Before every evil boss had an army of ninjas at his disposal, before ninjas became a part of every kid’s action figure toy line, before even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, there was a time when the ninja was little-known in U.S. popular culture. Prior to the 1970’s only dedicated fans of the martial arts and kung-fu cinema were aware of the ninja. That was all destined to change, as soon the ninja would become one of the hottest pop culture phenomenon of the 80’s, thanks in no small part to Cannon Film’s Ninja Trilogy. This series of action exploitation films helped to usher in an era in which the ninja was king, but it’s not really a trilogy in the truest sense. Sharing only a production team and the presence of martial artist extraordinaire Sho Kosugi, there is no ongoing linear story or any recurring characters in common. It all comes down to the ninjas, showcased in an increasingly spectacular fashion from film to film. Enter the Ninja The inaugural film in the series, Enter the Ninja is easily the grittiest. Shot in the Philippines and starring Franco Nero (of Django fame) and Sho Kosugi, the film follows Cole (Nero), a war vet who turned to learning the arts of ninjitsu after he left combat. We open with all-out ninja mayhem as a white-clad ninja takes on dozens of red and black-clad ninjas in a seeming duel to the death. It turns out this is all just Cole’s “final test” before being granted the title of ninja, and not everybody is happy about a white guy being bestowed this honor, most notably Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), the master’s prize pupil. Cole decides to visit an old war buddy Frank who has been living in the Philippines, trying to make his fortune on a large farm estate. Turns out Frank is getting hassled by the local bad guys to sell his land and has turned to getting shitfaced drunk every day to avoid dealing with the fact that his life is falling apart. Cole steps in and clears the deck of low-level thugs in an attempt to help his friend, while also finding himself drawn into the bed of Frank’s increasingly estranged wife. The more Cole pushes back, the harder the big boss, Charles Venarius (Christopher George), comes at Frank, eventually resulting in the hiring of a rival ninja. There is a seriously grimy tone to the film, featuring plenty of cheap gore and martial arts action. Cannon Group would come to be a true powerhouse of action film in the 80’s and Enter the Ninja is the perfect wind-up, with one foot firmly in the world of 70’s exploitation and the other edging towards the 80’s low-budget action explosion. The martial arts is handled competently, falling somewhere between the old school overly-telegraphed moves of kung-fu cinema and the blazing fast action and wire-work that would come to define the 90’s martial arts boom. As for ninja action, the beginning and end of the film are chock full. One of the more genius elements of the film comes in focusing on the variety of weaponry available to the ninja, featuring everything from shuriken and caltrops to the classic katana and long-bow with all points in-between. This showcasing of wares launched a million adolescent dreams of someday owning one’s own pair of sai or tonfa, and the diversity of the ninja arsenal was center in the rise of the ninja to pop-culture dominance. The opening credit sequence features a weapons demonstration right out of the Shaw Brothers kung-fu glory days and when Venarius sends his right-hand man to Japan to hire a ninja to defeat Cole, we are treated to yet another scene of multi-weapon ballet. It’s pure exploitation but it’s also exactly what audiences wanted. By the time we reach the film’s finale, which takes place in a legit Philippines cock-fighting arena, we have seen every possible weapon in use and it comes down to a one-on-one ninja vs. ninja showdown to the death. Franco Nero brings a certain grim cool to the role of Cole and Sho Kosugi’s made a career of leveraging his decades of training and proficiency into on-screen martial arts magic. The final collision is bloody yet brief, stoking the public’s appetite for more ninja carnage to come. Revenge of the Ninja With the somewhat unexpected success of Enter the Ninja, Cannon upped the ante for their next foray into ninjasploitation on all counts. Revenge of the Ninja may be the best film of the “trilogy,” in large part because we have Sho Kosugi in the role of Cho, the film’s lead protagonist along with his son Kane Kosugi co-starring. Sho lends a certain gravitas to the role, playing a ninja whose family has been slaughtered by a rival clan. He gives up his ninja ways to pursue a life of non-violence in America with his only remaining family members, his infant son and his aging mother. A few years later and Cho is managing a successful art business in Los Angeles importing figural dolls from Japan. Aside from his now adolescent son getting in the occasional fight with bullies at school, Cho is leading