Ninja III: The Domination (1984)

PLOT: A utilities worker and part-time aerobics instructor encounters a dying ninja and is entrusted with his sword. However, the weapon is a conduit through which the ninja’s evil spirit takes possession of her body and mind. Based on what I can only assume was a true story.

Director: Sam Firstenberg
Writer: James R. Silke
Cast: Lucinda Dickey, Sho Kosugi, Jordan Bennett, James Hong, David Chung

In a modern-day film climate saturated with sequels, prequels, and reboots of nearly every genre flavor, it’s easy to forget that the sequel trend really began its upward trajectory in the late 1970s and early 1980s (scroll down to the third chart here for the grisly evidence). Action and adventure films were (and continue to be) the genres least resistant to retreads, and low-budget franchises were no more insulated from the phenomenon than their big-budget brethren. Fortunately, the “ninja trilogy” films from the Golan-Globus era of Cannon Films handled this in the best way possible, by keeping a few recognizable elements (e.g. the ninja archetype and Sho Kosugi) and turning over the characters, stories, and settings. The results throughout this trilogy were stylistically distinct, tonally all over the map, and as Ninja III: The Domination proves, full of ridiculous fun.

Christie (Dickey, of Breakin’ fame) is your typical all-American girl. Like many women in their 20s, she works as a utility repair person by day and teaches aerobics classes by night. She loves dance pop music, arcade games, and denim. Her dislikes include killing people, guys with hairy backs, and V8 drinks. However, after a chance encounter out in a field with a dying ninja (Chung) who recently killed  a scientist and his wife, several security workers, and dozens of local police, Christie becomes possessed by his spirit after taking his sword as a gift (we know this because of the strong gusts of wind). Very rapidly, her life begins to change.

After giving a statement to police, Christie returns to civilian life but is harassed by a detective named Billy (Bennett) for a date. Initially resistant, she’s repulsed by his piggish quips and unhealthy fondness for soft drinks and coffee. Later, though, she notices him taking her aerobics class and she begins to warm up to him, despite his luxurious coat of back hair. Their first date includes an awkward but nutritious V8 bodyshot (blech) and Billy spends the night (we can reasonably infer sex or at least some heavy petting). With Billy fast asleep, Christie unconsciously commits the first in a series revenge killings against his various partners on the police force; many of them were involved in the fatal shooting of the ninja. Over time, fog gathers, swords glow, heads roll, arcade cabinets shoot laser beams, and Billy is helpless to save his new squeeze from the evil overtaking her. A mysterious martial artist from Japan, Yamada (Kosugi), may be the only person who can save Christie from a terrible fate (e.g. jail, death, or Billy’s back hair).

Following the wild action of Revenge of the Ninja, one might reasonably expect that Cannon Films would ratchet up the action quotient, especially with Sho Kosugi back in the fold as both a main actor and fight choreographer. However, the action is mainly relegated to the film’s opening, which plays out like a Grand Theft Auto crime spree on a golf course, and its conclusion, which finds Yamada first chasing Christie around a dilapidated house before battling the Black Ninja that had been inhabiting her. Peppered throughout are the requisite vengeful stalk-and-kill scenes, and one scene at a police funeral that properly sells Christie’s full transformation into the Black Ninja. The choreography isn’t super complex, but each action scene brings the same level of energy, creativity, and solid stuntwork you’d expect from the Firstenberg/Kosugi pairing.

Perhaps the filmmakers felt that because they’d set the action bar so high with Revenge… they were liberated to try something different with the ninja construct and go in more of a hybridized direction. With allusions to prior ninja movies, horror tropes, and even Dickey’s involvement with the Breakin’ franchise, Ninja III might be the most “Cannon” of Cannon Films’ 1980s output, and this special blend is one of the big reasons its popularity persists three decades later. Many will dock it points for its dated visual effects and inconsistent cohesion to the possession plot-line (when Christie pours V8 down her cleavage and has the hots for a dude with terrible back-hair, is it *the ninja spirit* doing these things?) but doing so misses the point. At its core, Ninja III is and was a celebration of everything that was fun and ridiculous about 1980s genre film.

