Monday, June 24, 2013

The Cannon Files: NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984)

(US - 1984)

Directed by Sam Firstenberg.  Written by James R. Silke.  Cast: Sho Kosugi, Lucinda Dickey, Jordan Bennett, David Chung, James Hong, Dale Ishimoto, Roy Padilla, John LaMotta, Bob Craig, Ron Foster, Steve Lambert. (R, 93 mins)

The mainstreaming of the "ninja" subgenre ranks pretty high on the list of Cannon's 1980s accomplishments.  NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, recently released in a superb Blu-ray edition by Shout! Factory, was the final entry in a loosely-connected trilogy that introduced Japanese martial artist Sho Kosugi to American action movie audiences.  Kosugi had inconsequential bit parts in films ranging from THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN to BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE (both 1978), but when Cannon chief Menahem Golan cast him as the lethal "black ninja" in his 1981 film ENTER THE NINJA, he finally achieved success with martial arts audiences.  Kosugi was promoted to hero for the 1983 sequel REVENGE OF THE NINJA, and both films proved successful enough to warrant Kosugi's return in NINJA III: THE DOMINATION.  REVENGE wasn't really a direct sequel to ENTER, but NINJA III goes completely off the rails, fusing the ninja and horror genres for a wild tale of a young woman possessed by the spirit of an evil "black ninja."

The aforementioned evil "black ninja" (David Chung) goes on a killing spree at a Phoenix golf course and is gunned down by what seems like the entire police force.  He still manages to somehow survive and encounters sexy powerline technician Christie (Lucinda Dickey) and promptly transfers his spirit into her body before dying.  With the Black Ninja's sword in tow, Christie, who also works as an aerobics instructor because it's a movie made in 1984, seeks his revenge on the cops who killed him, except Billy Secord (Jordan Bennett), the incredibly hirsute one that she's dating.  Meanwhile, one-eyed master ninja Yamada (Kosugi) arrives from Japan in pursuit of the Black Ninja (because only a ninja can stop a ninja!) and gets drawn into the EXORCIST-inspired evil as the possessed Christie offs the cops involved one by one.

NINJA III's Italian distributor was
clearly given some incorrect information.
NINJA III: THE DOMINATION is a ridiculous film where the melding of ninja and demonic possession ideas never really seem to gel.  But that's part of the appeal, especially late in the film when Yamada takes on the reanimated corpse of the Black Ninja.  The possession scenes are a riot, especially when Secord takes Christie to see a ninja exorcist (the great James Hong) who, according to Secord, "all the guys in the Asiatic division swear by."  Another great bit of ludicrous dialogue has Christie visiting a doctor and getting the worst diagnosis ever with "There's nothing out of the ordinary, aside from your exceptional extra-sensory perception and your preoccupation with Japanese culture."  On the commentary track, director Sam Firstenberg says that he and writer James R. Silke (both responsible for REVENGE OF THE NINJA, which is even more entertaining and worthy of a lovingly presented Blu-ray edition) were heavily influenced by the success of POLTERGEIST, and while there's a few shots where that may be the case, it seems like there's more of THE EXORCIST and even FLASHDANCE going on, especially with Christie living in a large warehouse converted into the kind of apartment that only exists in 1980s movies:  there's an arcade game, neon signs, a bed with steel rods as a makeshift headboard, and a pay phone.  There's also no shortage of aerobics sequences, big hair, boomboxes, and leg warmers.

