Now Playing: ENTER THE NINJA
Damn it, who doesn’t love ninja? These black-clad badasses were all the rage during much of the 1980’s, partially because of ENTER THE NINJA, a wildly silly exploitation film directed in the Philippines by Menahem Golan for Cannon Films. Led by Golan and his “Go-Go Boy” cousin Yoram Globus, Cannon managed to capitalize on nearly every fad of the decade, including breakdancing (BREAKIN’), ‘Nam MIAs (MISSING IN ACTION), the Lambada (THE FORBIDDEN DANCE) and more. Ninja were so popular that not only did Cannon and other low-budget filmmakers rip off the international success of 1981’s ENTER THE NINJA, but NBC even tried a television series starring Sho Kosugi and Lee Van Cleef titled THE MASTER (“Master Ninja Theme Song!”).
Italian film star Franco Nero (DJANGO) plays Cole, who opens the film by sneaking through the jungle in his bright white ninja suit, knocking off similarly tressed opponents (but wearing red or black). Surprise--it's just a training exercise, and Cole is now the first American to master the ancient Japanese art of ninjitsu and be officially anointed a ninja, much to the dismay of Hasegawa (Kosugi), who throws down his sake and stalks off in a pout. Cole's next stop: Manila, where he meets his old mercenary buddy Frank Landers (Alex Courtney, winner of the James Caan Lookalike Contest) and his sexy young wife Mary Ann (Susan George). Frank and Mary Ann own a plantation, but are having trouble finding quality farmhands, since they're being threatened and bullied by Siegfried (Zachi Noy), a slimy fat man with a hook for a hand. Siegfried works for Mr. Venarius (a hammy Christopher George), a wealthy but evil real-estate developer trying to buy the Landers' land, since he knows (but the Landers' don't) that there's "bubblin' crude" there all ready to be drilled. Since Frank won't sell and Cole's martial arts skills have decimated nearly every able-bodied thug in Manila, Venarius decides to recruit his own ninja ("I want my black ninja! And I want him now!"): none other than Cole's old foe Hasegawa.
Although the plot is as old as the hills (heck, it would be right at home in a Tom Mix western), ENTER THE NINJA really is a heck of a lot of fun. Nero, whose Italian accent has been redubbed by another actor, doesn't look like a ninjitsu expert, but he does look tough and know how to fight, and sharp editing by Mark Goldblatt (THE TERMINATOR) and Michael Duthie (3000 MILES TO GRACELAND) help make Nero a convincing ninja. There certainly is a lot of action, beginning with the opening titles, where Kosugi demonstrates a few boss ninja moves, right through the many fights all the way to the mano-y-mano climax set in an empty sports arena. Kosugi and stunt coordinator Mike Stone, a well-known Los Angeles karate instructor who starred in his own movie, TIGERSHARK, do a nice job staging the fights, which rightly rely on campy ninja tricks like smoke bombs and shirikens to amp up the excitement.
ENTER THE NINJA did so well that Cannon immediately followed it with two Kosugi-starring "sequels" that were increasingly silly if no less entertaining: REVENGE OF THE NINJA and NINJA III: THE DOMINATION in which dead ninja Kosugi possessed the shapely body of telephone linewoman Lucinda Dickey and started kicking ass with it. More on NINJA III later this week.
As for Christopher George, ENTER THE NINJA was one of his last roles before dying young at 54 of a heart attack in 1983. He was a steady action star, ruggedly handsome, authoritative and good with his mitts. His big break was as the tough-talking star of THE RAT PATROL, a bullet-filled World War II drama that aired on ABC in the late 1960’s. He was at home in westerns, appearing with John Wayne in EL DORADO and CHISUM, and headed up an all-star B-movie cast including Fabian, Adam Roarke, Ralph Meeker, Ross Hagen, ALIAS’ Ron Rifkin and Robert DoQui in AIP’s fun DIRTY DOZEN ripoff THE DEVIL’S 8. George was more at home in television, appearing in several episodic guest shots, starring in made-for-TV movies and pilots, and even headlining another series, the short-lived THE IMMORTAL, which was basically a sci-fi version of THE FUGITIVE.
As the ‘70s wore on, respectable parts for George became fewer and farther in between. I’m not sure why this was—maybe he was difficult to deal with on the set or maybe he was blessed with the mindset that actors were born to act and not wait around for the perfect part. Playing both heroes and villains, he lent credibility to a number of drive-in pictures that were probably below him, including DIXIE DYNAMITE, WHISKEY MOUNTAIN, THE EXTERMINATOR and the slasher pic GRADUATION DAY. He starred in two killer-animal flicks for director William Girdler: GRIZZLY and DAY OF THE ANIMALS. His career ebb may be the movies he made overseas, including a gory zombie movie for Italian director Lucio Fulci (CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) and the amazing gore flick PIECES for Spanish filmmaker Juan Piquer Simon. PIECES is a stunningly inept and unbelievably hilarious exercise in Grand Guignol storytelling, an incomprehensible storyline dotted at regular intervals by incredibly graphic murders, touches of male and female nudity, and non sequitur scenes that bear no resemblance to either our reality or the reality set up within the film’s universe.
George really hams it up in ENTER THE NINJA, playing Venarius as a whimsical, petulant fop with a large indoor swimming pool in his office, where he directs beautiful synchronized swimmers as a “living mobile”. Whether barking orders like “I want my black ninja, and I want him now!” or arrogantly demanding that his underlings not address him directly, but rather through his number-one man, Mr. Parker, George is energetic, if not just a bit embarrassing. Although he was probably so happy not to be in Italy doing Fulci zombie movies that he probably didn’t notice.