Friday, 15 January 2016

The Ninja Trilogy


ENTER THE NINJA (1981) 

Directed by: Menahem Golan

Screenplay: Dick Desmond, Story: Mike Stone
Starring: Franco Nero, Susan George, Sho Kosugi, Alex Courtney & Christopher George

Considered to be one of the films that originally kicked off the 80s ninja boom, Enter the Ninja is a dated and often silly jaunt seen through today’s over-critical eyes but still stands up as a fun ride. This is due in part to leading man Franco Nero, an early on screen (and bad guy) appearance by Sho Kosugi and nicely handled, and quite bloody, ninja action scenes overseen b y Mike Stone. Nero is Cole, an all round American cool dude (complete with ace moustache!) who has just completed his ninja training in Japan. No sooner has he become a top ninja-dude (and peeved off equally badass and very grumpy ninja rival Hasegawa – Kosugi), Cole jets off to Manila to hook up with ex-army buddy Frank (Courtney) who along with his gorgeous albeit estranged wife (Susan George) are being threatened by the evil Venarius (Christopher George). He wants Frank’s land, Frank won’t give it up (well to be more be precise his strong-willed wife wont) and Venarius sends all kinds of B-movie goons to threaten him. So Cole being the deadly ninja and all round good friend that he is decides to help Frank fight Venarius (as well as bed Frank’s wife – so not all that good of a friend!) leading to mucho cool ninja action.

This coming from the Golan-Globus house and directed by Menahem Golan himself, Enter the Ninja has a cheese factor that goes through the roof. From Nero’s obvious dubbing (and doubling in the action scenes), to Christopher George’s wacky performance, to an abundance of odd supporting characters (The Hook!), Enter the Ninja is not only a time capsule of long gone ninja movies but of the type of movies Golan-Globus were infamous for and cheesy 80s action movies in general. That said, the flick is still a lot of fun. It’s nicely lensed, Nero seems to be having a blast even if he can’t do the ninja moves himself (handled by action coordinator, Mike Stone), Susan George makes for a spunky if put-upon female lead, Kosugi is always good value when stretching his ninja skills and the action comes thick and fast. From the impressive and sustained opening sequence showcasing Nero taking out heaps of ninjas to complete his training to the ninja vs. ninja finale, Enter the Ninja delivers lots of unfussy but violently staged fights and combat. The first in Canon’s original ninja trilogy may also suffer from wobbly pacing and Golan’s slapdash directional style but nevertheless provides requisite ninja action, looks good in this new cleaned up print and is the perfect introduction not only to this trilogy but the 80s American ninja movie obsession in general.

 REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983)

Directed by: Sam Firstenberg
Screenplay: James R. Silke
Starring: Sho Kosugi, Keith Vitali, Virgil Frye, Arthur Roberts, Ashley Ferrare & Kane Kosugi

While not a direct sequel to Enter the Ninja, Revenge features the return of Sho Kosugi (this time elevated to main star and hero), much of the same crew including producers Golan - Globus and again centres on mucho crazy ninja action. Starting off much like Enter with an extended scene of ninja based action, Revenge opens in brutal and relentless style and rarely lets up from then on in. Cho (Kosugi) returns to his once peaceful home to find his family massacred and quickly makes short work of the ninjas that perpetrated said massacre. His dubious buddy Braden (Roberts) suggests Cho and his surviving son should move to the States to escape such violence, which they do real quick like. But no sooner has Cho relocated, set up his own gallery and thinks life is all hunky dory than the scumbag Roberts reveals his true nature, using Cho’s gallery as a front to smuggle heroin. On top of this Roberts is also a bad ass ninja, is muscling in and wiping out the local crime competition and is manipulating Cho’s foxy assistant (Ferrare) to help do his dirty work. Once Cho discovers this, he takes up ninja arms against Braden and an all out ninja war commences.

