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Review: The Ninja Trilogy

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Only a Ninja can kill a Ninja!

Ah, the wonderful world of Cannon Films’ Ninja Trilogy is a heady mix of Eighties cheese, mysticism, gore, lots of fight scenes, Franco Nero looking uncomfortable with Nunchucks, Lucinda Dickey getting possessed by an evil Ninja spirit, hot tubs and Sho Kosugi being a bad ass.

A perfect mix for late night movie marathon.

Cannon Films brought us a lot of low budget movies over the years. If you were a kid in the 80s you probably wandered around the local video shop gazing in wonder at the various, wonderful covers of the Cannon movies. Some of them were good, some bad, and some are a whole heap of WTF! The Ninja Trilogy is a mix of good and WTF and they got more ridiculous and watchable as the trilogy progresses.

It could be said that Menahem Golem’s Enter The Ninja (1981) kick started the whole Ninja movie craze and it does open with a whole heap of Ninja action. Ninjas had featured in Japanese cinema for years and then we had The Octagon (1980),a Chuck Norris film in which he takes on an army of hooded terrorists trained in ninjutsu. However, it was Enter the Ninja that seemed to really bring out the ninja in all of us.

That was probably helped by a couple of books. James Clavell’s Shogun (1975, filmed 1980), but that was mainly about samurai warriors; then in 1980, Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja came along. Full of ninja action and lots of sex it featured a central conflict that would be the essence of ninja movies for a long time: two ninja masters – one Caucasian and one Japanese – locked in mortal combat.

Both books sparked a new western interest in Japanese culture and 20th Century Fox snapped up the rights to The Ninja immediately. John Carpenter was set to direct but adapting Lustbader’s novel to the big screen proved to be a challenge that ultimately defeated him (the film, to this day, has never been made).

Cannon Films saw what was happening and brought us the similarly plotted Enter The Ninja.

Menahem Golan, an Israeli producer who bought Cannon Film along with Yoram Globus, took control of the shoot after not liking what he saw. He fired the original lead, Mike Stone, and drove out to the nearby Manila Film Festival and, within hours, had recruited Django himself Franco Nero as the new Cole. To overcome the problem of the character being Texan and Nero being – very distinctively – Italian, Golan just had all of his lines dubbed in post-production.

Most significantly though, one of the stuntmen – a young Japanese martial artist named Sho Kosugi – caught the eye of Golan and Stone, who both agreed he had something special about him. They decided to write in a larger role for him: the despicable “black ninja” Hasegawa. The film was then renamed Enter The Ninja. The ultimate result of all this chaotic swapping and changing was a film that, while undeniably flawed, had an engagingly madcap style for a straight-faced action picture; a tone that would come to define the genre as the 80s went on.

Then they brought us Revenge of the Ninja in 1983. Sho Kosugi was front and center in this one. He was also now the hero of the piece. The film begins with a Japanese family being massacred by some evil ninjas. A gory opening which featured some incredible violence that sets the scene for the rest of the film. Kosugi ends up in Salt Lake City and ends up seeking ninja revenge when his mother is killed and his son is kidnapped and culminates in a blood bath. There are some great action scenes and stunts on display in Revenge. Probably some of the best in the whole trilogy.

Then we get to Ninja III: The Domination. This starred Lucinda Dickey who, fresh from her role inBreakin’, plays Chris; telephone engineer by day and aerobics instructor by night. Evil ninja (David Chung) is on a mission when he is pursued by the police. He goes kill crazy and many police officers are killed in cool and creative ways. However, Chung gets mortally wounded but manages to transfer his spirit to Chris. That’s right we have a woman possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja.

So not only ninjas, but possession and the film almost becomes a slasher movie.

Watching the three films, I found them more each one more enjoyable than the last. Enter the Ninja starts well, but loses steam whenever there are no ninjas on screen. Revenge of the Ninja gives us lots of Sho Kosugi greatness, while Ninja III is just over the top, ridiculous story and action that drags you along for the ride. The gore and action is great and there are some creative kills on display.

All in all Cannon’s Ninja Trilogy is a must have if you love ninjas, martial arts or just plain crazy films. The blu-rays all look great and while they are not overflowing with extras they do feature audio commentaries for Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination featuring director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert, An introduction to Revenge of the Ninja by director Sam Firstenberg, original theatrical trailers for Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja and a 28-page booklet featuring a new essay by critic and author C.J. Lines, illustrated with archival images.

4-out-of-5

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