As Ninja Assassin (directed by James McTeigue) begins, a swaggering yakuza boss receives a sealed letter containing nothing but black sand. An old tattoo artist recognizes this as the warning of approaching death by ninja; the yakuza and his cronies all laugh, of course, until they are graphically cut down by an assailant whose approach they can neither see nor hear. Thus we are introduced to the fantastic, violent world of the ninja. Back in his apartment, the mysterious Raizo (Korean pop star Rain) prepares for his next mission, broodingly recalling in flashback his childhood training with the Ozunu ninja clan. Sho Kosugi, star of the Cannon Ninja trilogy, has played good ninjas and bad ninjas in his long career, and here he plays one who is downright evil: as leader of the Ozunu, he oversees the kidnapping of orphans to fill the next generation of ninjas, and he controls their existence like a cult leader, bonding them into a family with himself as surrogate father. Weakness is not tolerated, and all of the Ozunu trainees bear the scars of punishment. As we learn more about Raizo and the forbidden love for a fellow student that drove him to break with the Ozunu clan, we realize that he is actually the hero of the story.
Parallel with these developments, Mika (Naomie Harris), a
forensic researcher for Interpol–sorry, “Europol”–has put together
clues suggesting that the yakuza boss was just the latest victim of a shadowy
conspiracy, that the legendary ninja are still around and can still be hired
for the price of one hundred pounds of gold (or its market equivalent), just as
they were centuries ago. Since the victims of the ninja are not only crimelords
but CEOs and government officials, she finds herself in deep waters when she
convinces her boss (Ben Miles) to pay attention. A former KGB operative, whose
work she is building on, found himself expelled from his agency and then
eliminated by the ninjas when he got too close to the truth. This goes all the
way to the top! Inevitably, Mika and Raizo cross paths when she herself is
targeted by the ninjas because of her discovery.
Ninja Assassin has some big names behind it (it was produced by Joel Silver and the Wachowski siblings, and co-written by Babylon 5 creator and comic book writer J. Michael Straczynski), but I don’t remember hearing about it when it came out in 2009. Perhaps I was just busy, or not as focused on action movies, or maybe it got lost in the shuffle. In any case, there’s no mistaking it for a 1980s throwback like its contemporary Ninja: it’s every bit a product of the early twenty-first century. In addition to its kinetic, computer-aided “bullet time” approach to action (and as much spilled CGI blood as the entire Blade trilogy), the plot reveals the same affinity for government conspiracies and hidden history that have been with us since the 1990s, filtering the mystique of the ninja through the lens of John Grisham, Dan Brown, and the Mission: Impossible movies. I don’t think Mika’s side of the narrative is very compelling, but it is satisfying when she finally brings down the force of Europol on the Ozunu mountain stronghold for the final battle.
Ninja Assassin is quite gory, full of dismemberments and fountains of blood spewing from slashing wounds, comparable to the martial arts horror of Riki-Oh or other Hong Kong or “extreme Asia” imports. (A plot point concerns the ninja’s ability to heal himself through the power of the mind, so there are also close-ups of grisly wounds that would be fatal to mere mortals.) The visceral impact of all this bloodshed is tempered by being mostly CGI, however; the fight scenes, too, are marked by quick cutting and CGI compositing. As Raizo, Rain (who also appeared in the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer) looks the part, but based on this I really couldn’t tell you how much skill he actually has in hand-to-hand combat or with the whirling chain hook that is Raizo’s specialty. It’s easy to dismiss this as video game stuff, a frequently-heard criticism of action movies in the 2000s, but the comparison goes beyond the action itself to the hordes of faceless enemies Raizo mows down, the ease with which even armored soldiers are sliced in half, and the relative invulnerability of the important characters. During a scene when Ozunu digs his fingers into Raizo’s abdomen, I thought maybe he was going to rip his heart out like in Mortal Kombat. It doesn’t go quite that far–it’s a mystical manipulation of the enemy’s chi, causing intense pain, rather than something so graphic–but it’s still pretty gnarly.
On the other hand, while it sounds like I’m being critical, the heavy reliance on special effects brings to life the ninja’s ability to blend into shadows and move in seemingly impossible ways: an early fight scene in a dark room, illuminated only by Mika’s shaky flashlight beam, makes it appear as if the ninjas are appearing from nowhere, melting back into the shadows as the beam spotlights them. In other scenes, ninjas appear to crawl on walls like insects, their movements reduced to a blur seen out of the corner of the eye, and with the layering of whispered voices on the soundtrack, one gets the sense of how these stealthy assassins could terrorize their victims before striking. Finally, while it is true that all martial arts movies are choreographed and shot to make the action dramatic and theatrical to some degree, the subject of the ninja, with its superhuman, even supernatural, powers, lends itself to movie magic more than most. Once Raizo confronts Ozunu, we are treated to a more sophisticated version of the magical sleight-of-hand I observed in Ninja Destroyer: the two master ninjas disappear at will, reappearing behind their opponent, even casting false shadows as misdirection, before dueling to a very bloody death. Is this “the greatest ninja movie of all time,” as the DVD cover promises? Not really–one could argue it’s not even the greatest ninja movie of 2009–but it is certainly among the most gruesome.
“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.