From the vicious opening battle (even a kid gets a shuriken star in the face!), Revenge of the Ninja means business and over its 90 minute runtime barely stops for breath in its onslaught of swords, throwing stars, nun-chucks and bodily dismemberment. Relocating the action to the US and shot primarily in and around Salt Lake City, Utah this sequel ups the ante in every way with rookie action helmer Sam Firstenberg delivering taught and tight action at an alarming rate and even going as far too almost top the rollicking action of his later ninja masterpiece, American Ninja 2. The sun soaked setting gives proceedings a slick look, shining through in this new cleaned up widescreen edition, and not only does Sho Kosugi get to be front and centre this time he’s backed up by his equally talented pint sized progeny, Kane Kosugi. The two of them kick, twirl, slash and disappear in a puff of smoke with relentless energy in a barrage of action that goes full tilt in the over-the-top craziness. From the barnstorming fight-cum-car-chase-cum-fight again, to Kane’s fight with the foxy Ferrare, to the extended finale set inside and on top off the bad guys hideout the ninja action is non-stop, often insanely violent  and thanks to Sho’s and stunt coordinator Steven Lambert’s overseeing, skilfully handled. They throw in every kind of fight, chase and weapon they can think of and at one particularly over-the-top moment, I’m pretty sure Sho (and ace super-kicker Keith Vitali) fight the village people! Yep, Revenge of the Ninja comes with all the requisite 80s (not to mention Cannon) cheese and looniness but with ninjas a-go-go and heaps of finely crafted action, Revenge is one of the best ninja movies to come out of the decade that taste forgot.

NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984) 

Directed by: Sam Firstenberg
Screenplay: James R. Silke
Starring: Sho Kosugi, Lucinda Dickey, Jordan Bennett & James Hong

So after the Philippine set, Franco Nero starring Enter and the all out superior ninja action of Revenge, there was really only one way for Golan – Globus to go with the final entry in their original ninja series: magic and the 80s aerobics craze! Well, obviously as if there was one thing that incited mania as much as ninja movies in the 80s it was brightly coloured lyrca based aerobics! While the previous two films are certainly silly and dated in certain aspects, Ninja III adds whole new dimensions of wackiness with body-hopping ninjas, Poltergeist styled spooky shenanigans and mucho sweaty aerobic/dance absurdness. Sexy aerobics instructor Christie (the very lovely Lucinda Dickey) unwittingly becomes the host for a dying ninja who is (eventually) shot to death by a squad of police officers trying to apprehend him after a killing spree. Transferring his soul to Christie she struggles to control her new personality as she finds herself often transforming into a kill happy ninja. Desperately trying to keep control of her mind and body, Christie attempts to thwart the evil ninja by the only means she knows how: enlisting the help of good ninja Yamada (Kosugi) and using her considerable skills for dance, aerobics and rocking tight lycra!

The 80s is the only time this film could have been created and goodness knows what the makers were thinking when they decided to shoe horn in aerobics, magic and a soppy love story into a violent ninja action film. Perhaps trying to capitalize on the success of the their dance themed Breakin’ movies (both of which starred Dickey and the second of which was helmed by Firstenberg) and mesh it with the ninja craze, Golan-Globus created one of the weirdest hybrids from a decade that excelled at weird. However, despite all the kookiness that inevitably ensues, the film is still a hoot and is also packed with lots of violent ninja action. Opening just like the other two films with an epic action scene (if there is one thing this series excels at, it is well sustained action scenes) featuring all kinds of vehicle stunts and an insane amount of police officers being slain, Ninja III still remembers to bring action in amongst all the dancing, possessed arcade games and laugh inducing love scenes! Kosugi takes somewhat of a step back this time around only really showing up for the second half of the film to kick ass with style but having a female protagonist taking centre stage gives this third entry a refreshing slant. Dickey is equal parts cute, sexy, strong, feisty and likeable and throws herself into the role of possessed ninja with aplomb. Her obvious dance talent helps with the ninja moves and while the film is perhaps remembered for all its absurd kooks, Dickey helps to ground it (somewhat) and gives the audience a plucky protagonist to root for.  While Revenge is the superior of the three, Ninja III is still an absolute blast and a perfect 80s/ninja/exercise craze time capsule complete with sword fights and car stunts.


2 comments:

dave_or_did said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dave_or_did said...

Nice to see you back reviewing the good stuff!

I got sent this to review too. I've still got the third film to watch, then I'll post my full thoughts. So far I'm totally in line with you. The first film was very silly and a little naff, but enjoyable nonetheless, but the second is fantastic. It just never lets up on the action and is varied and crazy enough to keep you from getting tired of the constant fights. Genius.