Kaiju Shakedown: Cannon Ninja Films
Since the dawn of time, man’s natural predator has been the ninja. The only way to study the ninja safely, without him shooting throwing stars through both your eyes, is to capture him on film, and many brave souls have sacrificed everything to bring him to the silver screen.
Rage of Ninja (88), A Life of Ninja (83), Clash of the Ninjas (87), Born a Ninja (91), Bionic Ninja (86), Full Metal Ninja (88), Shaolin vs. Ninja (83), Mafia vs. Ninja (85), Zombie vs. Ninja (88), Alien vs. Ninja (10), Cobra vs. Ninja (87), Ninja vs. Ninja (87), Twinkle Ninja Fantasy (87), Ninja, Phantom Heroes USA (88), and Thunder Ninja Kids: Wonderful Mission (91) are just a few of these ninja nature films.
But there are two series that are the most deadly of them all, and both are from Cannon Films: American Ninja 1 – 5 and the Ninja Trilogy of Enter the Ninja (81), Revenge of the Ninja (83), and Ninja III: The Domination (84). Cannon formed the molten core of ninja movies because it was founded by two Israelis, Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, who understood that ninjas are basically supercool Jews. Both groups like black clothing, obey ancient traditions, and have strict codes of behavior that must be followed or they lose their power. Ninjas are small in number but extremely powerful and capable of taking out much larger opponents, like Israel.
The Jewish immigration to America is well-documented, but how did the ninja immigrate? In 1980, author Eric Van Lustbader’s thriller, The Ninja, hit the New York Times best-seller list for five months and was promptly optioned by 20th Century Fox who pledged a $20 million budget and lined up super-producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown (The Sting, Jaws) to make them a ninja movie. Golan and Globus immediately had brain embolisms. They knew that God wanted them to make ninja movies, not 20th Century Fox, so they rushed Enter the Ninja into production. Using whitey to ease audiences into the world of ninja, Franco Nero, Italian star of Django (66) was cast as a ninja whom we first meet dressed in white, stabbing, slashing, and shooting arrows at a bunch of red-suited ninjas (which means they’re extra-spicy). Then he fights a black-clad ninja (which means he’s extra-deadly), jumps off a waterfall, cuts off an old dude’s head, but it turns out that it’s a fake head and this is the ninja equivalent of graduating magna cum laude from ninja school. Going to school wouldn’t seem this cool again until Harry Potter. In theaters across America, little boys experienced their first orgasms.
Enter the Ninja
Like many recent college graduates, Franco Nero has an enormous mustache and no idea what to do with himself, so he bums around the Philippines where his old buddy Frank runs a farm with his sexy wife played by Susan “Straw Dogs” George. But Frank has a problem. “She’s a very sexy lady,” he tells Franco of Susan. “I mean, she wants it all the time. But the problem is, I can’t get it up lately.” Ninjas not only understand how to kill a man with their bare hands, they also understand erectile dysfunction. It turns out that Frank is suffering from two problems, alcoholism and Mr. Venarius, an evil rich guy who wants his farm.
Unfortunately, death is the only cure for Frank’s alcoholism, but Franco Nero does cure his Mr. Venarius problem by murdering the evil dude with throwing stars. He also demonstrates his ninja lovemaking skills with Susan George, so it’s a win-win for everyone except Frank, who is dead. Enter the Ninja may be shoddy and cheap but it was monumental for two reasons: it kicked the ninja trend into high gear, and it introduced the world to Mr. King Ninja himself, Sho Kosugi.
Cast as an extra by Mike Stone, the movie’s writer and action choreographer, Sho had charisma and martial arts skills that earned him more and more work on the Enter set until he doubled almost every single actor and landed a feature part as the man who answers the call when Mr. Venarius pitches a fit and shrieks, “I want my black ninja and I want him now!”
Revenge of the Ninja
Convinced that their black ninja was made of money, Golan and Globus signed Sho up for Revenge of the Ninja. The first Hollywood movie where an Asian actor received sole star billing (Bruce Lee shared top billing with his co-stars in Enter the Dragon), Revenge opens with a rowdy band of ninjas showing up at Sho’s Japanese home and redecorating it in wall-to-wall dead family members. As Sho’s pal Keith Vitali growls: “Ninjas are the worst bastards the world has ever known!”
To heal his pain, Sho moves to America and works in Keith’s art gallery, sharing with humanity his greatest gift: an extensive collection of tiny dolls. Unfortunately, he is burdened with one other survivor of the massacre: a terrible baby who grows up to be a mouth-breathing ankle-biter with a giant pumpkin head. This is Sho’s real-life son, Kane, and he is terrible. In later films, Sho will be joined on screen by his second son, Shane, but audiences will have to wait until 2012 to meet his third son, Bane.
Things get complicated because while Keith Vitali is Sho’s good friend, anyone with a brain knows that he’s a treacherous dickbag because he drives around in an enormous Cadillac with the vanity plate SENSEI 7. By the half-hour mark he’s slipping into bathrooms, putting on a silver mask and ninja suit, and getting into the heroin business with mafia guys who could not be more stereotypical if they were made out of linguini.
Ninja III: The Domination
It ends in a shocking explosion of ninja-on-ninja rooftop violence that feels like the Eighties stabbing you in both eyes with a jacuzzi, smoke bombs, ninjas posing against the skyline, scythes, swords, and a flamethrower. Another hit was born, and now the G&G Exploitation Factory doubled down on ninjas, Sho Kosugi, and the Eighties with their next movie, Ninja III: The Domination. Directed by Revenge auteur, Sam Firstenberg, and starring Sho Kosugi and Lucinda Dickey (the same year she shot Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo for Firstenberg) it’s basically The Exorcist meets Revenge of the Ninja with a part-time aerobics instructor (Dickey) possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja. None of the Cannon movies have an identifiable filmmaking style beyond “get the shot”—but drenched in dry ice, aching with random bursts of neon wall art and laser-light-show lighting effects, Ninja III comes the closest to having “style.” Firstenberg loves synthetic fabrics, Day-Glo colors, and borderline-musical numbers, like aerobics scenes and on-the-nose songs on the soundtrack whose lyrics underline the onscreen action. He would have felt right at home directing episodes of Saved by the Bell.
