The Film: 4/5
The goriest, craziest, flashiest, and most gloriously devoid-of-intellect exploitation trilogy to come out of the dying days of the grindhouses and drive-ins, Cannon Films’ lurid and grotesquely violent Ninja Trilogy has been packaged in one outstanding Region B Blu-ray box set from the mad geniuses at Eureka! Since the first two were released to Blu last year from Kino Lorber and the third arrived in 201 courtesy of Scream Factory, the Eureka collection is the only set in the world where you can get all three flicks together. Even though these movies are about as connected as seasons of True Detective, there’s no way I can fathom not having them all united within a single case.
Ninjas were all the rage back in the 1980’s, and Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were there at the beginning to both slap the thigh and ride the wave in when it came to popularizing violent martial arts epics revolving around masked men in black and white pajamas killing each other with swords and shuriken. Every action movie made during that decade was required by law (passed in secret by Congress after President Reagan was subjected to an all-night Godfrey Ho marathon) to have no less than five ninjas, usually serving at the behest of the villain. Once Snake Eyes became the most popular member of G.I. Joe (with apologies to Sgt. Slaughter), it was safe to say that the ninja had successfully infiltrated pop culture and slit its throat with an ancient shinobigatana.
First out of the gate was 1981’s Enter the Ninja, directed by Golan from a screenplay written by Dick Desmond based upon a story he conceived with Mike Stone, the American karate champ and bodyguard to the entertainment industry’s elite, as a possible silver screen starring vehicle for Stone. Once it was discovered that Stone couldn’t even act his way out of a Ziploc baggie concealed within a paper bag, he was demoted to stuntman and fight choreographer and Golan recruited the iconic Italian crime movie and spaghetti western star Franco Nero to take the role originally earmarked for Stone.
Even though Nero didn’t know a thing about martial arts and the ways of the ninja (and couldn’t speak decent English, necessitating a post-production dub performed by the late voiceover artist Marc Smith), it mattered little to Golan. He just needed an international star who could generate enough screen presence to keep the viewer’s mind occupied and not focused on plot holes and the obvious fact that Nero is being doubled during the many fight sequences. Nero fits in just fine as Cole, an American who came to Japan to study the ways of ninjutsu in order to make peace with a past fighting in Africa. He successfully completes the training and graduates from Ninja School (not a real place) as his master beams with pride. The only student who doesn’t seem very proud of Cole’s unprecedented accomplishment is fellow student Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), who’s been objecting loudly to the presence of an American since the day Cole arrived. He might be trouble, that dude.
Cole departs for the Philippines to see his old war buddy Frank Landers (Alex Courtney), currently the owner of a successful farm with his wife Mary Ann (Susan George). Things aren’t exactly as pleasant as they initially appear; the Landers are being harassed into selling their land to corporate tyrant Charles Venarius (Christopher George) by goons in his employ so that he can seize upon a large deposit of oil the unsuspecting couple happens to be sitting on. Luckily for Frank and Mary Ann, Cole decides to get involved after growing tired of Venarius’ despicable tactics, leading to an all-out war with casualties on both sides that soon brings our hero into conflict with Hasegawa once the evil Venarius realizes he needs some ninja muscle of his very own.
1983’s Revenge of the Ninja brought back Kosugi, this time getting an upgrade to star and hero, for another mad crazy tale of international retribution. This time around, Golan ceded directing duties to Sam Firstenberg as Cannon’s stature was growing in the industry and his energy needed to be channeled accordingly. After failing to prevent the massacre of most of his family by fellow ninjas, Cho Osaki (Kosugi) is convinced by his good American friend Braden (Arthur Roberts) to leave his life of violence behind in Japan and move to Salt Lake City with his surviving son Kane (Kane Kosugi) and mother (Grace Oshita) to start a doll gallery. Just the kind of retirement plan every ninja dreams about. Cho finds success and happiness in America, but all that is about to get blown to Hell once he discovers that Braden has been using the gallery as a front for a heroin smuggling operation he’s been running with financial support from local mafia boss Chifano (Mario Gallo). When Braden and Chifano fail to reach an agreement regarding adequate compensation for the former’s troubles, Braden dons a silver mask and ninja garb and starts slicing and dicing his way through Chifano’s family and associates in order to assert his dominance over the operation. The police are baffled by the killings and bring in Cho as a consultant, but although he is pretty certain that a ninja is committing them, Cho doesn’t want to have anything more with what’s going on. He’ll have no choice once Braden’s private war with the mob hits home in bloody and tragic ways. Time for some more climatic ninja on ninja action.
