Monday, June 22, 2015

The Cannon Files: ENTER THE NINJA (1981) and REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983)

(US - 1981)

Directed by Menahem Golan. Written by Dick Desmond. Cast: Franco Nero, Susan George, Sho Kosugi, Christopher George, Alex Courtney, Will Hare, Zachi Noy, Constantin de Goguel, Dale Ishimoto, Ken Metcalfe, Joonee Gamboa, Leo Martinez, Jim Gaines, Michael Dudikoff. (R, 100 mins)

The mainstreaming of the ninja in American movies is something that must rank high on Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus' list of accomplishments as the heads of Cannon. Ninjas appeared in American films prior to Cannon's interest in them, most notably 1980's THE OCTAGON, a minor drive-in hit for Chuck Norris, but with the release of 1981's ENTER THE NINJA, ninjas became a ubiquitous pop culture fixture throughout the decade, and proved a very lucrative genre on video and cable. In 1981, the Golan-Globus incarnation of Cannon was still finding its footing and it would be another couple of years before they started to hit their stride as the "contract signed on a cocktail napkin" madmen that cult movie fans find so endearing today. ENTER THE NINJA became a surprise hit when it arrived in theaters in October 1981 but in retrospect, it feels more Roger Corman or Cirio H. Santiago in execution than it does Golan-Globus. This is mostly because it was shot in Manila and uses some familiar locations seen in Filipino action films, not to mention a supporting role for American expat and Santiago regular Ken Metcalfe, who also worked as the film's location manager. While it certainly has higher production values than a Santiago joint, it also appears to be completely looped in post-production, with Italian star Franco Nero's thick accent distractingly dubbed over by what sounds like an American voice actor whose specialty is the narration of workplace instructional videos. Even for viewers who might be unfamiliar with Nero, the dubbing is obvious, as the voice doesn't fit the veteran actor at all. The decision to dub him has remained the primary complaint that fans have about ENTER THE NINJA, and as the actor has become a beloved cult movie icon over the decades, it seems even more egregiously boneheaded now. Nero, 40 when ENTER THE NINJA was made, wasn't an unknown actor--he'd experienced huge success at home starting with DJANGO and was in constant employment between Europe and Hollywood since the mid-1960s--and by this point in his career, headlining a hit movie and having his voice replaced was insulting, to put it mildly.

Nero is Cole, an American ex-mercenary (why couldn't he just be a European mercenary and keep his voice?) traveling the world following a stint serving in the South African Border War. A loner fascinated with Asian culture, Cole has been in Japan studying the art of ninjitsu under Master Komori (Dale Ishomoto). Komori's acceptance of Cole as a ninja angers Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), a stubborn traditionalist with shogun lineage who doesn't approve of letting outsiders learn their ways. Cole makes his way to Manila to visit his old war buddy Frank Landers (Alex Courtney), now a hopeless, irresponsible drunk whose wife Mary Ann (Susan George) oversees their farm in the outskirts of town. Frank and Mary Ann are routinely hassled and threatened by the flunkies of Charles Venarius (Christopher George), the megalomaniacal CEO of Venarius Enterprises, a corporation that has a serious interest in getting the Landers' land, as Frank and Mary Ann have no idea their farm is directly over a massive oil field. At this point, ENTER THE NINJA essentially becomes a modern-day western, with enigmatic outsider Cole stepping up to defend the Landers' and their workers against the strongarm tactics of the venal Venarius, who even resorts to hiring the embittered Hasegawa to come to Manila and kill Cole.

