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