Kosugi and Firstenberg reunited soon after Revenge for Ninja III: The Domination, but the Sho didn’t go on until the third act. Most of the movie is preoccupied with the antics of a telephone linewoman and part-time aerobics instructor (Lucinda Dickey) who gets possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja (David Chung) who has just murdered a scientist, his bodyguards, and just about every cop in the state of Arizona. Now that our humble heroine has a diabolical demon flowing through her perfectly toned veins, she sets out on a mission of revenge against the cops who killed her possessor. Only the boyfriend she just met (Jordan Bennett) – who happens to be one of her potential targets – and our man Sho can extract this horror from her poor soul. Once it’s out, Kosugi does his thing. Only a ninja can defeat a ninja, as it says in the Bible.
THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE SWORD!
Cannon Films’ awesomely exciting ninja movies didn’t pack in Star Wars-size audiences, but they did well enough at the box office around the world to keep the studio in business so they could court prominent filmmakers and produce critical favorites of the 1980’s like John Cassavetes’ Love Streams and the explosive prison escape masterpiece Runaway Train. They did even better on home video during the salad days of VHS and were accessible staples for viewing on pay cable. What is their appeal, you may ask? Action, baby, and plenty of it!
You rarely expected great art from Cannon, but we almost always got smashing entertainment. Golan and Globus weren’t successful entrepreneurs for nothing; the “Go-Go Boys” knew how to put every dollar on screen and which international markets were the most appropriate to which they could peddle their product. They reaped mighty profits in the process, and only when they tried to set their sights higher with underperforming big budget endeavors the likes of which included the cult favorites Lifeforce and Masters of the Universe did Go Long and Glow Bust find their fortunes dwindling. Cannon worked best when they cranked their movies out fast, cheap, and controlled, just as Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman did.
Enter the Ninja’s production got off to a rough start with Golan taking over original director Emmett Alston – who previously made the slasher flick New Year’s Evil for Cannon – and replacing star Mike Stone with Franco Nero after filming was underway (Alston would later team with Enter villain Kosugi for the 1985 Crown International Pictures release Nine Deaths of the Ninja). It quickly got back on schedule and turned out to be a profitable hit for the studio at a time when it was trying to make itself known in Hollywood. Compared to the ninja movies Cannon made in the wake of its success, Enter the Ninja comes off rather restrained at times, but it still delivers some effective action set-pieces, including the one that opens the film and introduces us to both the Nero and Kosugi characters. Golan was quite underrated as an action director and he has a healthy respect for getting good choreographed fight scenes on film and the preparation and craft that went into their staging.
Despite having his voice replaced by one that never fits, Nero acquits himself just well in the lead part of Cole, a character who owes more to Alan Ladd’s gunslinger Shane that any previously established screen hero. Susan George has been better than she is here and gets little to do but play the love interest and hostage in the third act, but she performs her limited part well and without pretention. Christopher George plays Venarius as a truly evil bastard who treats everyone around him like disposable playthings. The veteran western and war film actor rips into the part and has a blast shredding the scenery. When his death scene, which has become the stuff of legend thanks to being included in every YouTube supercut of the worst moments ever committed to film, arrives prior to Cole’s final showdown with Hasegawa (which is also a blood-drenched lulu), Golan shoots it in slow-motion so the audience can fell every second of Venarius’ well-deserved suffering. It’s positively epic.
Constantin de Goguel (The Last Emperor) and Zachi Noy (the Lemon Popsicle series) get in on the villainous merriment as Venarius’ lieutenants, while Will Hare of the original Silent Night, Deadly Night and Back to the Future brings some comic relief to the light side of the battle as a local hustler who becomes a valuable ally to Cole. W. Michael Lewis (Shogun Assassin) and Laurin Rinder collaborate on the catchy synth soundtrack; they have previously worked on New Year’s Evil for Cannon and would later reteam to score the next film in this set. The expert cinematography by David Gurfinkel (The Delta Force, Over the Top) keeps the action bright and comprehensible, aided immeasurably by the skillful editing from Michael Duthie (Universal Soldier) and Mark Goldblatt (The Terminator).
Just as Enter the Ninja did, Revenge of the Ninja opens with a bloody killing spree and rarely looks back or pauses to catch its breath. Sho Kosugi certainly has the moves when it comes to filling the widescreen with pure ninja fury, but he sucks as an actor. Director Firstenberg, an action cinema newbie, must have realized this early on because he rightly decided to pack in even more fights, chases, and shootouts than Golan managed in Enter. Revenge powers ahead from first frame to last with the speed of a bat out of hell and the intellectual fortitude of Sarah Palin; it doesn’t hit the ground running, it hits it slicing, dicing, and burying foots firmly up many posteriors. It moves even faster than Enter, and with greater purpose, because new leading man Kosugi is much more suited to the task of displaying exemplary martial arts skills with plausibility and ferocity than Franco Nero or his fighting double.
