I thought I’d start this blog with a look at a fan favourite, Ninja III : The Domination (1984).
After the success of Enter The Ninja (1980) and Revenge Of The Ninja (1983), producer Menahem Golan was riding high on the ninja wave. He’d hit on a winning formula of east-meets-west ninjology and knew exactly how to deliver the kind of brutal thrills the audience wanted. Key to these films’ success was star Sho Kosugi; a Japanese martial artist whose mysterious screen presence and insane physical prowess was ninjutsu personified. While Kosugi had played second lead to Franco Nero in the original, Revenge was entirely his picture and was all the better (and even more financially successful) for it. Weirdly, despite his top billing, Kosugi barely appears in the third instalment of Golan’s trilogy.
In a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Kosugi claimed the reason for this was that he and Golan fell out over the film. Kosugi was unhappy with the concept: “I tell you the truth. This was Menahem Golan. I said it doesn’t work but he was believing in ninja mystery, plus breakdancing and also trying to make psychic concept.” Um. Got that? Well, I hate it to say it but this is actually a pretty accurate summation of everything that’s both good and bad about Ninja III, a movie that – if nothing else – will go down in martial arts history as one of its weirdest efforts.
It begins with a pretty spectacular budget-spunker of an opening. An evil ninja on a typically vague ninja mission kills a scientist on a golf course, gets chased by police, kills a bunch of them too, crashes their helicopter with his bare hands and finally gets gunned down for his trouble. Before he dies, he throws a smoke bomb and disappears, re-emerging in the nearby undergrowth where telephone engineer and aerobics instructor Chris (Lucinda Dickey) finds him and tries to help. Unfortunately, he’s a magical ninja and, as his body dies, his spirit possesses her!
Chris, under the evil ninja’s command, wreaks vengeance on the cops who shot him while her goober boyfriend (Jordan Bennett) tries to save her immortal soul. Of course, the first rule of Ninja Club is that only a ninja can kill another ninja so it’s not long before Sho Kosugi flies in from Japan – on some spurious blood vengeance against the evil ninja that’s never really explained – ready to do the job.
The rest of the film is a mash-up of ideas as seemingly incongruous as Chris’s dual professions, taking more influence from Poltergeist and The Exorcist than it does from straight martial arts flicks. The results are variable but always unique. There’s a famous scene where the ninja is trying to gain control of Chris’s mind using more wind machines, smoke machines and neon lights than your average goth band. She struggles against it and eventually tries to assert her own personality by doing what she loves best… dancing (Let’s not forget that Lucinda Dickey and director Sam Firstenberg had recently collaborated on Breakin’ 2 : Electric Boogaloo)! Her apartment is so painfully 80s it has a prototype arcade machine and a Patrick Nagel painting in it so you can probably guess what her dancing’s like…
This isn’t all though. There’s a baffling exorcism sequence with James Hong as an old Shinto priest trying to expel the demon as Chris’s eyes turn red, her face goes grey and she spews some kind of mystical dust in his face, while candles explode and the room shakes. Even the love scene in Ninja III is bonkers, as Chris straddles her man, then cracks open a can of V8 tomato juice and dribbles it down her neck, getting him to lick it off. I was delighted to find, in the director’s commentary on the Shout Factory Blu-Ray, Sam Firstenberg finally explains this. Well, sort of… He shouts excitedly “Look at this! This was my idea! This was my idea!” goes quiet for a few seconds as she pours the juice then says, “I do not know why. I just said ‘why not pour the juice on you and let him lick it?'”
The trouble with Ninja III is, while there’s plenty of this oddness to marvel/laugh at, it’s really not much of a ninja film. In fairness, when I was little kid and in my first phase of ninja adoration, this was probably my favourite VHS tape and looking back now as an adult, I can understand why. It’s certainly the most infantile of the big ninja films and nothing that’s truly grown-up ever touches it. The characters are stereotypical, the violence is either comical or fantasy-based, there’s no nudity and the plot follows a kind of earnestly bampot logic that can really only be accepted by a child mind.
It’s interesting to speculate whether the video age was partially to blame for this, with younger audiences beginning to drive tastes more than ever. I know I never could’ve got into the cinema to see something like Enter The Ninja but, like most other kids of my era, could easily badger their parents into renting the tape for me. Or maybe adult tastes in general were just becoming more juvenile? Either way, the 80s were arguably the birthplace of the “four quadrant” movie and the Cannon ninja trilogy I think is an interesting representation of this emerging trend. There’s certainly a wide gap between what audiences were being asked to accept in Enter The Ninja (a white guy who could do martial arts) versus Ninja III’s flying zombie ninjas who can turn themselves into human drills and dig through rock…
As Sho Kosugi suggests with his quote from earlier, the attempt to cram in multiple fads that were popular at the time to please everyone ultimately pleased no one. Ninja III flopped – opening with a box office less than half its predecessor – and, to make it worse, Cannon blamed the flop on the fact that audiences couldn’t accept a woman as a ninja. Of all the things that were wrong with Ninja III, this really wasn’t one of them! While Kosugi is tragically underused here (he doesn’t even don the trademarked ninja hood for the final fight!) that doesn’t mean Lucinda Dickey can’t carry an action film. She looks the part to a tee and invests completely in the role, giving a spirited performance in light of some ridiculous material. Sadly, she’s let down by the messiness of an idea that has “disaster” written all over it from the start.
Ninja III is a testament to how – as is so often the case – doing something simply and well is better than complicating things and ballsing it up. As Godfrey Ho proved throughout his 100+ ninja film career, sometimes all audiences want to see are people in ninja suits duffing each other up on loop forever, and while Ninja III may provide some fun via bouncy aerobics, laser-light VFX, erotic tomato juice and supernatural hijinks (not to mention a killer synthesiser soundtrack), there’s a distinct lack of actual ninjing. Even the fights here are disappointing, with Kosugi sleepwalking his way through the choreography and, beyond the overblown but admittedly impressive helicopter antics at the start, not a single stunt that makes you go “Yow!”
NEEDS MORE NINJING.