Enter The Ninja / Revenge of the Ninja / Ninja III: The Domination, 1981/1983/1985.
Directed by Menahem Golan and Sam Firstenberg.
Starring Sho Kosugi, Franco Nero, Lucinda Dickey, Susan George, Christopher George, Arthur Roberts, Jordan Bennett and James Hong.
The three Ninja films produced by 1980’s low-budget kings Cannon Films that like many of the studio’s films have become cult hits since their initial release.
“Before Menahem, I didn’t and I bet that millions of people didn’t know the word ‘Ninja'” said Boaz Davidson in Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, 2015’s superb documentary on the crazy life and times of The Cannon Group, led by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus. The duo has bought Cannon Films in 1979 and went on to make their mark on American cinema and pop – culture through the 1980’s before going bust in 1994. They introduced us to any wild films, such as Breakin’, Lifeforce, Masters of the Universe and Runaway Train, as well as countless Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson films. But they also brought us a trilogy of Ninja films, from 1981 to 1985, which have finally made their way to Blu-ray in the UK thanks to Eureka Entertainment.
The first, Enter the Ninja, released in 1981, was a surprise hit particularly internationally for Cannon and helped break them out in the US. The original film, shot in black and white, wasn’t quite what they were expecting, so Golan took over directing himself. Changing the story, he cast a new lead in the form of original Django Franco Nero, who was at the Manila Film Festival as Golan was, and signed him to play Cole, a Texan-born ninja who travels to the Philippines to battle a greedy landowner, as well as his fierce rival (the legendary Sho Kosugi).
It’s still strange even to this day to not only see Nero take on Kosugi in a ninja fight, but also that Golan completely re-dubbed Nero’s voice for that of a true American voice, such was his love of all things USA. Enter the Ninja while ridiculous and horrendously acted throughout, is undoubtedly a fun way to spend 90 minutes. It’s in any ways the perfect introduction to the Cannon universe of movies, and easily one of their best “guilty pleasures” in their eclectic catalogue.
With Ninja’s success, Golan and Globus wanted to immediately cash in and make a sequel, to be called Revenge of the Ninja. Directed by Sam Firstenburg, another of Cannon’s in-house directors, the film was a huge step down from the first, not least because the fun aspect had been lost through some very poor editing and behind-the-scenes problems. When the film was first edited together, the film made even less sense, so Golan himself made up a brand new plot and told Firstenburg and Co. to quickly turn around the sequel, which is the film you see today. Kosugi returns, this time as Chi Osaki, whose family is brutally murdered by a group of Ninjas at the start of the film though his son Cho survives. Raising his son in America, Chi soon discovers a dark secret revolving around his newly opened doll shop and soon has to do battle with evil ninja Braden (Arthur Roberts).
Revenge of the Ninja is, somewhat controversially, the worst of the Ninja Trilogy simply because it lacks any sort of cohesion or sense throughout the entire film. Sure it’s a Cannon film, but this was one of their true misfires, despite the presence of the great Kosugi, again showcasing his phenomenal abilities. Revenge was a success ($13million gross from a tiny budget), and led to Golan coming up with a final Ninja film with a twist.
Enter dancer-turned-actress Lucinda Dickey, Cannon’s hot female actress the time, who had previously featured in Breakin’ and it’s sequel, Electric Boogaloo. The idea was to have Dickey as the lead in the film as a female Ninja in Ninja III: The Domination, who would be the one killing and rampaging through the streets of America. To help 80’s audiences buy into the female ninja idea, the film has Dickey’s Christie possessed by the spirit of a dying ninja, before setting off to eliminate those who killed the ninja in the first place. Yep, this is THAT film…
Ever wanted a film that was not only a ninja movie, but also combined elements of The Exorcist, Flashdance, Footloose and countless other 80’s classics? You’ve come to the right place. Such ideas shouldn’t be mixed together, unless of course you’re Cannon Films, but somehow Ninja III actually works. Sure, it follows the Cannon blueprint of being cheap, tacky and hastily assembled, but it has a strange energy and charm to it that makes it endlessly watchable, thanks in no small part to another Kosugi masterclass and Dickey’s game performance. (One can only imagine what it was like for her making this film.) After it’s box-office disappointment ($7million gross), the Ninja series ended but continued in a different form with American Ninja, starring Michael Dudikoff.
Eureka Entertainment have produced a brilliant and timely Blu-ray boxset for The Ninja Trilogy, which has beautifully remastered the three films to an excellent quality particularly for three films that were VHS staples back in the day. But the detail on both the audio and visual presentation is fantastic and fully deserving of this special edition boxset. Also included are the original trailers for the films, as well as an informative commentaries on Revenge and Ninja III from director Sam Firstenburg and stunt coordinator Steven Lambert.
While the films are a mixed bag, all in all Eureka have created a great package for collectors of martial art movies, 80’s VHS classics and of course the countless fans of Cannon Films, who legacy still endures to this very day.
Scott J. Davis is Senior Staff Writer at Flickering Myth, and co-host and editor of The Flickering Myth Review Podcast. Follow him on Twitter.