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