Ninjas. Remember those guys? We all wanted to be them when we were kids. They were big in the ’80s. Every discount store you went into had some cheap plastic ninja toys that your mom would buy you because she had to use that money originally earmarked for your Atari 2600 to buy your little sister corrective orthopedic shoes. Almost every action movie heavy had a few ninjas – or even an army of them – at their disposal, and disposed they easily were in the final battle royale. For a few years during the rule of Ronald Reagan – yes, the actor – ninjas were even bigger than Jesus. Some of us even figured Christ himself could have been a ninja. He did some pretty ninja stuff in that Bible, you know. Ninjas ruled all. Film production companies from Hong Kong to Halifax were churning out their own ultra-violent chop socky epics at bargain prices for the waning grindhouses and drive-ins of the world and the thriving home video market.
Remember Cannon Films? The blowhard indie movie studio that specialized in cheapjack action flicks and endless movies about interchangeable dance crazes (thank heavens they didn’t survive long enough to make Macarena: The Motion Picture) really loved ninjas. In fact, they banked their entire financial longevity on ninja movies. If they had made the Harry Potter movies somehow ninjas would have been worked into the narrative. Infamous studio heads Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were the undisputed kings of low-rent cinematic trash that went better with pizza and brown ale than wine and pita crisps. Before Cannon’s theatrical output consisted mostly of flag-waving Chuck Norris adventures and inner city revenge yarns, the studio released movies with ninjas or at least the word “ninja” in the title once a year on average. They have even their very own ninja franchise, unsurprisingly titled American Ninja.
Ninja III: The Domination, released by Cannon in the early Fall of 1984, has to be one of the wildest ninja movies ever made, if not the top of the celluloid garbage heap. Before you ask, “Where the hell is Ninja I and II?”, allow me to explain: Ninja III is an unofficial follow-up to two previous Cannon releases – 1982’s Enter the Ninja, which featured Italian exploitation icon Franco “Original Django” Nero cutting up bad guys in a white shinobi and an epic death scene from slumming TV and B-movie great Christopher George that routinely ends up in video compilations of the worst movie scenes of all time, and 1984’s Revenge of the Ninja. The only link these three movies share is the presence of martial arts giant Sho Kosugi, a bonafide expert in the art of ninjitsu (among other forms of martial arts) that made him an indispensable element in many ninja movies and TV series made during the sub-genre’s brief but interesting heyday.
Kosugi played a villain in Enter, a hero in Revenge, and for Domination he’s back in a heroic role, albeit one that keeps him off screen for the first two acts. Kosugi was once anointed Bruce Lee’s natural successor by drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs and headlined several bloody action gems during the decade following his start in movies under the Cannon umbrella. For the short-lived early 80’s television series The Master (episodes of which were edited together into a pair of feature films for the international market and subsequently mocked gloriously on two classic episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000) he not only played the nemesis of star Lee Van Cleef, he also served as the aging Van Cleef’s stunt double. In several scenes Kosugi was basically fighting himself!
Sho doesn’t have his hands that full in Ninja III, but he does find himself in the middle of one of the goofiest plots ever seen in a Cannon Films production. If you have ever seen any single Cannon movie you’ll know that is not only really goofy, that means this plot sits somewhere near the summit of Mount “WTF?”. Before Kosugi even enters the story proper we’re treated to nearly an hour of random ninja mayhem.
It all starts when a man in a white suit (David Chung) walks into a cave in the Arizona desert and uncovers a secret cache of magical ninja weaponry. Once he dons the shinobi and the weapons, he becomes the invincible Black Ninja and sets out for the nearest golf course to wipe out a scientist, his entourage, some security guards, and then leads the local police on an epic chase that chews up several motorcycles, sends a cop car into a Blues Brothers-style crash, and brings down a helicopter. The ninja does all this himself and then flat out murders most of the police force while getting pumped full of hot lead. He manages to drop a Batman smoke bomb on the cops and sneak away to bleed to death in private, but not before possessing telephone linewoman and part-time aerobics instructor Christie Ryder (Lucinda Dickey) with his vengeful spirit and gives her his blood-stained sword.
That all happens in the first twelve minutes.
So now that she’s possessed by the spirit of the evil ninja, Christie finds herself donning the shinobi and going to the same cave as seen at the opening to retrieve the magical weapons so she can wipe out the trigger happy cops who blew the Black Ninja away. One of them just happens to be her current boyfriend Billy (Jordan Bennett). They fall into bed after spending five minutes getting to know one another and another nine hours having innocuous arguments. That’s love in the Cannon universe, folks.
Golan-Globus weren’t exactly known for hiring writers and directors with insight into the human condition to slave away in their B-movie factory. Sam Firstenberg, the Polish-Israeli-American director who earlier made Revenge of the Ninja and would helm countless other Cannon epics including the first two American Ninja movies, directs Ninja III like he could care less about important elements in making an enduring classic film, like subtlety and continuity. He’s the perfect guy to make a movie that is less a polished narrative and more of a psychotronic steamrolling machine bastard god, devouring whole genres of cinema and regurgitating them in one mean and ridiculous protein shake of evil.
