While Enter The Ninja (1981) is by no means the first appearance of the ninja in western cinema, it’s arguably the most impactful one and commonly referred to as “The Grandaddy Ninja” (which, I’m sure, isn’t just a reference to Franco Nero’s advancing age at the time of filming).
Some of its success is down to the timing. Ninja, the Eric van Lustbader novel, had recently been published to enormous success and there was public appetite for the mystical power of ninjutsu, especially – it seemed – when wielded by a white guy. With Fox snapping up the rights to Lustbader’s lyrical potboiler (which, ironically, got shelved and still hasn’t been made to this day), Cannon decided to shoot their own cheaper, scrappier version from a script called Dance Of Death by stuntman/martial artist Mike Stone.
Despite these tawdry beginnings, something special grew. Their grandiosely retitled Enter The Ninja dropkickstarted a genre that would dominate 1980s action cinema. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember one thing most vividly: the credits sequence, an unforgettable Shaw-Bros-Meets-James-Bond spectacle that plays like a wordless religious mantra and is jaw-dropping even now. I can’t even imagine what it must’ve been like to see it in cinemas back then. It was the first time audiences got to see Sho Kosugi onscreen, posed against a plain black background, dressed in the deadly black ninja suit, performing an array of incomprehensible weapons tricks. The credits – in a stark white oriental font – flash next to him as he stares out from under the hood with eyes of trademark rage. Exotic percussion thunders across the soundtrack. It’s immense and dangerous and beautiful. To make it even better, there’s a twist at the end! Just when you’re dizzy and awestruck, thinking “this is the most badass dude I have ever seen in my life” another ninja dressed in white appears out of nowhere and jump-kicks the black ninja off into the darkness. It’s a bravura volte-face that takes the breath away. Even if the film ended there, I’m sure audiences would’ve come out satisfied.
If you’ve not seen it, I can’t stress enough that you should take two minutes to watch it right here.
A post-credits sequence in which our hero Cole (Franco Nero) graduates ninja school sustains the momentum and introduces what would become one of the defining tropes of the genre. Multi-coloured ninja suits. For reasons unknown (and I can’t find anything explaining the decision, much as I’ve looked, so please leave a comment if you know!), Nero wears a white ninja suit (is it because he is white?) whereas all the other ninjas he fights against wear red suits… Oh, except Sho Kosugi who, as another student, wears black. I can only assume – as I did as a child – that it’s because he’s more badass than the others. Either way, all three of these suit choices are impractical considering they’re fighting in a forest in broad daylight. But it doesn’t matter. Whether these ninjas are elegantly working their way through the Kuji-kiri (nine levels of power) or larking through the forest like a mobile slumber party, the important thing is that they look cool… and, boy, do they ever. The coloured ninja suit craze would reach its illogical extreme later in the decade with Godfrey Ho introducing proto-Power-Ranger pink and yellow threads but here it’s just the right ratio of awesome:impractical to work.
Unfortunately, the pace drops once Cole leaves the dojo. He flies to the Philippines to go visit his old war buddy Frank (Alex Courtney) and Frank’s having some trouble. This is where the film’s roots start showing. Despite its innovative aesthetic, Enter The Ninja has one foot firmly in the past. It’s basically a Western (and the precense of Django himself as the hero doesn’t help dispel this feeling). Frank is being bullied by local landgrabbers (including a hook-handed meanie named, uh, The Hook) who want to buy his plantation for a bargain price and this has driven him to despair. He no longer has a purpose in life, is drunk all the time and can’t even get it up for his wife Mary-Ann (Susan George), as he tells Cole in a cringey male bonding scene.
Cole, being a ninja, decides to help out so kicks and punches his way up the heavies ladder until he reaches ultimate bad guy Venarius, who’s an absolute riot. Christopher George plays the role like a Batman villain with a wasp up him; camp, manic, full of shrieking ultra-aggression. The scenes of Venarius talking with his cockney assistant Parker (Constantine Gregory) are hilarious and inventive, keeping things moving even while the feeble plot lags and lags. He’s a natty decorator too. Venarius’s “living mobile” of synchronised swimmers is easily one the most desirable Villain’s Lair accessories of the early 80s.
Eventually, with his goon squad picked clean, Venarius learns the first rule of Ninja Club (“only a ninja can stop another ninja”), calls in Sho Kosugi and, at long last, mayhem ensues. With Kosugi unleashed in the final reel, Enter The Ninja comes into its own; a flood of gory ultraviolence, intricate custom-made weaponry, superhuman choreography and natty costumes. Apparently, it was only during the filming that the producers realised what a winner they were onto with Sho (originally hired as a stunt double) and they increased his role accordingly. One can only imagine what a damp squib the film – Hell, the entire 1980s – would’ve been otherwise.
The climactic fight, in which the drama is as high as the kicks, makes it worth the wait but overall Enter The Ninja’s a flawed effort; a brave dip of the slipper into the pool but a long way to go to the deep end. While it deserves respect for its trailblazing originality and vision, its ties to the past make it feel like there are some creaky-ass bones beneath the shiny new skin. The final shot (Franco Nero winking cheekily at the camera only minutes after wreaking some dark bloody vengeance) is a clanging reminder that they still hadn’t figured out the tone but, of course, none of this mattered to me – or thousands of others – as a kid. This was the one that launched a thousand fantasies of being Sho Kosugi (I know he’s the bad guy but, really, did any kid watching this want to be Franco Nero?), the one that made me long for a pair of nunchaku and some hooded black pyjamas. It may not be the first or best ninja film, nor even my personal best or first ninja film, but without Enter The Ninja, it’s almost certain that this blog wouldn’t exist. So here’s to it… and you’ve got another 2 minutes free to watch that title sequence again, right? I know I have and always will do.