This film packs so much weird fun. With the exception of its insane book-ends, Ninja III is a little light on quality action but it’s an easy thing to overlook against the backdrop of a ridiculous plot, wacky effects, and several Deloreans’ worth of 1980s film tropes. Tonally, it’s a strange concluding chapter in Cannon Films’ unofficial ninja trilogy, but I love it with the emotional warmth normally reserved for a cute dog or a Boglin still in the box. Recommended.

Netflix, Amazon and eBay can all get you sorted, but Shout! Factory’s release is the edition worth targeting.

5.5 / 7


Ninja Phantom Heroes (1987)

PLOT: Fighters which turn into Ninjas just by crossing their arms, a marriage which people do not approve and Chinese businessmen who stand around laughing and plotting something sinister, yet nothing sinister happens. Confused? I know I am!

Director: Godfrey Ho
Writer: Duncean Bauer
Cast: Jeff Houston, John Wilford, Christine Wells, Glenn Carson, George Dickson.

There was a time in the 1980s and early '90s where ninja flicks were popular. We were exposed to cheesy but wonderfully choreographed pieces, and every time you watched one of these films you were hoping Sho Kosugi would be the lead actor. Ninja Phantom Heroes is not one of those films.

WARNING: I do not know any of the character's names, besides that of side characters who do not feature in the film for more than a couple of minutes. I guess Godfrey Ho thought it was a great idea and "innovative" to not give the characters actual names. Apologies for the confusion that is about to happen...I am still confused.

There are all kinds of craptacular masterpieces out there, and I can tolerate a lot of them, but this -- it REALLY tried my patience. When a film doesn't include the character's names, leaves no explanation for why they are doing anything, and not a single scene connects to one another, it makes you question if the film is going to get better-- this doesn't. Firstly, two caucasian martial artists meet in Asia to discuss -- OK, you know what? I'm not actually sure what -- because IT WASN'T MAKING SENSE! Then we skip to a Chinese couple who are arguing about going horse riding. And yes, they do go horse riding. Jump to another scene, Asian businessmen standing around in tuxedos and laughing really obnoxiously, and they are trying to plot something, but I don't even think *they* know what. And inserted in between were random cut-aways of ninjas training. For what? I am still not sure. Are you lost yet? I was lost at the 55-minute mark.

While sitting at that 55-minute mark, I contemplated the events that led me up to choosing this film. I was full of hope for schlock but so-bad-it's-good schlock. After having it on pause and venting out my frustration by swearing at my TV, I decided to keep going. The highlight of the film was seeing the two caucasian martial artists fighting in some random forest (not sure how they got there by the way). This part gave me hope because out of the blue they started fighting the so-called bad guy, who looked like the love child of Dolph Lundgren and Matthias Hues. And just as they started fighting, they crossed their arms and all of a sudden were dressed as ninjas! WHERE THE HELL DID THIS COME FROM? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? EXPLAIN THIS TO ME! GIVE ME A DAMN SUBTITLE ON THE SCREEN, OR HAVE A CHEESY VOICE OVER, I DON'T CARE BUT PLEASE START TO MAKE SENSE...sorry I don't mean to yell but GOD DAMN! The choreography is average at best, but it has definitely been sped up, which does not translate well on screen. If anything it looks like a Benny Hill re-run.

Then we jump back to the Asian couple, (oh, by the way, they got married, didn't see a wedding, but it freakin' happened! Apparently they think they were only married because the husband was after his new wife's money -- why? IT'S NEVER EXPLAINED? How the hell did we get to this part? I don't know...I am so close to crying in a corner while in a strait-jacket all because it's so hard to explain this damn film.  Then we have a cut-away scene to random guys in uniforms -- I'm going to take a stab at it, and say FBI or something similar. Either way, they are discussing a certain character -- not sure who -- but this character managed to kill two million people. Yes, TWO FREAKIN' MILLION. It's not explained how or why. They then continue on discussing how it will cause chaos if they don't step in.

OK, stop right there a second. They think if they don't stop him now it will turn into chaos? The guy has killed two million people already, and only now is it chaotic? You would think these guys would have stepped in at least in the one hundred thousand mark.I guess that isn't chaotic enough.