Sole screenplay credit goes – with the doubtless eternal gratitude of many unacknowledged collaborators – to the one and only James R. Silke. Prior to coming to work for Cannon, Silke was a valued colleague of the late legendary filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. He first teamed with Firstenberg on Revenge of the Ninja and also wrote the Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-offs Sahara (with Brooke Shields) and King Solomon’s Mines for Cannon. When the studio optioned the rights to make a film version of Marvel Comics’ Captain America, Silke was originally announced as the writer. That project never came to pass obviously, but just imagine a Cap movie written by the man who crafted such timeless dialogue as “Only a ninja… can destroy a ninja.” Chills you to the bone, doesn’t it?
Firstenberg and Silke combine forces to make Ninja III a movie that only wants to entertain the masses with as little dignity and intelligence as possible. Seriously, if you attempt to apply logic to anything – and I mean ANYTHING – you see here your brain will most likely hate you for the rest of your life. The first reel alone has gun barrels exploding after getting jammed with a blow dart, golf balls being crushed in one ninja hand, and a single highly-trained martial artist taking down an army of incompetent cops. From there it gets even weirder.
Since no exploitation flick made in the 1980s would be complete without an extended aerobics sequence (half the running time of Umberto Lenzi’s brain-damaged running zombies movie Nightmare City was devoted to women working out in ultra-snug leotards) we get one here as well, but Firstenberg tops it by including hilarious throwaway shots of leering gym rats who later try to pummel and rape Christie in the alley behind the aerobics studio until she hands them their asses in McDonald’s sandwich cartons – all while her valiant policeman lover watches from the sidelines without once trying to stop the madness by….oh I don’t know….identifying himself as a cop and arresting their sorry asses.
I don’t want to spoil the outright schlockiest scenes so I’ll give you a few of the highlights: three people get murdered in a hot tub, floating ninja swords, an arcade game becomes a demon-possessed laser light show, Christie entices Billy into lovemaking by pouring V8 down her shirt, and the worst car chase in the history of film.
James Hong, the closest this movie has to a real acting legend in its cast (his past credits include Chinatown and Blade Runner), puts in a brief but welcome appearance as a Japanese mystic whose attempts to exorcise the evil ninja spirit from Christie’s spandex-clad loveliness pays off hilariously. Kosugi is the only member of the Ninja III cast with any real screen presence, despite his staggering lack of acting ability. He covers for his losses in that category by being the real deal in ass-kicking here. Plus, his dead-eyed glower power, partially obscured by a decorative golden eye patch, can make the average person soil their undies. Sho owns every room he walks into, and those he doesn’t he simply clears with some Three Stooges-inspired cranial abuse. Lucinda Dickey is lovely eye candy, but her emotional range is limited to constipated Valley Girl snits.
Such inconsistencies matter little in the grand scheme of things. Ninja III is a movie to be praised only because it wants so badly to please you. It’s the kind of teeth-rotting cinematic candy that is savvy enough to know when enough is enough and that’s only after we’ve seen a living ninja battle a dead one to the re-death.
Released as part of their awe-inspiring Scream Factory, Shout! Factory have given Ninja III a fresh digital makeover, sourced from a high-definition print prepared by current rights holder MGM. Presented in 1080p in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1 that is slightly compressed from its original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, the movie looks pretty damn good after nearly three decades in VHS and cable TV purgatory with slowly deteriorating prints. The vibrant cinematography is given a boost to where even the night scenes look bright as day and the color scheme is strong and lush. The grain content has been reduced without being eliminated. There can be no mistaking this movie for one that was not made in the 80s.
Our only audio option on the Blu-ray disc is an English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track, but that’s all we really need. The sound mix on Ninja III won’t put your speaker set-up through its paces, but it is more than adequate to make the wild sound effects mix and cheeseball synthesizer music score sound as good as they did when the movie first played on the big screen. You don’t have to struggle to hear the insipid dialogue either. No subtitles have been provided.
Director Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert reunite for a brand new audio commentary moderated by Rob G. of Icons of Fright. This is a informative, conversational chat track that suffers from occasional dead air that Rob desperately tries to fill by peppering the participants with questions, not to mention their tendency to fill time by pointing on what’s going in the movie rather than comment on it.
The packaging lists a theatrical trailer among the bonus features, but for some reason it didn’t make the cut. You can watch it here below. Instead, what we do get that wasn’t listed on the case is a moderately extensive photo gallery consisting of poster art from around the world (in Italy, the movie actually goes by the name of Trancers), production stills, and candid behind-the-scenes shots.
A DVD copy featuring a standard definition presentation of the movie and the extra features is also included.
To quote the late James Brown, Ninja III: The Domination may not know karate but it sure knows ka-razy. This movie is your one-stop shopping destination for everything that was terrible and horrifying about the 1980s, and that is what makes it simply awesome to behold. Now the miracle of cinema that is this weirdly enjoyable motion picture is on Blu-ray in full HD glory for all to expose their naive, unprepared minds to unwittingly. Plan your weekend accordingly.