||Cannon Films did not start the ninja craze in the action movies of the nineteen-eighties – some cite Chuck Norris in The Octagon as the real beginning – but you had to agree they certainly popularised it. The allure of seeing some bloke in black pyjamas and a hood that covered everything but his squinting eyes (squinting because they had to look mean) was hitherto untapped in Western culture, but as the title of Cannon’s first effort Enter the Ninja indicated, martial arts movies had appealed outside the usual Asian markets ever since Bruce Lee became a global superstar. The thought that had he lived, Bruce would have inevitably wound up making a film for Cannon is one that will either fill you with dread or delight, but you can be certain it would have been more impressive as far as the combat went than whatever Franco Nero thought he was doing here. He had been recruited at the last moment as a star name to bring in the punters.
Now, Nero had made his name in Spaghetti Westerns which would have assured his action credentials, but those featured gunplay more often than martial arts, and judging by the amount of times he relented to using his stuntman for the sequences where he had to beat bad guys up, his ninja skills were somewhat in doubt even from director Menahem Golan. There was a reason for that, as Enter the Ninja had been created as a vehicle for fighting expert Mike Stone, but he proved in those just pre-Arnold Schwarzenegger superstardom times to be no actor, therefore Nero was hastily brought in and dubbed with a butch voice in post-production – yet Stone was kept on to be, you guessed it, his stunt double. Therefore all those shots where a closeup on Franco’s moustachioed phizzog were swiftly followed by shots where clearly someone else was cleaning any number of clocks belonging largely to anonymous extras could be explained away, though crucially so blatant that excusing them was another matter.
Golan was not the original director, either, but he took the reins when he felt the project needed more oomph and not for the last time his exploitation instincts proved correct, as this was far before the laws of diminishing returns, not to mention diminishing profits, saw to it that Cannon would barely make it past the conclusion of the decade they were so identified with in the minds of a certain stripe of movie buff. Come the twenty-first century, they had built up quite the cult following which led to more interest when Mark Hartley’s fun documentary about the studio Electric Boogaloo was released, and it featured a baffled-looking Nero trying to explain what the hell he was doing posing as a ninja, but for the fans that was part of the fun as he was plainly miscast. However, when you saw the rest of the actors, they appeared to be miscast as well, as even with the lesser-known performers the air of “wouldn’t this be better with Asian stars?” pervaded.
Ah, but Golan was not entirely oblivious to the plusses of martial arts movies as he tried to craft an American version, and Shô Kosugi was drafted in to make something of the setpieces as Nero’s hero’s nemesis. Christopher George may have been playing the actual head of villainy, but he never so much as threw a punch in the protagonist’s direction, preferring to get his underlings to take care of that, so Kosugi was far more authentic a threat, one reason for that being that he genuinely trained in the field. It didn’t happen often, but Cannon had concocted a new star – as opposed to contracting existing stars to bolster their frequently ridiculous output – and he went on to appear in the next two parts of the trilogy. Not that you’d know it was him in Enter the Ninja for most of the time, as he spent most of his scenes with his face covered aside from the bit early on when he objects to Nero’s presence at the ninja academy where they have just graduated (chopping off your tutor’s head a must, apparently). Nero went on to help out an old friend whose property was under threat from George, as well as taking care of the bedroom activities with his wife (an overearnest Susan George), purely in the spirit of doing the Art Garfunkel lookalike a favour, you understand.
Kosugi doubled in the appropriate garb for other actors too, but he had impressed Cannon as a better ninja than poor old Franco, with the reward that he would star in his own movie, and Revenge of the Ninja was it. There are reasons why this wasn’t a direct follow-up in plot to the initial entry, one big one being what had happened to Kosugi’s character during the big fight at the finale, so a new storyline was dreamt up, and this one pandered to the leading man’s belief that he should guide the production, so he became very hands-on. This, you assume, was why his young son Kane showed up as his dad’s sidekick, demonstrating the moves his dad had taught him on a selection of bullies, a grown woman, and a big, fat man, which unless you had an appreciation of the ridiculous would prove a distraction from watching his father get on with kicking ass.
But Cannon were canny, and just as tobacco companies like to hook their customers while they’re young, the studio was doing the same, breeding fans of their output for life. Obviously with all this violence much of their efforts were unsuitable for children, but that’s what made them so attractive to the kids, and the VHS generation grew up witnessing Cannon’s band of action packed brothers (and the occasional sister) while thinking they were the coolest things ever, apart from Star Wars and He-Man or whatever was actually aimed at them. Therefore the craze for all things ninja, if not hugely influential, did spawn a lot of spoofs over twenty years later once the VHS kids had grown up and started making their own films, amateur or otherwise, which in turn brought audiences back to works like Revenge of the Ninja, a movie that for many was the ultimate example of the form when the action was practically non-stop and the logic practically non-existent.