By this point, we are reaching the climax of the film. And still nothing makes sense. Do the three plot lines come together in the final moments, finally giving the film the tiniest of redeeming qualities? No, they do not. People are hit by cars in one scene, and in another the ninjas fight near a cliff and what an underwhelming fight it is. Then it just ends. Not a single thing is tied up. And do I care? No, I don't care because at this point I am dialling my phone and telling the men in white coats to come and give me a lobotomy.

If you know Godfrey Ho you would know by now he is a director known for a couple of things. He directs ninja films...A LOT of ninja films, he works under pseudonyms such as Bruce Lambert, and lastly a lot of his films are old stock footage which he pastes together with the hope they all blend together nicely. I have a sneaky suspicion that this is one of THOSE films.

Godfrey Ho has a deep passion for ninjas and everything martial arts, and it's a real shame that he hasn't translated that passion on screen effectively very often. His films definitely do have a following out there, because a lot of people like the fact that he uses different stock footage to create a unique film, and you gotta give him that -- his films sure are unique.

I had hopes that this film would be fun, schlocky and make me laugh. Unfortunately it did none of those things. For anyone who has a specific martial art boxset  called 100 Greatest Martial Arts Classics by Mill Creek Entertainment, this will not be under Ninja Phantom Heroes but instead be under the name of Ninja Empire - another Godfrey Ho film which it often gets confused with. So for the people who own that boxset, for your own sanity do NOT turn on the film Ninja Empire.

Does it even matter? 



Revenge of the Ninja (1983)

PLOT: After the majority of his family is murdered by ninjas, a Japanese ninjutsu master relocates to the United States with his young son, and partners with his American friend to start an art gallery. How will this single dad raise his son while trying to juggle dating, American tax codes, betrayal, and a pretentious art scene?

Director: Sam Firstenberg
Writer: James R. Silke
Cast: Sho Kosugi, Arthur Roberts, Kane Kosugi, Ashley Ferrare, Keith Vitali, Mario Gallo, Virgil Frye

There are a lot different angles a film can use to approach the ninja archetype. In many Western films, the non-ninja characters are clueless and dumbfounded by what they previously considered to be the stuff of foreign legend. In other cases, the ninja is a superhuman alter ego shrouded in secrecy. For the majority of films though -- especially in the 1980s -- I’d submit that the ninja is used as a disposable henchman (e.g. action movie window dressing). Save for its brutal opening scene, Sam Firstenberg’s 1983 film Revenge of the Ninja instead treats the ninja as a sort of weekend athletic hobby like indoor climbing or squash. (e.g. “Bob, I had no idea you were a ninja. Want to join my co-ed intramural league?”) It’s hard to argue with this casual approach since the results are so awesome and ridiculous.

Cho Osaki (Kosugi) has been fending off ninjas for most of his life in Japan, and the latest encounter finds him arriving home just moments too late. His entire family has been slaughtered by ninja assholes, with the exception of his mother and his infant son. His American friend, Braden (Roberts) convinces him to escape the chaos of Japan and emigrate to the United States for a new start. Cho obliges, and a few years later we see the humble beginnings of the Japanese art gallery -- creepy miniature dolls, above all -- that he runs with the backing of Braden and his assistant, Kathy (Ferrare).

Cho’s son, Kane (Kane Kosugi) is struggling to adapt to the American way of life as a kid. He has occasional skirmishes with older neighborhood boys, who he thoroughly destroys in fights because he’s good at martial arts and using fistfuls of dirt to blind them. Cho admonishes his son for inviting the conflict but simultaneously teaches him appreciation for the traditions of ninjutsu. When Kane’s emerging skill is combined with his age-appropriate curiosity and a bit of clumsiness, he makes a powdery discovery in the art gallery that totally unravels the Osakis’ peaceful life in their adopted homeland. Before you know it, people are catching shurikens to the dome in broad daylight, captives are being boiled alive in hot tubs, and the Italian mafia is reinforcing unfortunate ethnic stereotypes every fifteen minutes. If Cho is going to survive a fresh round of chaos, he may need to resurrect his ninja past and accept help from his sparring partner, Dave (Vitali). Dave’s a nice guy.

