“Before Menahem, I didn’t, and I bet you that millions of people, never knew the word ‘ninja.'” So says filmmaker Boaz Davidson in the 2014 documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. “Menahem” is Israeli producer-director and Cannon chairman Menahem Golan, who with his cousin Yoran Globus dominated independent genre filmmaking in the 1980s, flooding theaters, video stores, and cable channels with quickly-made action and exploitation pictures (as well as artier fare when they were able to lure big-name auteurs with the promise of complete artistic freedom). The ninja trilogy that began with Enter the Ninja in 1981 is a good example of both the Golan-Globus process and its product, and Electric Boogaloo gives some hint of the rapidity with which the films were made and the degree to which Golan would keep tabs on ongoing productions and frequently step in to make changes based on his storytelling instincts. In the case of Enter the Ninja, Golan took over directorial duties and recast his lead actor when early dailies were unsatisfactory (however, in the true low-budget spirit, those dailies still appear as a film within the film). What all three films have in common is the presence of Sho Kosugi, who both rose to martial arts stardom and sparked an American craze for all things ninja on the strength of his performances.
If Enter the Ninja was truly the watershed moment for the ninja in American film that some make it out to be, it’s probably due to its first fifteen minutes, a near-wordless sequence in which a ninja in a white gi makes his way through a beautiful mountainous countryside, pursued by a ninja in black and a band of subordinate ninjas in red. If you had never heard of a ninja before, this sequence gives a good idea of what one is, as the white ninja relies on stealth and surprise (and a number of exotic weapons and fighting techniques) to overcome his more numerous foes; when in his enemies’ sights, he seems to have a sixth sense warning him of danger, allowing him to duck and counterattack at just the right moment. The black ninja seems to sniff out his quarry and grabs arrows out of the air in mid-flight. A stunning sequence of both ninjas leaping, in slow motion, from the top of a waterfall, is truly beautiful, inside or outside of the ghetto of genre filmmaking. Finally, the white ninja gets the better of the black ninja (“Surrender or die!”); the white ninja approaches the waiting master of the compound and beheads him, pulling his sword from its scabbard and striking in one swift motion.
After the dramatic conclusion to the cold open, the white ninja enters the temple and kneels; he removes his mask, revealing a Westerner (Franco Nero, in all his dubbed glory, replacing Mike Stone at the last minute, although Stone still performed all the stuntwork). The other ninjas, whom he supposedly slew, enter and sit in rows beside him, pulling out the protective boards and blood squibs that allowed them to simulate deadly combat; the white ninja’s target, actually his sensei, enters, carrying the false head that the ninja appeared to have removed from his body. The infiltration and assassination was a test, and this white man has passed: he is now a ninja. Of course, there must be intrigue, and the black ninja, who has also appeared, protests the acceptance of this gaijin into the ninja order. The black ninja, Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), is embittered by his loss to a foreigner, but also by the lack of place for a great warrior in modern society. “Always be strong enough to avoid bitterness,” the sensei, Komori, tells the white ninja, Cole, afterwards.
After completing his training, Cole travels to the Philippines to visit an old comrade-in-arms, Frank Landers (Alex Courtney), owner of a coconut plantation. It is clear right away that something is wrong, as the local village is under the thumb of a protection racket, and the pressure to sell his land to a powerful tycoon has driven Frank to drink. The long second act is the most conventional part of the film, reminiscent of episodes of Kung Fu, The Incredible Hulk, or The A-Team. What would any man do when he sees bullying and injustice, especially directed at his friend and his beautiful wife, and especially if he is uniquely positioned as a master of the arts of ninjutsu? Of course he steps in, both invigorating his friend with new confidence and tempting said wife with his virility and righteousness. And what happens when word comes back to the boss, a fey character named Venarius (Christopher George), that the man making trouble for the operation is a ninja, and he decides he wants to hire his own ninja to level the playing field? Guess who is available for hire!
Plot-wise, much of Enter the Ninja isn’t too different from the many martial arts or action movies filmed in the Philippines during the 1970s and ’80s: Bruce Lee could have played the part of Cole, the old friend who arrives to find his buddy’s plantation under siege by goons, battling through them until he fights his way up to the big boss. Aside from the ninja theatrics, which are mostly confined to the first and last act, Enter the Ninja is noteworthy for its brisk pacing, with scenes of characterization and recrimination balanced by snappy dialogue and inventive action set pieces, but even moreso by its cast of colorful characters.
Typical of Golan-Globus films, even minor walk-ons are sharply drawn and provided with novel details. Of course they’re mostly caricatures (and some of Golan’s eccentricity and unique comic sensibility may come from his Israeli background), but they pop from the screen: the German with the Colonel Klink accent and hook hand who appears as the first “spearhead”; the prissy, demanding villain, coaching his synchronized swimming team in his in-office pool while he conducts business, along with his ever-loyal British right-hand man; even “Preacher,” a would-be henchman who only appears in one scene, has a nickname and a gimmick like an experienced wrestling heel. It’s all comic book stuff, of course, but as in the best comic books, iconic images combine with a few well-chosen words to imply much more than what we are actually shown. (Note the contrasting white and black uniforms of Cole and Hasegawa, or their final battle in an arena under a sign reading THE JUDGE’S DECISION IS FINAL: none of this is subtle, but in contrast to the comic relief in other parts of the film, the ninja material is played utterly straight, giving it the weight of myth.)