As it goes with a Cannon action movie, plot and character are secondary to the crunching ninja battles, but Firstenberg handles these beats like a seasoned professional and returning cinematographer Gurfinkel shoots them with a respect for the geography of the brawl and the stand-out work by Kosugi and the film’s stunt team. Speaking of our stone-faced hero, Kosugi may emote like he’s cursed with a bleeding ulcer, but the man’s appeal lies in his ability to convincingly kick plenty of ass. Since our man Sho is one of the best when it comes to that, Revenge works only when it’s time for action. Thankfully, the movie has pretty much nothing but that, and it’s always entertaining. Much credit goes to Brett Ratner’s preferred editor Mark Helfrich for keeping the narrative fat trimmed to the bare minimum so it won’t interfere with the fisticuffs and bloodshed.
If Enter and Revenge were straightforward action entertainment with their share of unintentionally humorous moments, the unofficial trilogy capper Ninja III: The Domination is flat-out nuts. Its opening sequence tops its predecessors in terms of pure mind-boggling excess, and it only gets better once the plot kicks in. The evil ninja’s relentless attack that destroys a few police cars, a helicopter, and the brains of anyone watching the movie at the time, is a classic set-piece in the Cannon canon. From there a triple murder in a hot tub, a vegetable juice seduction, arcade games that become demonic fireworks displays, multiple stupid white guy beat downs, lots of aerobics….and that’s how I would describe any five minutes of the movie. There’s also a pathetic car chase and the most useless police officer boyfriend in the history of film, but Ninja III would be nothing without them.
James R. Silke, a colleague of the late Sam Peckinpah, was credited with writing both Revenge and Ninja III, which would explain the strange yet harmonic consistency between the two movies. Silke also wrote the low-rent Indiana Jones rip-offs Sahara and King Solomon’s Mines for Cannon was originally tasked with writing the studio’s planned Captain America feature until Golan and Globus parted ways and Golan took the rights to the classic Marvel Comics superhero to his new company 21st Century Film Corporation. Silke’s job must have been to concoct some loony set-pieces and the occasional line of pulpy dialogue that sounds like it could have come from a 1930’s comic strip character who found themselves dropped into a 1980’s teen T&A flick. Such was the Cannon Group way. Kosugi stays out of the action until the third act, and though Lucinda Dickey is gorgeous and fun, she’s less of an actress than Sho. James Hong, the closest Ninja III has to a real actor in its cast, makes a very brief but welcome appearance to perform a gonzo exorcism that goes hysterically wrong.
Cinematographer Hanania Baer, whose work has graced a diverse array of films from the porno horror spoof Dracula Sucks to Henry Jaglom’s D√©j√† vu, keeps the shooting of Ninja III even brighter than the first two Cannon ninja epics. Since this was the mid-80’s, you can expect an explosion of flashing neon colors and bolts of rainbow electricity, not to mention tons of garish fashions and hairstyles. Composers Udi Harpaz and Misha Segal worked mostly in television and their music for Ninja III reflects the disposable expectations that would come with providing the soundtracks for countless afterschool specials and Airwolf.
Eureka appears to have utilized the same upgraded high-definition masters of all three movies in the Ninja Trilogy that were sourced for Kino Lorber and Scream Factory’s individual Region A Blu-ray releases for their own AVC encoded 1080p transfers. For this collection, both Enter and Revenge are presented in their original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, while Ninja III is presented in the 1.78:1 ratio. The transfers look pretty clean and boasts improved color and fine detail, so the source elements must have been in tip-top condition. Grain is low but consistent and only a moderate amount of permanent print damage remains but never detracts from the overall quality. English PCM 2.0 audio tracks replicate the original mono sound mixes of each film with clarity and presence and are refreshingly free of distortion and overlap. Manual volume adjustment never becomes a necessity. English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing have also been included for all three movies.
The first Blu-ray disc contains both Enter and Revenge, while the second features only Ninja III. Extras on disc one include trailers for both films and a commentary on Revenge with director Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steven Lambert. Firstenberg also contributes a brief video introduction (3 minutes) where he talks about how get the gig directing Revenge and how indebted he is to his creative collaborators for helping to guide him through his first action movie with terrific results. Firstenberg and Lambert also reteam for a commentary for Ninja III, which is moderated by Rob G. from FearNet and Icons of Fright. Both commentaries and the director intro for Revenge were originally done for the U.S. Blu-ray editions. There is no trailer for Ninja III, but you can easily find one on YouTube. One supplement that didn’t make the cut was the still gallery from Scream Factory’s Ninja III release.
Exclusive to this box set is a 25-page booklet featuring the extensive essay “In the Gutter, Looking at the Throwing Stars” by C.J. Lines that provides a detailed production history and critical appreciation of Cannon’s Ninja Trilogy.
This set also includes three DVDs featuring standard-definition, progressive encoded presentations of each film and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio tracks along with the accompanying extras.
Eureka’s Ninja Trilogy collection is a kick-ass assembly of Cannon Films’ Asian-influenced cinematic thrill rides with plenty of action, blood, and pulpy dialogue to keep B-movie fans fat and happy for a few hours. Excellent transfers and some decent extras ported over from the Region A Blu-ray editions make this box set worth a purchase. Definitely recommended.