This film succeeds where others have waffled or failed outright in the most important element of the ninja movie: wild, unhinged action. From the brutal opening to the gushing conclusion, the action scenes here are creative, strange, and spectacular. It features solid sword-fight choreography, one of the best rooftop climax fights in the history of action cinema, and my favorite interior moving vehicle fight this side of The Raid 2. Ninjas throw fire, disappear in smoke, and flip effortlessly between buildings. Kane Kosugi and Ashley Ferrare have a scuffle that I didn’t totally hate, and even the octogenarian grandma gets some time to shine. When the shot selection is iffy or the hand-to-hand choreography is less than crisp, there’s still an element of energy and fun in every frame. Of the three originals in the Cannon Films “ninja trilogy," this features the best action scenes, by far.

This film was also the blueprint for future Kosugi works that lay waste to the family structure of whichever character he happened to be playing. In 1985’s Pray for Death, his character’s family is tormented and one family member is killed. In 1987’s Rage of Honor, his character’s friend is killed. Notice a consistent theme? Getting involved with Sho Kosugi on screen in any familiar or friendly capacity could get you seriously fucked up. Gordon Hessler -- director of the two aforementioned films -- seemed to especially enjoy putting Kosugi’s characters through the emotional wringer, and we’re forced to wonder why. If Kosugi ate the last donut in catering, I get it. If he won Hessler’s last twenty bucks in a poker game, I can see the need for some form of retribution. But if the thought process was “how else are we going to generate audience sympathy for this average actor with amazing hair who speaks stiff English other than to slaughter the people he loves the most?” that’s a seriously lazy and cold-hearted approach to character development.

Other than the occasional beer before liquor or undercooked pork, I’m not one for risky behavior, but I’ll go out on a limb here: the makers of the classic 1985 boxing game Punch-Out!! stole Braden’s stilted cackles for the Bald Bull character’s victory taunt. Don’t believe me? Check out this brief side-by-side comparison.

Still not convinced? The NSA has some sophisticated audio analysis and visualization software that I’m sure would reveal a match. Tweet at them. (Or maybe don’t -- I’m pretty sure you get put on a “list”). In all seriousness, the juxtaposition is a pretty close call. Close enough to keep me up late at night for days until I finally woke up sweating like Billy Blanks with a eureka moment that will probably be the only lasting observation of anything I’ll ever write.

For me, Revenge of the Ninja is the measuring stick by which all other Western ninja films are evaluated. Some folks swear by the first two American Ninja films for nostalgic reasons, I have a strange fondness for Pray for Death, and others might prefer the technical polish of recent Adkins-Florentine collaborations -- Kane Kosugi’s involvement with the latter provides a compelling link to his father’s work -- but this film ticks nearly all the boxes on the cult action film checklist (e.g. gore, wacky plot, despicable villain, action, drugs, nudity, etc.) A must-see and should-probably-own.

Amazon, YouTube, Netflix, eBay.

6 / 7


Enter the Ninja (1981)

PLOT: An ex-pat in Manila is being harassed into selling his land by a hostile businessman. Will he respond by: a) taking the appropriate legal recourse; b) inviting his ninja war buddy over to bust some heads; or c) drinking his face off and encouraging his employees to hold cockfights during work hours?

Director: Menahem Golan
Writers: Dick Desmond, Mike Stone
Cast: Franco Nero, Susan George, Alex Courtney, Sho Kosugi, Christopher George, Constantine Gregory, Zachi Noy, Jim Gaines, Mike Stone

Long before the real ultimate power of painfully referential homages, pizza-loving turtles, and really hard obstacle courses, there was an entire world of shadowy assassins just beyond a closed door. Some would argue that the 1980 Chuck Norris vehicle The Octagon opened that door -- and those people would be wrong -- but it wasn’t until the following year that Cannon Films gave Western viewers safe passage to enter the world of smoke plumes and shurikens with Enter the Ninja. (Author’s note: For you history buffs, Teleporty City’s review of this film provides us with a sublime history of how ninjas evolved from mountain clans in feudal Japan to cinematic archetypes in 1980s action film productions of every stripe).