Cole is the type of figure who populated movies and men’s adventure magazines in the post-Vietnam era: a man adrift, hardened by war (in flashbacks, we see him and his buddy Frank fighting together as mercenaries in Africa), but who has found peace, or the promise of it, in Eastern philosophy and physical discipline. Of course he is irresistible to Mary Ann (Susan George), tired of her washed-up husband’s passivity and alcoholism: here’s a real man, advertised by his square jaw and piercing gaze, but most of all by his vintage porn ‘stache. The physicality of their first meeting–when she greets him, a stranger, with a shotgun, he disarms her and literally kicks her in the butt–is “rough courtship” straight out of the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara playbook. When Cole and Mary Ann inevitably come together, it’s surprisingly tasteful for a Golan-Globus production, signaled by her appearance at his bedside and a Hays Code-like turning off of the lights.
Revenge of the Ninja followed in 1983, directed by Sam Firstenberg in seven weeks, including a thorough overhaul of the story by Golan. Now, this is what I expect from a Golan-Globus production: gratuitous T&A, broad ethnic stereotypes, corny comic relief, and a plot that makes Enter the Ninja look grounded. However, the action sequences are more intense and inventive than in Enter, largely free of the need to make us believe that Franco Nero is a better martial artist than Sho Kosugi. Since (spoiler alert!) Hasegawa died at the end of Enter the Ninja, Kosugi appears as an entirely different character in Revenge (this time the hero), making it more a thematic follow-up than a true sequel (the third film in the series, The Domination, likewise features Kosugi in yet a different role, but that one is so bonkers it deserves to be treated separately).
Revenge of the Ninja opens with the slaughter of Cho Osaki’s (Kosugi) family in Japan by a band of ninjas; besides himself, only his mother and infant son survive (we again see Kosugi catching arrows in mid-air, one of his specialties). Cho’s American friend Braden (Arthur Roberts) insists that Japan is no longer safe, that Cho will never escape the ninja clan warfare that has soaked their land in blood for generations; Braden has the idea of opening an art gallery in America, and it could be just the opportunity Cho needs to start a new life and raise his son in safety.
Six years later, Cho runs a martial arts studio in America (with Salt Lake City standing in for Los Angeles), but he has personally forsaken the ways of ninjutsu: his sword is sealed, never to be drawn from its scabbard. His son Kane (played by Kosugi’s real-life son, also named Kane) studies karate with him (as demonstrated in a cheesy scene where he beats up some bullies–actually, most of Kane’s scenes are cheesy). One of his other students, Cathy (Ashley Ferrare), helps him out setting up the art gallery. She’s a good friend, but clearly she would like to be more, as in her first scene she attempts to seduce Cho with a bottomless karate workout (“If you want to work out, you forgot your pants,” he tells her coolly).
Now we’re getting into spoiler territory, although it will surprise no one that Braden is not exactly who he seems: not only is the art gallery a front for a drug smuggling operation (the imported Japanese dolls are full of heroin), Braden is also a ninja himself, having lived in Japan for twenty years and absorbed their teachings. Using the mind-clouding powers of the ninja (as well as conventional blackmail, presumably), Braden has Cathy secretly working for his smuggling operation in the gallery.
Things fall apart when Braden’s buyer, a cartoonish mob boss named Caifano (Mario Gallo), tries to stiff him and work out a deal with the Japanese behind Braden’s back. Braden dons his own ninja gear (including a demonic silver face mask) and goes to war with the mob. Braden is the flip side of Cole in Enter the Ninja: an American who learns the ways of the ninja to access their power, but without any concern for honor. Once Braden’s villainy is revealed to the audience, he revels in psychopathy, killing indiscriminately: the first time we see him in his ninja disguise, he kills a stranger in a public bathroom for no apparent reason at all. Soon, Braden’s killings of Caifano’s family members draw the attention of the police, including the police martial arts instructor, Dave (Keith Vitali), who recognizes the advanced bone-breaking techniques used on the victims and brings Cho into the investigation for advice (at this point, Cho has no idea that the killer is his own friend, Braden). Some of Revenge‘s most purely entertaining sequences involve Cho and Dave working together to find out information, mopping up a series of Village People-like gang members with their kung fu moves. Is it good police work? Not really, but it’s a lot of fun.
Once Cho learns the truth (and after Braden has killed his mother and abducted his son, as well as the now-repentant Cathy), he inevitably unseals his sword (it’s called Revenge, after all) and sets out for the final confrontation. This is at the same time that Braden is making his final move against Caifano, and it all comes down to an exciting infiltration and battle sequence set in Caifano’s high-rise office tower. The two ninjas face off on the roof in an exciting (and sometimes baffling) duel to the death. Some of the more memorable moments include Braden tricking Cho with a life-size dummy of himself (face mask and all) and using a robotic hand to grab Cho’s ankle from beneath the surface of a rooftop hot tub. Ninjutsu includes techniques of deception and disorientation, of course, but this flight of fancy shows the ninja treated as a kind of mastermind, with every contingency prepared for and a near-infinite capacity for escape (shades of the Fu Manchu master criminal archetype I’ve discussed before). As mentioned, however, realism is obviously not the goal, and this and other sequences are exciting and suspenseful (as great as Cho/Kosugi is, Braden frequently has the drop on him; it’s not an easy fight).
Director Stan Firstenberg had never made an action movie before this, and he has stated that Kosugi (as both star and stunt coordinator) advised him on making the action look good: the camera is much more fluid and the editing more rhythmic than in the relatively staid Enter the Ninja. It delivers the kind of thrills and surprises one hopes for, even as it strains suspension of disbelief. Revenge of the Ninja was the first film Cannon released through a distribution deal with MGM, so its exposure was even bigger than that of Enter the Ninja, and with another hit (and a full-fledged fad) on its hands, a sequel was inevitable. Firstenberg would be kept on to direct Ninja III: The Domination, but I’ll save that for another time.