Sam Firstenberg on the set of
Born in Poland in 1950 and raised in Jerusalem, Firstenberg began his career as an assistant to Golan in the pre-Cannon days, handling second unit duties on Golan-directed films like DIAMONDS (1975) and OPERATION THUNDERBOLT (1977).  He followed Golan and Yoram Globus to Hollywood, where they financed his indie drama ONE MORE CHANCE (1983) starring a young Kirstie Alley.  Firstenberg quickly became the company's go-to ninja director after the success of REVENGE OF THE NINJA.  Following NINJA III, Firstenberg was handed the odd assignment of helming 1984's immortal BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, then directed one of Cannon's biggest hits with 1985's AMERICAN NINJA, followed by the great AVENGING FORCE (1986) and AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION (1987).  Firstenberg stuck around until Cannon's early '90s demise with less successful efforts like 1991's DELTA FORCE 3: THE KILLING GAME and 1992's AMERICAN SAMURAI, but also freelanced on low-budget action films for other producers (the 1990 Steve James vehicle RIVERBEND) before cranking out straight-to-video quickies like 1993's CYBORG COP, 1994's CYBORG COP II, and 1997's OPERATION DELTA FORCE for Avi Lerner in the early days of Cannon cover band NuImage.  Now 63, Firstenberg hasn't directed a film in ten years but seems genuinely flattered by the cult status of his 1980s Cannon films, and is an engaging, likable presence on the commentary track.  He also contributed a generous amount of publicity and behind-the scenes photos that are included with the Blu-ray's bonus features.

Dickey was a dancer who appeared on the 1982-83 season of SOLID GOLD and in 1982's GREASE 2 before getting the lead role in NINJA III.  Golan & Globus liked her so much that they cast as her as Special K in BREAKIN', which was rushed into production after NINJA III was shot but released first.  Dickey returned for BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, co-starred in the 1988 slasher film CHEERLEADER CAMP, and appeared in a 1990 PERRY MASON TV-movie, retiring from acting that same year after marrying reality-TV producer Craig Piligian, whose many credits include SURVIVOR, GHOST HUNTERS, AMERICAN CHOPPER, SWAMP LOGGERS, and ONLY IN AMERICA WITH LARRY THE CABLE GUY.

NINJA III was Kosugi's last film for Cannon. Opening in US theaters on September 14, 1984 (the same day as the studio's EXTERMINATOR 2), it wasn't as successful as ENTER or REVENGE, and though it's amassed a sizable cult following over the decades, perhaps audiences found it a bit too outlandish.  Cannon moved on to Michael Dudikoff and the Reagan-era, post-RAMBO flag-waving of AMERICAN NINJA and Kosugi went on to co-star as the antagonist Okasa in Lee Van Cleef's short-lived 1984 NBC ninja series THE MASTER before starring in several ninja movies with his young sons Kane and Shane.  Dad and sons appeared in such video store and cable favorites as 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA and PRAY FOR DEATH (both 1985), and 1988's BLACK EAGLE (where Kosugi took on a villainous Jean Claude Van Damme, fresh off of his BLOODSPORT breakthrough).  Kosugi also starred in 1987's RAGE OF HONOR, had a rare dramatic supporting role in 1988's ALOHA SUMMER and also appeared in the awesome 1989 Rutger Hauer-as-a-blind-swordsman cult film BLIND FURY.  Working with PRAY FOR DEATH and RAGE OF HONOR director Gordon Hessler, Kosugi wrote and produced the $10 million 1992 shogun period piece JOURNEY OF HONOR, co-starring Christopher Lee, John Rhys-Davies, and Toshiro Mifune.  Kosugi's ambitious pet project flopped worldwide and went straight-to-video in the US.  He concentrated on anime voice work after that and left the business by the late 1990s.  He was coaxed out of retirement by the Wachowskis (THE MATRIX), co-starring as the villain in the big-budget 2009 ninja throwback actioner NINJA ASSASSIN.  The film was a critical and commercial disappointment (despite a great opening sequence) and failed to reignite a new ninja craze, but Kosugi's welcome presence gave the cartoonishly CGI-heavy film some much-needed credibility and he's easily the best thing about it.  Now 65, Kosugi appears to have quietly drifted back into a low-profile retirement.  Is there some reason he hasn't been talked into doing THE EXPENDABLES 3?

Cannon's love affair with all things ninja reached its commercial apex with AMERICAN NINJA, but the genre, like Cannon itself, began its decline in the years shortly after.  Ninjas and ninja movies are still regular pop culture fixtures worldwide, but--at least in the US--never as popular as they were in the glorious ninja days of 1980s B-movies.  NINJA III: THE DOMINATION may not be the best of Cannon's ninja movies, but it's certainly the weirdest.  But the fine folks at Shout! Factory sure seem to love it: the Blu-ray looks fantastic, and even the mere fact that this movie is on Blu-ray is cause for celebration.

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