Of the “big three” ninja films – the Cannon canon – Revenge Of The Ninja (1983) is the one that shines brightest. Applying a Three Bears logic, Enter The Ninja, while visionary, is creaky and old-fashioned (too cold); Ninja III serves nutty 80s pop culture in neon bucketloads but loses sight of the martial arts core (too hot); Revenge Of The Ninja, however, is the perfect bowl of ninja porridge.
Part of this stems from the decision to reboot the franchise and make Sho Kosugi (as a totally new character) the star this time. The entire movie was written around him to the point where his six year old son Kane Kosugi co-stars and even his character name – Cho Osaki – is a mangled version of his own name. It’s the Sho Show! The cultural significance of this is interesting too. Revenge Of The Ninja was the first time an Asian actor had ever been the lead in an American film. Even Bruce Lee had to share top billing with John Saxon in Enter The Dragon, a fact that seems almost absurd in hindsight (where are all those teenage bedrooms adorned with John Saxon posters now?).
The opening scenes in Revenge Of The Ninja set the pace for the whole film. We see poor old Cho Osaki’s family slaughtered by evil ninjas in a shocking cascade of violence. These scenes were heavily censored for the VHS release but are restored in gory glory for the DVD. Most extreme is probably the little kid who gets a throwing star to the face but all of it’s proper brutal and lets you know, right off the bokken, what you’re in for. When Cho returns mid-massacre, he obviously kicks the ass of every ninja in sight, escalating the violence even further. It’s a full ten minutes before it stops and Cho takes stock, realising that everyone he loves is dead apart from his infant son (hidden in the bushes) and his elderly mother.
His American friend Braden (Arthur Roberts) suggests that Cho should call an end to the bloodshed, renounce the way of the ninja and move to America where it’s safer. He can’t argue so we flash forward six years to where Cho and family are full-fledged yankees and he’s opening an art gallery to show off his collection of Japanese dolls (yes, the badass ninja hero has a doll collection – I told you this movie was awesome!). All sounds idyllic but unfortunately it’s a trap. The dolls have been tampered with. They’re full of heroin! A rogue ninja is shipping drugs out of Japan and Cho gets caught in the gangland crossfire.
So the plot’s simple. It’s just ever-increasing pressure on Cho to return to Ninjitsu, unsheathe his sword and get the bad guys. They steal his dolls, they kill his mother, they kidnap his son, the pressure cooker explodes and unparalleled ninja violence is released.
Revenge Of The Ninja is a very visual movie. It delivers wall-to-wall colourful, visceral thrills and barely stops for long enough to let you think about the whys and wherefores. The ninja bang-for-your-buck is at such an all-time high, it’s not worth asking questions.
To give you some examples… You get an evil ninja who’s so evil he not only wears black but also puts on a silver demon mask under his hood so you know he mean the devil’s business:
You get a deadly old lady battling a ninja with swords. You get a fight between Kosugi and runway model Ashley Ferrare, during which she doesn’t even wear pants (“You forgot your pants,” deadpans Sho before they fight – “Do you really think I forgot?” she replies, igniting the hearts of teenage boys everywhere). You get Kosugi beating up thugs who look like The Village People gone to seed in a scene that showcases his rarely-seen comedic martial arts skills.
In the scene where Cho’s dolls are stolen, he pursues the bad guys in an extended Man Vs Van scene that will have you wincing at the Kamikaze nature of the stunts. The action choreography as tight as it is original. What’s particularly impressive is that throughout this entire gruelling scene, Cho wears a beige cardigan. This guy makes beige cardigans look badass and if that isn’t ninja magic, I don’t know what is.
The heart and soul of the movie is Kosugi. He often says he’s not a good actor and while there’s an element of truth to this when he delivers more subtle dialogue, I’d argue that few can do PAIN as well as he can. His range goes from “pain” to “extreme pain” to “inconceivable pain” and since most of this movie involves him getting increasingly upset then doing some gutbusting Ninjutsu, he’s the perfect actor for the job. The chemistry between him and his six-year-old son Kane is beautiful too. You can tell that both are delighted that the other one’s there and Kane’s martial arts skills, even at six, are epic. How many other movies can you name where a little kid viciously beats up grown adults? There’s a joy to these scenes that utterly trashes the first rule of action cinema (never put a kid in your movie).
The final showdown also introduces perhaps my favourite trope of all – the ninja rooftop fight. Revenge Of The Ninja’s iconic poster design established a rule that city skylines were an integral part of ninja artwork and this finalé showed why. In it, we see two stone cold badasses fighting each other above the gorgeous vista of Salt Lake City, a breathtaking sequence of skybound Ninjutsu that culminates in a splattery sayonara worthy of Shogun Assassin. If you watch this slice of sheer magnificence and you’re still not moved then these movies just aren’t for you.
With more blood, crazier stunts and an unprecedented sense of style, Revenge Of The Ninja raised the bar for everything and remains, even now, one of the truly great ninja films. Although Enter The Ninja came first, this is the one that set up the rules of modern ninja cinema and little has matched its energy, charisma and brutality since.