During the 1980s, it seemed that you couldn’t move for ninja films on VHS. At the time, I was getting monthly mailshots from labels like VPD, and each package included a bunch of films – mostly, but not entirely, Japanese and Hong Kong movies – that seemed to have been retitled to cash in on what I assume was an insatiable demand for anything ninja. Also big at the time was martial artist actor Sho Kosugi, who had been knocking around throughout the 1970s, but briefly transitioned to become an international action film star in the 1980s before vanishing as quickly as he’d emerged.
Both these very 1980s phenomena can be traced back to the success of Cannon’s 1981 movie Enter the Ninja, the film that effectively launched the idea of the ninja as some sort of deadly Japanese assassin into the mainstream, and which featured Kosugi in a leading role. That film – along with the two ‘sequels’, connected only by ninja theme and Kosugi – can now be enjoyed by modern audiences on sparkly, uncut blu-rays in one easy to digest box set.
And there is much to enjoy here. Not that any of the three films are good by any sensible standard – quite the opposite, these are spectacularly shoddy, laughably bad and very 1980s films. But that’s the fun of them – they are high camp nonsense, filled with unintentional laugh-out-loud and WTF moments that make them ideal movies for watching with a few friends and a few drinks.
Enter the Ninja, made in 1981, is the best of the three. At times, it almost resembles a real film, and as the title might suggest, it takes more than a little from Bruce Lee’s early 1970s movies. Franco Nero is Cole, the Westerner who has attended ninja school (right away, the ‘secret society’ aspect of the ninja is thrown out of the window) and now finds himself in classic vigilante movie mode, protecting old war buddy Frank (Alex Courtney), now a run down boozer who lives on his Filipino farm with sultry new bride Mary Ann (Susan George). Local businessman and cartoon villain Charles Venarius (Christopher George) wants their valuable land, and will stop at nothing to get it, first hiring one-handed thug Siegfried ‘The Hook’ Schultz (Zachi Noy) to run them off their land and then, when Cole turns up and starts kicking ass, bringing in renegade ninja Hasegawa (Kosugi).
Enter the Ninja sets its ludicrous cards on the table right away, when it presents the lead character dressed in an all-white ninja outfit – so much for night time stealth – battling his way through an army of red-clad rivals. Things get more ridiculous from there, thanks to some ripe dialogue, astonishingly kitsch performances (George, Noy and Constantin de Goguel as a British henchman seem to be in a competition to be the most over the top) and moments of hilarious nonsense – Kosugi literally laughing “tee hee hee” after an act of murder is especially entertaining. Directed with a complete lack of style by Cannon head Menahem Golan, the film only has a few decent fight sequences in its favour. And yet it is undeniably entertaining, the camp sensibilities made all the more delicious because it’s clear that no one was actually trying to be funny.
1983 saw Revenge of the Ninja, a film that – despite the title – has no connection to the earlier film. Kosugi returns, but this time playing a different character, the film’s hero. He’s Cho Asaki, a retired ninja who sees his family wiped out by a rival group at the start of the film. He relocates to America with his mother and young son, where he opens a Japanese doll gallery with friend Braden (Arthur Roberts). Sadly, Braden is using the gallery as a front for importing heroin. He also turns out, somewhat bizarrely, to be a ninja himself, and when a deal with the Mafia goes wrong, Braden costumes up to take his revenge on those who stiffed him. Cho gets caught up in all this, first fighting off the Mafia hit men who are trying to steal the heroin and then battling the increasingly mad Braden, who has kidnapped Cho’s young son for reasons that really don’t make much sense other than that he is a villain, and villains do villainous things.
The needlessly complicated narrative is, ultimately, little more than a hook for several actin set pieces, more spectacular than those in Enter the Ninja, but rather less effective – one sequence seems to go on for a good third of the movie. Very little actually makes sense during the film – Braden’s character switch is pretty incomprehensible, though it does allow terrible actor Roberts to bug out his eyes and become entertainingly silly. It’s probably the film that 1980s action fans will enjoy the most out of the three here, simply because that’s all it really is – but I found it to be the least interesting of the collection.
With 1984’s Ninja III – The Domination, Cannon and returning director Sam Firstenberg threw all sense of caution to the wind. Perhaps thinking that the ninja bandwagon was becoming somewhat overcrowded, the company came up with the first (and I assume only) martial arts-aerobics-demonic possession film, a hybrid so demented that it can only be explained by the success of films like Breakdance (in itself an inexplicable phenomenon) and the resurgent horror genre. This was the first of the series that I saw – who could possibly resist such a collision at the time? – and I’ve always had a certain affection for its lunatic charms. But it is quite terrible.
Lucinda Dickey, who had a brief career in pointless breakdance films in the early 1980s, plays Christie, a telephone line repairwoman cum aerobics teacher (hey, it could happen) who finds herself possessed by the spirit of an evil black ninja after witnessing his death at the hands of the police. Soon, when she is not fending off sleazy and unnervingly hairy cop Billy Secord (Jordan Bennett), she’s being taken over by the ninja spirit and heading out to continue his mission – whatever that is. Of course, only another ninja can defeat this evil spirit – enter Kosugi.
Despite the ridiculous nature of the film, Ninja III plays things with the sort of straight face that only makes it seem all the more hilarious. The exorcism scene, with Dickey chained up and spinning around, are something to behold, as are the performances of the two leads – Dickey was presumably cast for her dancing skills rather than anything else (she can’t act, is unconvincing in fight scenes and seems an unlikely sexpot) while Bennett is perhaps the most charmless hero ever seen on film. Only Kosugi, too used to rubbish to possibly be embarrassed by this, comes out with any dignity. But with a lack of decent action set pieces until the final thirty minutes, the film seems a lot slower than its predecessors, and only the general sense of lunatic genre collision makes it work. But it does work, in a strange, ‘what were they thinking’ sort of way. And it has the most lamentable 1980s fashion statements of the trilogy, if that sort of thing excites you.
Looking better than films like this ever had any right to, The Ninja Trilogy is gloriously, unrepentantly trashy, representing everything awful about 1980s cinema and yet being a lot of fun because of it. It’s well worth you wasting your time on.