Even though Enter the Ninja (1981) was ostensibly a vehicle for Franco Nero, it was his screen nemesis, real-life ninjitsu master Shô Kosugi who became the breakout star. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, purveyors of glossy Eighties schlock at Cannon Films, promptly placed Kosugi in a string of ninja action movies now regarded as cult classics. The first of which was Revenge of the Ninja…
Tokyo, Japan where time has apparently been frozen in the Feudal era. Instead of skyscrapers, bullet trains and kids cosplaying in the Harajuku district, we see pagodas, kimono-clad maidens and lush, verdant forests, from which there spring… ninjas! Those deadly shadow warriors of legend! These particular ninjas are engaged in a blood feud with good guy ninja master Cho Tanaka (Shô Kosugi) and slaughter his entire family, save for his mother (Grace Oshita) and baby son. Aided by his gun-toting gaijin buddy Braden (Arthur Roberts), Cho exacts violent revenge then, following Braden's advice, relocates to the United States where he opens an art gallery dealing in antique dolls.
Six years later, his son Kane (Kane Kosugi - Shô's real-life offspring) is menaced by an unlikely gang of interracial bullies. Even though the pint-sized ninja kicks their eleven year old asses, he gets a stern telling off from dad. Violence is no longer their way. Cho has hung up his ninja sword for good. Between organizing that all-important art exhibit, Cho practices ninjitsu alongside Braden's "secretary" (nudge-nudge, wink-wink), Kathy (Ashley Ferrare), who struts around in a revealing red karate outfit without any trousers. After some rough and tumble, she's fawning all over Cho, but he isn't interested. Maybe he's still mourning his late wife. Maybe he prefers brunettes. Maybe he's an incurable masochist, we never really find out.
Regardless, Cho joins the proud, if tense and irritable ranks of Asian action heroes who abstain from interracial hanky-panky. Remember, you can kick as many Caucasians as you want, but kiss one and you'll ignite an unholy row. Interestingly, American martial arts heroes suffer no such restrictions...
Anyway, Kathy feels guilty because she knows Braden is smuggling heroin inside Cho's antique dolls. When his number one client, mafia boss Caifano (Mario Gallo) pulls a double-cross, Braden grabs his all-black outfit and lethal ninja weaponry. That's right - Braden is an American ninja, with the mystical ability to transform from a haggard fifty-something playboy into a lithe stunt double, whenever he dons his mask! Pretty soon L.A. is littered with dead Mafioso...
Clueless cops employ karate enthusiast Dave Hatcher (celebrated martial artist Keith Vitalli, demonstrating why he's less celebrated for his acting) to consult his pal Cho (small world, huh?) about the mob killings. But, you know, he's busy with his art exhibition and all… Unfortunately, Caifano retaliates by sending porn star Ron Jeremy - or at least somebody who looks like him - and a Native American in an eye-searing red jacket to trash Cho's gallery. This leads to a ridiculous alley fight featuring some awful over-dubbed dialogue ("Come on, come on - ouch!") and a genuinely exciting and well-staged sequence with Cho fighting atop and inside a moving van.
For reasons never entirely made clear, Braden decides to pay a deadly visit to Cho's mother. Rather delightfully, the game old bird proves quite the silver ninja vixen herself, but sadly succumbs. Kane witnesses the whole thing, so Braden hypnotises Kathy with his magic ninja goggles (?!) into ridiculous fight number two - it's the karate kid vs. the scarlet bimbo! Eventually, both Kane and Kathy wind up in Braden's evil clutches which prompts Cho to recheck his script and realise, oh yeah, this is Revenge of the Ninja not Ninja Art Dealer, and finally don his black pyjamas for the showdown.
Revenge of the Ninja is commonly considered Shô Kosugi's finest movie and, rather more controversially, the finest ninja movie. Many martial arts fans swear it's a classic. Yet, apart from a handful of memorably off-kilter set-pieces, one can't help but ask why? Kosugi's fight choreography is gory and athletic, but Israeli-born director Sam Firstenberg handles action in pedestrian fashion looking like an aerobics fitness video spliced between bland shots of empty beaches, deserted back-alleys and non-descript buildings. It's a glossy yet strangely desolate California, very much an outsider’s vision, and one that underlines the script's fatalistic message that you "cannot escape your karma." Kosugi isn't the greatest actor in the world, but emotes like Laurence Olivier compared to his somnambulant co-stars, while the mobster villains are all caricatured "pass the linguini and horses' heads" wise-guys. A perfunctory script by James Silke propels some paper thin protagonists from one absurd incident to another, all the while accompanied by - and admittedly this is just my personal bugbear - a farting synthesizer score from Rob Walsh.
Braden's ninja activities prove especially laughable, from the chubby Mafioso (John LaMotta - who gets killed in almost every Cannon ninja movie) he ambushes over a urinal after politely tapping his shoulder first; to the croaky one-eyed stool pigeon he gives a shuriken in the eye; and especially the naked hot tub lovers whose bodies are sent to the morgue, still locked in mid-coitus! None of which compares to the moment, Cho and Dave seek the word on the street from a gang who turn out to be the Village People on steroids. Seriously! Ridiculous fight number three unfolds in a kiddies' playground where soccer moms and elderly tourists snap photos.
So why do so many proclaim this a classic? Possibly because in place of today's over-reliance on computer graphics and wirework, the stuntwork is real. Yet they're still nonsensical and often ineptly handled, which suggests martial arts purists are only half the story. True classics from the Far East like Duel to the Death (1981) and Ninja in the Dragon's Den (1982) create their own reality, fashioned from ancient myths and legends, where implausible things happen yet somehow make perfect sense in context. Movies like Cannon's ninja series and the many Caucasian ninja thrillers that followed mount a facsimile of reality, one that no matter how fatuous and distorted is somehow more compliant to mainstream tastes. Revenge of the Ninja features plenty of cool ninja trickery which, though awkwardly filmed, retains its thrill. And some of its absurdities - such as Kathy subjected to hot Jacuzzi torture and the moment Kane distracts a fat shirtless warrior (there are a lot of fat shirtless guys in this movie) with a cry of: "Hey look, Superman!" - do raise a smile. Shô Kosugi would return in the even nuttier Ninja III: The Domination (1984).