a happy and peaceful life. His training in the martial arts and the ways of the ninja continue, but as he tells his son “only as a way of honoring our traditions.” Little does Cho know that his best friend and business partner Braden is double-crossing him by stuffing the dolls full of heroin overseas and selling them to the mob Stateside. Braden’s greedy ways have also led him to betray the mob clans he is selling the heroin to, and in the meantime a creepy silver demon-masked ninja has show up to assassinate key players on the mob’s side. It’s not long before the mob decides to grab the heroin at the source, drawing Cho and his family into the crossfire. Cho is soon faced with breaking his vow of peace to protect his loved ones. One of the things that makes Revenge of the Ninja a standout of the 80’s U.S.-based ninja films is that we finally have a protagonist of Japanese origin at the helm. So much of the 80’s (and Cannon’s own efforts) were spent trying to shoehorn white faces into ninja masks, and the whitewashing of Asian culture in martial arts films has continued ever since. Sho Kosugi handles the lead role well, and unlike the dozens of Caucasian actors that came before and since, he actually has the martial arts chops to handle the full-on ninja action that goes down throughout the film. If the final battle scene in Enter the Ninja was too short, the showdown in Revenge of the Ninja is epic by comparison. It takes place across several high-rise rooftops and all the stops are pulled out in the ninja arsenal as well as in the martial arts and stunts department as Cho faces off with the silver-masked demon ninja. Shuriken, hidden blades and even a pocket flamethrower come into play as the two struggle against the city skyline. The action is visceral and the fight choreography is ahead of its time. Revenge of the Ninja is unquestionably the apex of the 80’s ninjasploitation crop. Ninja III: The Domination It’s hard not to love Ninja III: The Domination despite its meaningless title (it’s not any more a sequel to Revenge than Revenge was to Enter), despite the goofy wholesale embracing of popular 80’s trends and despite the absolutely preposterous premise it all hinges upon. Up to this point the films in the ninja series relied on only slight exaggeration of the ninja’s abilities and weaponry for dramatic effect. Ninja III ditches any pretense at realism and saunters boldly into the territory of the supernatural. The insanity is apparent right from the beginning. A ninja pursues his target across a golf course, taking him out along with several bodyguards and security crew. In the process he displays superhuman strength and agility, capably handling dozens of attackers. This melee attracts the attention of the cops, and within minutes the ninja is being pursued across the golf course by an armada of officers in cars, motorcycles and a helicopter. The ninja decimates squads of cops, employing a variety of weapons and techniques, punching through solid steel and literally kicking motorcycles and shoving cars into the air. Eventually he is cornered and shot hundreds of times before deploying a smoke bomb that allows him to hide and then limp away into the brush. It’s here that he encounters Christie (Linda Dickey) a telephone line-worker who happens to be on a call in the area. In a bewildering scene, he transfers his spirit into her body via contact with his sword. Thus ensues a series of possessions, with the ninja taking over Christie’s body and mind to pursue and kill the police officers that gunned him down. But this isn’t a simple revenge story. It’s complicated by the fact that Christie has fallen in love with and begun dating one of the cops. As things escalate, the one-eyed ninja Yamada (Sho Kosugi) arrives from Japan to track down the demonic ninja force terrorizing Christie. If it sounds batshit crazy, I haven’t even begun to touch on the more outrageous aspects. Christie is a health-nut and aerobics instructor and the first chunk of the film is laced with anthemic 80’s pop and spandex-clad beauties conducting aerobics routines. There’s a scene in which she seduces her lover by pouring V-8 juice down her cleavage (we are informed that she doesn’t “do” soft drinks, coffee or booze early on) for him to lap up. The possession scenes often take the form of late night hallucinatory sequences in which Christie’s closet, refrigerator and/or stand-up arcade game pour demonic wind, light and sound outward, calling to her until she takes up the dead ninja’s sword and costume to seek out and murder the ninja’s enemies. It’s a collision of 80’s culture and the ninja trope unlike anything before or since. Equal parts action flick, horror film and unintentional comedy; while it may not leave the “ninja trilogy” going out on a high note, it certainly does its best to outdo the previous installments in terms of spectacle and audacity. In that, it certainly succeeds. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.