With Kosugi’s Cho seeing his family wiped out in Japan, he moves to the United States (helpfully pointed out with a shot of the stars and stripes AND a caption) where he can play with dolls. Well, he’s actually set up a doll museum but what he doesn’t know is that his best friend Braden (Arthur Roberts, who won cult interest not only from this but decades later in a spoof Illuminati training video) only persuaded him and what family Cho had left to move because it would help his heroin smuggling trade. The drugs are hidden in the dolls, which prompts the question why not go into the doll business when they look even more valuable, but don’t let that detain you long, for Cho is there to exact the vengeance of the title on one of the most motley crews of baddies ever seen in eighties action. Apparently director Sam Firstenberg was a fan of Can’t Stop the Music, since there were representatives of at least three of the Village People present to get in Kosugi’s way.
It wouldn’t be eighties action without at least one gang donning outrageous attire, so Cho and his cop pal (Virgil Frye) beat them up in the in no way unsuitable location of a children’s playground (see what I mean about Cannon appealing to the underage?), but that wasn’t all, as there was a Mafia gang Braden wishes to dominate too, resulting in more gratuitous death scenes including a double murder in a hot tub, that relaxation device being a staple of thrillers such as these in this era, though here used to drown the unfortunate girl the target of a blowdart was having sex with. But surely the piece de resistance in a movie that features the antagonist hypnotising Cho’s sort of girlfriend (Ashley Ferrare) with glowing eyes and rustling up a robot decoy for the rooftop climax (there’s a hot tub there, too) was the centrepiece van chase where Cho won’t give up on pursuing four thugs who visit him at his art gallery (which has the logo of a yellow arse) to sidesplitting effect as he turns into The Terminator.
Revenge was also a hit for Cannon, so the same director (Sam Firstenberg, fresh off the second Breakin’) and writer (James R. Silke) were put to work on a sequel, but this time they were instructed to feature a female lead. Who better than Lucinda Dickey, star of the Breakin’ movies and a trained dancer therefore accustomed to physical work? But there was a problem: Kosugi wondered how credible a lady ninja would be in a fight with a man, or more than one man, and he began to get cold feet about the project, which was why he appeared in only half of the final product, but also why Ninja III: The Domination is so well recalled by Cannon aficionados today. The solution they settled on to make Dickey a convincing threat to men was to have her character Christie possessed by a ninja early on in the story as she was carrying out her day job as a telephone engineer and happened upon the dying ninjitsu proponent (David Chung) in the desert.
But let us not forget how he got to this stage, which were ten minutes of the most preposterous scenes in the eighties action sphere as he first hiked through desert terrain, wandered into a cave, found his accoutrements under a glowing rock (none of this is explained, incidentally) and the next thing you knew he was on a golf course slaughtering the henchmen of a scientist (?!), crushing the golf ball he was using and slicing him and his girlfriend up with a samurai sword. As if that wasn’t enough, the cops swiftly showed up and he managed to outrun their vehicles all the while picking them off one by one with his weapons, including grabbing a helicopter, murdering its crew and sending it crashing into a hillside where it exploded. The remaining cops caught up with him, but after getting shot at close range as they surrounded him, he burrowed into the ground, waited till they left and stumbled off to encounter Christie, who he then possessed.
Now that’s how you start a movie. Inspired by equal parts Poltergeist and Flashdance, Christie was an aerobics instructor who is stalked by one of the cops, but apparently that’s fine because soon she has set aside her reservations and bedded the remarkably hirsute law enforcer after erotic application of vegetable juice in her none-more-eighties apartment, which included an arcade machine and stereo to play sub-Flashdance pop upon as well as the regulation neon abstract. But where was Shô? His heroic ninja jets in from Japan sporting an ostentatious eyepatch (meaning only one of his eyes has the guyliner on for a change) and tracks Christie down for the final confrontation as he must exorcise her (mystic James Hong with a Malteser on his face tries previous to this, but fails miserably). In truth, the action was a little less spectacular than in Revenge (with Dickey’s obviously male stunt double adding to the absurdity), but the trappings that could not have come from any other decade are what has made Ninja III endure as a laff riot for bad movie buffs who could not believe such sights as Dickey dancing the demon out of her or the world’s worst funeral. But that was it for the original Cannon ninja series, as if they recognised they couldn’t top it, and the American Ninja series was the only place they could turn to; frankly, we deserved better. Or worse.
[Eureka’s Blu-ray of The Cannon Ninja Collection is uncut aside from the cockfight in Enter the Ninja which had to be removed for legal reasons of footage of animal cruelty not being allowed in Britain. You won’t miss it, and the rest of the violence is intact. Extras include two trailers and two commentaries, as well as a booklet.]