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January 2016

The Ninja trilogy

casts: Franco Nero, Susan George, Sho Kosugi, Christopher George, and Lucinda Dickey

directors: Menahem Golan and Sam Firstenberg

282 minutes (18) 1981/ 3/ 4
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Eureka blu-rays region B

RATING: 7/10
review by Ian Shutter

The Ninja trilogy

As Masayuki Suzuki's comedic/ fantastical adventure Nin Nin (aka: Nin x Nin: Ninja Hattori-kun, 2004) reminded us, contemporary heroic-assassin movies are, basically, superhero cinema - just imperfectly adjusted to the current phases of Marvel and DC franchises, perhaps until the Iron Fist and/ or Shang-Chi movies emerge somewhere/ whenever from a comics continuum. Featuring Sho Kosugi, The Ninja trilogy begins with Menahem Golan's Enter The Ninja (1981). This once popular VHS rental stars Franco Nero and Susan George, and the movie appears to be inspired partly by Enter The Dragon (1973), and TV series Kung Fu (1972-5).

Veteran gaijin Cole (Franco Nero) graduates from Japanese combat school, and leaves to visit his old friend Landers, who has settled down in the Philippines. His stranger-in-town presence evokes western formulas with martial arts a novelty ingredient. The flashbacks, to our heroes' past as soldiering buddies in Angola and Congo, are a clear precedent of Rambo heroics in First Blood (1982). A typical high-campy antagonist is capitalist villain and Manila mogul, Venarius (Christopher George), the local kingpin of sleazy decadence whose parades of hired goons don't survive very long. Ultimately, the real henchman to watch out for is Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), Cole's former rival, who is recruited by Venarius for do-or-die problem-solving as a stealthy assassin.

It eventually becomes the violent cliché of a one-man army versus army of one. There's vengeance of merciless zen as whiplash kicks sound like sneezes, punches are played on a cardboard drum kit, and a local cockfighting arena is a well-chosen venue for the decisive showdown.

Sam Firstenberg's sequel Revenge Of The Ninja (1983) is not too dissimilar to be a jarring follow-up. Despite getting his head chopped off in Enter The Ninja, Kosugi is back in action playing an entirely different character - ex-pat Cho, living in the USA - whose able sprog Kane is a little schoolboy who takes care of big bullies, predating the Karate Kid series. Cho imports Japanese dolls for a new art gallery, but remains quite unaware at first that his corrupt business-partner is smuggling heroin. Whenever plot continuity or development misfires, or lapses into hokey dialogue, the director throws in another dojo display of martial artistry.

Familiar crime story beats of robbery, car chase, and street fighting - featuring a Village People assortment undermining the supposed individuality of various stunt punks in gang rumbles. Cho's relentless pursuit of thieves is a minor classic sequence of low-budget 1980s action cinema. However, some unintentional farce results from the ninja-granny murder and most of the death scenes have a melodramatic flourish. A rooftop tennis court's chicken-wire cage-fight is only the starting point for the duel of good against evil ninjas.

Notable cult flick Ninja III: The Domination (1984) delves deep into occult weirdness and the supernatural than previous movies. Lucinda Dickey plays Christie, a telephone engineer working on overhead lines, and her hobbies include cheesy stuff like pastel leotards and leggings for gratuitous aerobics - so her character is obviously composed of welder Alex (Jennifer Beals), from Flashdance, and Regan (Linda Blair), from The Exorcist. Christie's romance with a policeman soon gives way to the curse of possession from a haunted samurai sword. There are smoke effects and strobe-lights that verge on a psychedelic laser show as the archetypal American nice girl turns into a remorseless psycho-killer.

James Hong is good fun as the Chinese magician trying to help our distraught heroine who only wants to have fun dancing in her bedroom despite the intrusions of seemingly demonic forces attached to ninja weaponry. The eye-patched hero Yamada (Kosugi, of course) tackles the spooky ninja ghost fiend in a climactic fest of mystic fu. Recently, bloodthirsty shocker Ninja Assassin (2009) updated this movie's horror-show antics with Kosugi in the supporting cast.

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