because of the time capsule nature of these non-ninja scenes, a different type of fun comes into play. You have those aerobic classes, you have an arcade machine in her apartment, you have synth pop classics coming out of her Sony Walkman. It is just great. Having a ridiculous, if occasionally spooky paranormal atmosphere come over makes it a film that probably only could’ve have been made in its time.
Whether or not these films are actually good is an interesting question. Yes, they’re cheaply made though in the Cannon fashion they do a pretty decent job most of the time of hiding it.
The stupidity of the plots and the possibly troubling nature of the Asian stereotyping may cause some to stretch their collars but having an actual Japanese martial artist be part of this trilogy and the underlying sense he was having fun doing it all mitigates that discomfort.
From its cheesy yet just right type of East Asian theme music used in all three movies, the Ninja trilogy is a guilty pleasure that like the best cult classics, especially of its era, has more to offer than just the primal pleasure in digesting something so bad its good. Here, it’s more a case of ” It’s so stupid, yet so cool”.
Check them out, if you want to know the genesis of why ninjas became part of more than just the Japanese consciousness, as historically spurious it may be.