ENTER THE NINJA was one of the few Cannon releases actually directed by Golan himself. He does a serviceable job behind the camera, though he wisely didn't do it any more often than was necessary (other Cannon titles helmed by Golan include 1980's THE APPLE, 1986's THE DELTA FORCE, and 1987's OVER THE TOP). The film has some decent action scenes, coordinated by martial arts expert Mike Stone, who also gets a story credit (the script is credited to Dick Desmond, which is either a pseudonym or a one-and-done screenwriter, as this the only credit on his IMDb page). Things really come alive in the ENTER THE DRAGON-inspired climax as "white ninja" Cole makes his way through a series of hired killers and warriors, eventually taking out Venarius with a ninja star (Christopher George's performance is ludicrously over-the-top throughout, but the contemplative acceptance he demonstrates in his death scene is the stuff of legend) before his final showdown with Hasegawa, "the black ninja." The biggest problem throughout ENTER THE NINJA is that Golan takes an often too lighthearted tone that doesn't quite gel with the bloodshed on the screen. The score has a TV-show feel to it with a "wacky" cue that's repeated throughout, even when someone's getting their throat slit. There's also the buffoonish antics of the hapless "The Hook" (Zachi Noy), a portly, one-armed Venarius henchman with detachable forearm and hook hand. Cole gives him a beatdown at one point and tosses his hook hand back to him, all accompanied by a "sad trombone" sound effect. "The Hook" turns up again at the end, running away in fright at the sight of Cole, as Nero breaks the fourth wall, turns to the camera and winks. Going lighthearted is one thing, but Golan can't draw the line between lightening the mood and diving into full-on slapstick. It's not a dealbreaker, but indulging that sort-of comedy would be a mistake that Sam Firstenberg wouldn't make in the 1983 semi-sequel REVENGE OF THE NINJA. Indeed, REVENGE OF THE NINJA is hilarious for much different reasons.

(US - 1983)

Directed by Sam Firstenberg. Written by James R. Silke. Cast: Sho Kosugi, Keith Vitali, Virgil Frye, Arthur Roberts, Mario Gallo, Ashley Ferrare, Kane Kosugi, Grace Oshita, John LaMotta, Professor Toru Tanaka, Oscar Rowland, Steven Lambert. (R, 90 mins)

Sho Kosugi made such an impression as Hasegawa, the evil "black ninja" in ENTER THE NINJA that he was promoted to star and hero for the sequel-of-sorts, REVENGE OF THE NINJA. The second of a trilogy of films that aren't really direct sequels and can be enjoyed without having seen the others (though why would you deprive yourself of that?), REVENGE OF THE NINJA definitely exhibits more of a vintage '80s Cannon vibe than its predecessor. You can see the Cannon formula coming together now that Golan & Globus were gaining momentum as Hollywood players. Directing duties were assigned to Polish-born, Israeli-raised Sam Firstenberg, a former Golan assistant who attended film school in the US in the early 1970s. After graduating, Firstenberg moved back and forth between Hollywood and Tel Aviv, handling second-unit duties on a number of Israeli Golan productions in the '70s. Firstenberg would settle in America for good when he came to work for his old bosses once more after Golan & Globus set up shop in Hollywood. Though he was an efficient journeyman director who could handle any job he was assigned, including 1984's BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, Golan quickly realized with REVENGE OF THE NINJA that Firstenberg was a natural with action movies. Soon, Firstenberg became Cannon's go-to guy for ninja mayhem, directing 1984's NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, 1985's AMERICAN NINJA, and 1987's AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION. On Kino's new Blu-ray edition of REVENGE OF THE NINJA, the humble and immensely likable director is quick to thank the stunt coordinators and the editors for their work in helping put together the action sequences and rightly so, but there's no denying that Cannon's ninja movies were operating on a different level once Golan unleashed Firstenberg on them.

All of Cannon's ninja films are entertaining to various degrees (think NINJA III: THE DOMINATION with its fusion of a FLASHDANCE-meets-THE EXORCIST story into its ninja plot), but they all take a backseat to REVENGE OF THE NINJA, easily the greatest ninja movie ever made. In a Japan-set prologue, most of ninja Cho Osaki's (Kosugi) family is killed in an attack by enemy ninja. After being persuaded by his American friend and business partner Braden (Arthur Roberts), Cho and the surviving members of his family--son Kane (played, in a real stretch, by Kosugi's son Kane) and his mother (Grace Oshita)--move to Los Angeles where Cho and Braden run a successful gallery that imports high end Japanese dolls. What Cho doesn't know is that Braden is using the gallery as a front to smuggle heroin into L.A. in a side deal with powerful mobster Chifano (Mario Gallo). In his spare time, Braden also dresses up as a silver-masked ninja, taking out members of Chifano's organization and starting a turf war in an attempt to control the heroin trade himself. Chifano unleashes his goons on the gallery, which sets Cho and martial-arts expert cop Dave Hatcher (Keith Vitali) into action against both the mob and the treacherous Braden, who not only tries to kill Kane when the child accidentally breaks a doll and discovers the heroin inside, but also emerges victorious in a battle with Cho's mother, despite Granny Ninja putting up a good fight. Eventually, all parties converge inside Chifano's office building for an orgy of shuriken-hurling ninja carnage, with a final battle between Cho and Braden that's one for the ages, complete with Braden's clown car of a duffel bag somehow containing a robotic decoy ninja arm and a complete dummy ninja in an attempt to fool Cho.

