I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Cannon Films documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films in the middle of last year and despite the fact that the film doesn't treat the production company's output with much respect, there were a few titles that caught my interest. First and foremost was their Ninja Trilogy, a tenuously linked collection of bonkers action movies featuring ninjas. I may spend much of my time reviewing world cinema classics and the like, but I'll always have a place in my heart for a good ninja flick, so I was over the moon when I heard the wonderful people over at Eureka were releasing the entire set on Blu-Ray. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined this would happen, so there was nothing that could stop me jumping at the chance to review a set of screeners for it.
The films included in the trilogy are Enter The Ninja, Revenge Of The Ninja & Ninja III: The Domination. Below are my thoughts on the individual films.
Enter The Ninja
Director: Menahem Golan
Screenplay: Dick Desmond
Starring: Franco Nero, Susan George, Alex Courtney, Christopher George, Shô Kosugi
Running Time: 99 min
BBFC Certification: 18
Enter the Ninja kicks off this trilogy of films that don't really have any connection other than being about ninjas and featuring Shô Kosugi (who never plays the same character in any of the films). And who better to star as a ninja in the first instalment than Italian spaghetti western star Franco Nero!? Yes, Django himself plays Cole, a white American ninja who we see complete his training in Japan before moving to the Philippines to stay with his army-buddy Frank (Alex Courtney), who's having a tough time. Frank lives with his wife Mary Ann (Susan George) on a farm that is under threat from the evil businessman Venarius (Christopher George), who wants the land for some reason or another (gold or oil I think – it's not important). Venarius' goons are scaring off the local labourers, so Frank and Mary Ann are struggling to keep the farm running. Frank has pretty much given up and turned to drink, but Mary Ann is strong and determined. Not enough to do much about the problem though, until Cole shows up and starts knocking the goons down a few notches. This of course angers Venarius who throws more henchman at Cole, until finally deciding to call up Hasegawa (Kosugi), who wasn't best pleased about an American being made an official ninja warrior (he went to the same ninja school as Cole).
As you can probably tell from the description, this is pure eighties cheese, but all the better for it. Straight from the opening scene which has ninjas in white and red outfits (aren't they supposed to be stealthy and hide in the shadows?!) fighting to the death before it's all revealed to be part of the training (including the sensei getting his head chopped off – it was a fake), you know you're dealing with a film not to be taken seriously. This is exactly what I expected and wanted of course though so I had a lot of fun with this.
There's a lot of action, which helps, and not too much filler other than a naff soapy love triangle between Cole, Frank and Mary Ann. It could have done with some more true ninja action for my tastes though. Other than the opening and ending sequences, most of the action set pieces are just martial arts fights. I like to see more stealthy kills, ridiculous tricks and mind-bogglingly accurate shuriken throwing in my ninja movies. That said, the fights are fairly good, even if Nero is clearly being doubled at every opportunity.
I found this the funniest film out of the set too. This is semi-intentional as a lot of the characters are clearly goofier here than in the sequels (such as the slimy but ultimately useless head goon - 'The Hook'). I say 'semi-intentional' though as I found the comic scenes worked in a bizarre way – I didn't find them funny because they were well written or delivered, but because they were so clunky and poorly performed. I also liked some of the (probably intentionally) silly dialogue such as “well I want a ninja. Get me a ninja.” and the similar line “I want my black ninja and I want him now!” Both of these come from Christopher George who makes an enjoyably campy villain in his role as Venarius.
It's cheese-tastic, dumb and not particularly well made, but very enjoyable. It's definitely one of the better of Cannon's 80's action movies, with the final act really cranking the action up a notch (helped by Kosugi's eventual appearance). It's no classic, but good old-fashioned goofy fun.
Revenge Of The Ninja
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Screenplay: James R. Silke
Starring: Shô Kosugi, Arthur Roberts, Kane Kosugi, Mario Gallo, Ashley Ferrare, Virgil Frye, Keith Vitali
Running Time: 90 min
BBFC Certification: 18
Probably because Golan and Globus (the Cannon studio heads) realised that Shô Kosugi was the coolest actor in the first film (sorry Franco), he takes centre stage in Revenge of the Ninja. He plays Cho Osaki, a ninja warrior whose family gets brutally murdered at his home in Japan. His American friend Braden (Arthur Roberts) persuades him to leave the country with the only remaining members of his family, his infant son Kane (who grows up to be played by Kane Kosugi, Shô's son in real life) and his mother (Grace Oshita).
Fast forward six years and Cho is opening a gallery for Braden, showcasing some Japanese dolls. Unbeknownst to Cho, the dolls are filled with heroin as the gallery is a front for a drug deal between Braden and mobster Chifano (Mario Gallo). When Kane accidentally breaks one of the dolls, Braden asks his lady friend Cathy (Ashley Ferrare), who has gotten close to the family, to deal with the boy. When this goes wrong, the whole Osaki clan's lives come under threat. In amongst all this, Chifano is continually trying to screw Braden over, which is a bad idea as Braden is actually a ninja too, so he begins to pick off Chifano's gangster army one by one. Which means it's down to Cho to put things right.
