Cannon Films, those paragons of good taste and classy filmmaking, welcome you to the mysterious world of the ninja. A black pyjama-clad ninja warrior demonstrates an array of fighting techniques over the opening credits, until a white ninja flies past and kicks him in the head. That’s about as good as Enter the Ninja is going to get, so don’t say you haven’t been warned. In modern-day Japan, former soldier and ninja-in-training Cole (Franco Nero) is undergoing his final rigorous test at, uh, ninja school. He demonstrates his mastery of the ancient ninja art of camouflage by prancing around the forest greenery in bright white ninja gear. Somehow, none of the other ninja are able to see him before he takes them all out, pleasing his venerable master no end. Ah, mysterious are the ways of the ninja. Or perhaps Cole’s tuition cheque just cleared, so master figured he’d fast-track this joker through ninja academy before moving on to the next gullible gaijin.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think of Franco Nero, I picture his iconic machinegun-in-a-coffin antics in spaghetti western classic Django (1966), or busting mafia heads in prototypical Italian cop thriller Street Law (1973), or his beautiful singing voice as Sir Lancelot, opposite real-life spouse Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot (1967). Master of ninjitisu is not what springs to mind. So I’m inclined to agree with his disgruntled Japanese classmate, Hasegawa[ (Shô Kosugi), who refuses to celebrate and grumbles: “He is no ninja.” Hasegawa is a bad motor-scooter. Remember him, because he’ll be back…
Now having graduated, Cole does what any ninja would do. He heads to the Philippines to hang out with his drunken ex-army buddy Frank Landers (Alex Courtney) - who comes across like a bizarre mix of Charles Grodin and a psychotic Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing (1980) - and his feisty wife Mary Ann (Susan George). This troubled couple run a plantation growing… god knows what (it’s never specified) and are being pressured into selling their land by evil oil tycoon Charles Venarius (Christopher George). Cole lends his friend a helping hand, kicking, punching and slashing his way through Venarius’ army of hired goons. He is also called on to help out in a more unorthodox way. “She’s a sexy lady”, says Frank of his wife. “She wants it all the time. Problem is I can’t get it up for her anymore.” Too much information, Frank. So, Mary Ann dons a transparent nightie and pays a bedroom visit to Cole. Everybody’s happy. Well, no, not really.
Anyway, Mr. Venarius is infuriated by Cole’s heroism and barks at his minions: “I want a ninja and I want him now!” like he was Veruca Salt or something. So his dryly sarcastic British butler, Parker (Constantin Gregory) - is that a Thunderbirds reference? - hires Hasegawa, through a Japanese casting agent (!) who first tries to fob them off with Ken Takakura (?!!) (“He made a movie with Robert Mitchum!”). Hasegawa becomes a one man burn-and-pillage army, cackling like a loony-tune when he’s supposed to be moving silently. So, Cole dons his white ninja suit and heads for a showdown with the evil ninja.
By god, this movie is bad. From the hook-handed German baddie (Zachi Noy) doing a Peter Lorre impression, to the moment Susan George disrupts a domestic row with “Anyone for tennis?”, to Cole boarding an elevator to infiltrate the villain’s stronghold (“You didn’t have to kill all our guards”, says Parker. “We were going to let you in anyway.” D’oh!), everything about Enter the Ninja suggests Menahem Golan was taking the piss. However, the movie became an international hit and Golan and his producing partner Yoram Globus kick-started the Eighties ninja craze.
Or rather, they kick-started the American ninja craze. Ninja first appeared on western cinema screens in the superb James Bond adventure, You Only Live Twice (1967), which had been partly inspired by the Japanese classic, Shinobi no Mono (1962) - still the most historically accurate and “realistic” ninja movie yet made. Shinobi no Mono is one of a handful of genuinely decent ninja movies, including the Hong Kong-made Duel to the Death (1981), Heroes of the East (1979) (the only martial arts movie where nobody gets killed), Ninja in the Dragon’s Den (1982), the Japanese ninja-girl actioner Azumi (2003), and anime classic Ninja Scroll (1993), along with the collective anime of Sanpei Shirato (probably the only auteur to arise from the ninja genre) - but most decidedly not American Ninja (1985), or any of the umpteen Eighties efforts that followed in the wake of Enter the Ninja.
This sub-genre usually centres around a Caucasian lead and often involves a laughable amount of ninjas in bright red, yellow, or other garishly coloured outfits. To set the record straight: ninjas don’t wear shiny polyester gear, nor those black pyjama outfits we often see, occasionally even in Asian movies. Those black outfits are carried over from those worn by Japanese stage performers, where they would blend into the dark background to imply the near-supernatural invisibility of the ninja in theatre productions. In reality, your average ninja would be in disguise or else wear garb not too dissimilar to those in Azumi.
The plot concocted by fight choreographer Mike Stone (who was to have played the lead before falling out with director Menahem Golan) and screenwriter Dick Desmond is none too different from a spaghetti western. Cole even has a crusty old-timer (Will Hare) for a comedy sidekick and re-enacts the “slapping sequence” from My Name is Nobody (1973). Stone’s stunt-work and fight choreography are impressive in parts, but poorly staged by Golan (who, coming off his infamous flop science fiction rock musical The Apple (1980) took charge after firing the original director) and the sheer inanity of the cornball story makes this a real chore.
While Franco Nero does not convince, co-star Shô Kosugi was an honest-to-goodness, real-life ninja whose own life story was far more fascinating than many of the movies he made. It was Kosugi who became the film’s breakout star, going on to take centre-stage for the follow-ups: Revenge of the Ninja (1983) and the mind-boggling ninja-meets-The Exorcist horror Ninja III: The Domination (1984). After headlining schlock classics Pray for Death (1985) and 9 Deaths of the Ninja (1985), he even launched his own line of ninja aerobics workout videos. Ah, the Eighties. Where Enter the Dragon (1973) still holds up as visceral and cool, Enter the Ninja is pure camp. Although Franco Nero’s climactic wink at the camera is oddly endearing, the movie plays like an episode of The A-Team. And no, that’s not a compliment.