Shot mostly in the very L.A.-like Salt Lake City, REVENGE OF THE NINJA is one of the most sublimely ridiculous action movies ever made. I didn't even mention Braden's eye-glowing powers of hypnosis, as evidenced by his turning his sexy assistant Kathy (Ashley Ferrare) against Cho and Kane and tricking her into trying to kill the boy. Or Cho and Dave's battle with some hilariously-dressed troublemakers in a park and just nonchalantly leaving when it's over. Or a pink-sweatered Kane taking care of some bullies. Or Cho's stealthy ninja-star belt buckle. There's a throwdown between Cho and some Chifano strongarms that turns into an insane van chase, and the final 20 or so minutes inside the skyscraper ranks among the finest set pieces ever seen in a Cannon film, culminating in some SANJURO-level gushing splatter when Cho finally kills Braden. Several of the film's more violent moments were trimmed after the film was originally given an X rating by the MPAA, and that edited, R-rated version is what hit theaters and VHS back in the day. When the film appeared on cable in the mid '80s, it was the uncut, uncensored version, which was eventually released on DVD and remains intact on the new Blu-ray. REVENGE OF THE NINJA was an even bigger hit in theaters than its predecessor. Opening on the slow weekend of September 16, 1983, when the only other new movies in theaters were THE FINAL OPTION and STRANGE INVADERS, neither of which cracked the top ten, REVENGE landed in third place on just 432 screens, with a per screen average of nearly $5000. Small numbers by today's standards, but that weekend's top movie was MR. MOM in its ninth week, on 1300 screens with a $3000 per screen average. It stayed in the top five for two more weeks, and was in the top ten for a month. Though MGM handled the distribution, REVENGE OF THE NINJA was one of the most successful projects undertaken by Golan & Globus and was instrumental in getting the momentum going for Cannon over the next few years.

The Blu-ray features a commentary track with Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert, unfortunately moderated by one-man serial commentary wrecking crew Bill Olsen. Olsen indulges in his usual antics, demonstrating his continued inability to pronounce names correctly (he refers to screenwriter James R. Silke as "James Sikes"), snickering at names he finds funny (he's particularly delighted by one stuntman's name being "Dick Hancock," and giggles about it so much that a clearly unamused Lambert says "Well, his real name is Richard Hancock"), and focusing on things that don't really matter (Olsen seems unusually concerned with why veteran character actor Virgil Frye, as Dave's irate boss Lt. Dime, gets above-the-title billing with Kosugi and Vitali on the poster, and brings it up so many times that Firstenberg finally says "I had nothing to do with the contractual stuff on the poster"). Like many participants on Olsen-moderated commentaries, Firstenberg and Lambert sound audibly annoyed with him and do their best to shut him down, even if Lambert's main contributions are limited to pointing out when he's doubling either Kosugi or Roberts. Olsen's continued presence on these commentaries is baffling, especially when there's so many more knowledgeable film historians out there who won't derail a discussion by snickering like an eight-year-old because a guy has the words "dick" and "cock" in his name. It deserves a better commentary, but make no mistake, for any fan of Cannon and '80s action, REVENGE OF THE NINJA is an essential masterpiece. The insanity continued when Firstenberg, Silke, and Kosugi reunited for NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, with Kosugi as another ninja hero. For more on that classic, and Kosugi's post-Cannon career, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I don't know what dirt Olsen has on so many DVD producers to keep being put to work on commentaries, but come on, these are recorded in L.A. There are TONS of movie-loving people better qualified and less polarizing in town available to moderate these commentaries. I am betting that no one at either Shout! Factory or Kino is QC'ing the extras and listening to these commentaries, so have zero clue how irritating they can be. A strongly-worded letter to both companies may be in order...