This is the sort of film that keeps me watching 'trashy' action movies. Yes it's pretty daft and isn't going to win any awards, but as a rollicking good time it works a treat. Sam Firstenberg took the reigns as director here, beginning a string of cult classic cannon titles he was at the helm for (including American Ninja 1 & 2). Although this was the first action film he'd ever directed, he took to the genre like a fish to water (even if in his introduction on the disc he proclaims it was down to the people around him). It's brilliantly paced with very little down time and contains a healthy mix of martial arts fights, car chases and the crazy ninja skills I felt were lacking in the first film.
The fight scenes are pretty decent too. They maybe don't reach the heights of what Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung were doing at the time in Hong Kong, but for a low budget American production the action is impressive. Kosugi is likely key to this, working as martial arts choreographer as well as the star. He does a good job at the latter too. He may not be the most charismatic actor in the world, but is a more determined hero than Nero was and has a lot of spirit and energy in the fight scenes. His son gets to kick some arse too, which is fun to see.
It's not perfect. Keith Vitali as a police martial arts trainer who befriends Cho is comedically wooden and some of the fights are completely unnecessary. One in particular stands out where Cho and the aforementioned friend take on a gang who look suspiciously like the Village People for no other reason than to add a bit more action to the mid-section.
It's daft stuff like this that keeps me entertained though, so I don't mind clunky moments or shoddy writing for the most part. Some of the dafter moments like the villain's choice of slow death by jacuzzi and sauna for his captors put a big grin on my face so I'm not complaining if they make no sense at all.
So, if like me the word ninja in a film title fills you with excitement, you owe it to yourself to watch Revenge of the Ninja. You won't be disappointed.
Ninja III: The Domination
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Screenplay: James R. Silke
Starring: Lucinda Dickey, Jordan Bennett, Shô Kosugi
Running Time: 92 min
BBFC Certification: 18
The third and final part of the unofficial trilogy is the utterly bonkers Ninja III: The Domination. Once again ignoring the previous films and going in a completely new direction, this centres around aerobics instructor and telephone maintenance worker Christie (Lucinda Dickey). She comes across a dying ninja (David Chung) who has just killed an 'important scientist' and dozens of policemen in a spectacular opening set piece. The ninja hands her his sword and she experiences some troubling flashbacks of his gunning down at the hands of the police before he dies.
As the film goes on we learn that the evil ninja's spirit has possessed Christie's body, causing her to occasionally become a ruthless ninja warrior who slowly picks off the policemen who killed her spirit's former body. During this period she starts up a relationship with young cop Billy (Jordan Bennett), who tries to help her get to the bottom of what is happening to her. Also thrown into the mix after about half an hour is Shô Kosugi as Yamada, who is has travelled to America from Japan to hunt down the evil ninja.
In putting a horror movie spin on the ninja sub-genre and throwing in some aerobics sequences and an arcade machine that fires mind-controlling lazers at our heroine, this is one of the finest examples of 80's excess gone wild. This is precisely why I really enjoyed it too. I do like a good high-concept 80's movie and this is one of the more unique and silly ones I've seen.
It's not quite as tight and filler-free as its predecessor though. The aforementioned aerobics scenes and some cheesy musical moments do feel like padding. You get the idea that Golan and Globus were cashing in on the success of Flashdance by featuring a dance-hungry heroine working in a generally male-centric profession. Plus any hope of a feminist friendly female lead are quashed by endless leg, ass and breast close ups, alarmingly skimpy costumes and the fact that a man (Kosugi) practically boots her off the screen for the finale to deal with the film's antagonist.
The action is still very good though. The opening sequence is ridiculously over the top in the best possible way, with the evil ninja hacking and slashing his way through endless cops and innocents, managing to single-handedly take down a police car, two bikes and a helicopter with his ninja skills! The more horror-focussed set-pieces are pretty cool too. They're not particularly scary, but through some nifty practical effects, dated but stylish special effects and over the top sound effects they're still effective in their own way. These scenes also showcase Firstenberg's eye for visuals. For low budget Cannon fare, this and Revenge of the Ninja look pretty damn good, with some nice use of boldly coloured lighting and smoke.
Yes, the film is complete nonsense and won't win everyone over, but for trashy action lovers like me it rounds off the trilogy on fine form.
The Ninja Trilogy is out on 18th January on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by Eureka. I watched the Blu-Ray versions and they looked and sounded fantastic, probably far better than anyone would ever believe these films deserved. I salute Eureka and other labels such as Arrow and 88 Films for giving respect to films that otherwise would have rotted away in VHS hell.
There are a few special features included too. These are as follows:
Feature-length audio commentaries for Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination featuring director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert.
An introduction to Revenge of the Ninja by director Sam Firstenberg.
Original theatrical trailers for Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja
I haven't had chance to listen to the commentaries yet, but I fully intend to as I love listening to chat tracks on films like these, especially after hearing some of the crazy stories in Electric Boogaloo. The intro on Revenge of the Ninja is short, but worth a listen. Firstenberg confesses that he'd never directed an action film before and didn't know what he was doing, so thanks his experienced crew, stunt team and Kosugi for helping him along.
You also get one of Eureka's excellent booklets in with the package.