Following a final test in which he mock-kills several red ninja attackers, recites the “nine levels of power,” and even wins an impromptu wet-t-shirt-and-ninja-garb contest after jumping off a waterfall, a Westerner named Cole (Nero) graduates to ninjutsu master after years of training. This pisses off ninja traditionalist Hasegawa (Kosugi) but Cole departs for the Philippines before the two settle their differences. He arrives at the sprawling Manila estate of an old war buddy, Frank Landers (Courtney), and is greeted at the door by the business end of a shotgun barrel, courtesy of Frank’s wife, Mary Ann (Susan George).

The precaution is warranted. Unsavory elements in the city want the Landers’ land and Cole soon observes first-hand the corrupt dealings of “The Hook” (Noy), a porky German dude with a hook-hand who travels with hired muscle to shake down business owners. Following The Hook’s waft of sweat and bratwurst eventually leads up the chain to Mr. Venarius (Christopher George) an elite businessman with a penchant for hostile business dealings and choreographing synchronized swimming demos. Under the pressure from Venarius and a parade of contracted goons, Frank has sought refuge at the bottom of the bottle and spends his days stone drunk while cheering on vicious cockfights organized by his local workers. This is a far cry from the Frank who once saved Cole’s life during combat in Angola, or the Frank who used to maintain an erection long enough to make love to Mary Ann, or even the Frank who was once able to armpit-fart "Jingle Bells." This version of Frank is a drunk, broken shell of a man who relies entirely on Cole to fight his battles.

This might surprise some, but this isn’t really a ninja movie. At its core, this is about a man who aspired to a life of prosperity and leisure following his heroic war service. According to his “life plan,” he married and purchased some land. Then, he fell in love with booze and it all went to shit. His addiction dulled his senses and left him indifferent to the criminal elements surrounding him. It made him powerless against a cruel enemy. It even left him holding a limp noodle in a broken marriage. Enter the Ninja is really about impotence. Cole -- capable, sharp, and virile -- chose to pursue a new “war” via his years of ninjutsu training instead of slacking off like Frank, and it has made him everything that Frank is not. All that said, Cole also had sex with Frank’s wife, which makes him a total prick.

Despite limited screen time, Sho Kosugi displays the full bag of talents -- solid martial arts skills and great facial expressions among them -- that prompted Cannon Films to invest in him as a leading actor. His Hasegawa character is more interesting than your run-of-the-mill mercenary given the rivalrous backstory between he and Cole, and Kosugi’s language-barrier limitations are mitigated by his character only having a few lines of stilted, angry dialog. He also strikes a blow for vegans everywhere when he burns down the village of local workers on the Landers' property. Boom -- no more cockfighting.

The overall action in the film is decent by early 80s Western standards, which is to say it’s not very good by modern standards nor comparable to Far East films from the same time period. Mike Stone, one of the story’s writers and a capable martial artist who went on to roles in American Ninja 2 and American Ninja 3, stunt-doubled for Nero in most of the scenes where Cole is dressed in ninja apparel. Unfortunately, these scenes really only get play in the opening of the film and its climax. The meat of the action consists of quick shots from behind Stone (dressed as Cole) as he fights competently, intercut with shots of Nero throwing haymakers and clumsy side kicks. Does this work? In the same way a smashed passenger-side car window can be patched up with duct tape and a piece of cardboard, sure, I guess. To its credit, the film goes to great lengths to feature a variety of ninja weapons -- from smoke bombs and shurikens to katana and nunchaku -- and the strictly ninja scenes are lively enough.

Enter the Ninja is more historically important than it is good -- it gave us this death scene, after all -- and this isn't a bad thing. This could have been a very different (and better) movie had Cannon Films cast a legit martial artist in the lead role (a young Richard Norton maybe?) but it’s safe to assume this film wouldn’t have been made without the cinematic cachet of Nero. His steely glares and awesome mustache create the lifeboat that keeps us afloat in a sea of tired cliches, and his goofy kicks are a small price to pay in exchange for a more qualified fighter (Stone) going under the hood as his double. Not exactly a recommend, but if you want to get a sense of how we got from The Octagon to Adkins, this is the place to start. 

3.5 / 7

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