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

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