Realizing that ninjas = money, Cannon planned to make American Ninja with Sho Kosugi, but he left the studio over creative differences to strike out on his own, so they turned to Chuck Norris, who’d had his own primal ninja-perience in The Octagon (80), but he turned them down, too. Finally they settled on model-turned-actor Michael Dudikoff. For insurance, they paired him up with Michael Stone on action, and Sam Firstenberg on direction, and the result was the ninja movie as bar mitzvah.
Dudikoff plays Joe Armstrong, a young American soldier with amnesia who learns how to be a man. When his convoy is attacked by horny ninjas who want to kidnap the colonel’s daughter for sexual intercourse, he instinctively defeats them using ninja skills. In a sequence right out of Gentleman’s Agreement (47), he’s discriminated against because of the things that make him different. It’s not until an elder ninja teaches Dudikoff the great traditions of his people (ninjas) that he is able to embrace his heritage and become a man. A ninja man who beats orange, red, blue, and yellow ninjas sporting wrist lasers. This celebration of manhood climaxes when, instead of reading the Torah, he jumps out of an exploding helicopter. Mazel Tov!
American Ninja 2: The Confrontation
American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (87) reunites Stone, Firstenberg, and co-stars Dudikoff and the inimitable Steve James, as two rangers/ninjas investigating a series of missing marines on an island so anti-American that soldiers have to wear jams and muscle shirts instead of their uniforms in order not to antagonize the locals. Also, the costume budget was probably maxed out by multicolored ninja jammies. Eventually it’s revealed that the Marines are being kidnapped and turned into genetically engineered ninja superwarriors to protect powerful drug dealers. Kids today might be surprised to learn how popular this weapons program was in the Eighties, and the editors of this website feel that the Ninja Arms Race is an understudied aspect of the Cold War. Apparently made because everyone wanted a beach vacation, American Ninja 2: The Confrontation is an easy, laid-back affair that offers up one low-budget gem after another, including what must be the best line in all ninjadom: “What is this? Ninjas? Drug pushers? My men being kidnapped and murdered? This is really beginning to get on my tits!”
There would be three more American Ninja movies released in 1989, 1990, and 1993, each featuring declining quantities of Steven James and Michael Dudikoff, but despite ending with a whimper and not a bang, the American Ninja movies might be the only film series from Cannon that had official licensed merchandise.
Mock ninjas at your peril. Cannon’s ninja boom taught us that ninjas come in every color of the rainbow, they are comfortable killing us with lasers and flamethrowers as well as with their bare hands, and they successfully revived the mainstream martial-arts movie in America, which had died with Bruce Lee back in 1973. And pity poor Eric Van Lustbader. That 20th Century Fox adaptation of his book, The Ninja, with a $20 million commitment and two super-producers on board? It still hasn’t seen the light of day. He recently posted optimistically on his website: “The good news is that the project has been revived, has a director attached to it and is awaiting a screenwriter.” Sorry, buddy. You should have bet on Golan and Globus instead.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
Ninja III: The Domination
… Speaking of ninjas (and who isn’t?) on Friday, February 20 at 10:45 p.m., Film Comment Selects is screening the holy grail itself, Ninja III: The Domination, on 35mm. As an added bonus, it’s preceded by the epic Cannon Films documentary, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films.
… Also, did you know that February 22 is an actual holiday called Ninja Day in Japan? Expect it to become a national holiday in America any minute now, because otherwise ninjas are going to kill us all with weighted chains and Tekko-kagi claws.
… Long considered one of the worst restaurants in New York City, Ninja New York still exists! Yes, the bad sushi restaurant where the waiters dress as ninja and jump out at you, shrieking from the shadows, and then do terrible magic tricks at your table, is one decade old this year. The New York Times is not impressed.
… The long-in-the-works movie adaptation of the comic book Cowboy Ninja Viking, about a man in a government program who is all three of those things in one burly body, might finally have a director(s): John Wick auteurs Chad Stahleski and David Leitch.
… Korean hitmaker Choi Dong-Hoon (Tazza: The High Rollers, The Thieves) has finally wrapped production on his epic period piece, The Assassination. Starring Ha Jung-Woo, Lee Jung-Jae, and Jeon Ji-Hyun (My Sassy Girl), it’s about a bunch of resistance fighters taking on the Japanese in Thirties Korea. The movie has been filming since last August, making this an almost six-month shoot. Now all that remains is postproduction. And speaking of long shoots, rumor has it that Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Assassin, starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen, which has been shooting since 2013, and which pulled out of Cannes last year, may finally be heading to Cannes this year. We’ll believe it when we see it. Update: see comment below.
… Remember how badly the Hong Kong government was treating Hong Kong TV, a new television station with lots of money that wanted a free-to-air license to compete with ATV and TVB? Well, wouldn’t you know it, ATV wasn’t able to pay its license fees in January, nor its employee salaries. Thanks to the sale of some farmland they own, they finally scraped together enough money to make salary. Cutting cash-rich HKTV out of the picture is looking more and more like the kind of smart decision Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive is becoming known for.
… Last but not least, Kung Hei Fat Choi! It’s Chinese New Year! Welcome to the Year of the Goat! Chow Yun-fat, Donnie Yen, and Aaron Kwok wish you a happy one!