Cult Criterion is a series that focuses on cult, horror and exploitation films that are available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Though some well-known titles may be given attention, some that tend to get ignored will also get attention
One of the things that defines the 80’s is pop cultures sudden obsession with Ninjas. Granted, sudden fascination with Eastern traditions is nothing new, but from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” to “GI Joe” to comic books, people couldn’t seem to get enough of this trend. Oh, and of course movies.
The studio that kicked off said movie trend was none other than Cannon films. It started with 1981’s Enter the Ninja, which wasn’t memorable outside of Christopher George delivering one of the greatest death scenes in film history and the villainous ninja played by Sho Kosugi. I mention Sho because he proved to be the one thing audiences loved the most about the film-so much so that he starred in in the unrelated sequel Return of the Ninja two years later, and has gone on to be the actor who most defines this sub genre. One year later, Sho and “Return” director Sam Firstenberg (whose credits include Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo and American Ninja) teamed up again for a second unrelated sequel in Ninja III: The Domination (Shout! Factory).
Before I get into the plot of “Ninja III”, I feel like I have to let the reader know that this is no ordinary 80’s genre film. The best way to describe it is that it’s the result of a cocaine binge among studio executives who thought mixing a ninja movie, “The Exorcist” and “Flashdance” would be a great idea. Or at the very least would make a good profit. The result stands up with 1979’s The Visitor as one of the most befuddling genre hybrids ever made.
Our film opens with an evil ninja (David Chung) going about killing people in a golf course, including police. Said police shoot him, and before he dies, he gives his sword to telephone construction worker/aerobics instructor Christie (Lucinda Dickey, also known for playing Kelly in “Breakin’ 2”). After appreciating such a gesture(taking the sword from him), she’s soon beating up attempted rapists from her gym, dressing up as a ninja and killing those who shot the evil ninja. Oh, and pouring V8 on herself as a means to seduce her love interest Billy Second (Jordan Bennett).
Before I go back to the story, I feel like I need to talk about the V8 scene. I love the sheer naivety of it. Like Golan and Globus saw this, and thought “sure, the audience will think it’s sexy.” That we are meant to take the act of a woman seductively pouring vegetable juice onto he chest is somehow the most erotic thing imaginable. Granted, different strokes and all that, but the mere idea we are supposed to believe this is a normal form of seduction is…I think I’ve flogged this horse enough.
Anyways, back to the story. As it turns out, Christie has been possessed by the ghost of the evil ninja from before! After a failed exorcism, a healer (James Hong) tells Billy that “only a ninja…can destroy a ninja.” This other ninja comes in the form of Yamada (Kosugi), who not only is here to stop the evil ninja, but has a bit of a score to settle with him.
To say this is a silly motion picture is an understatement to say the least. Not only is it a checklist of goofy 80’s movies cliches-it’s a checklist of cliches you’d find in Cannon films from the 80’s. Gratuitous aerobics scene? Check. Ninjas? Check. Synthesizer heavy score? Check. Explosions? Check. Bright neon colors and 80’s pop art? Check.The only things missing are over the top gore and nudity, though the camera sure loves to linger on Dickey’s body whenever she’s scantily clad.
So is it fun. Oh God yes. Part of the appeal of the film is the fact that it’s from an era when irony hadn’t fully taken over movies. Everything about this-the mere idea of doing a demonic possession movie with an evil ghost ninja possessing a woman instead of an Satanic entity in particular-is played completely straight. There’s something about that kind of earnestness (or at least workman like approach) no decade afterwards could reproduce. It was the last decade you could make something like this without being fully on tongue in cheek.
The characters are also great, as they are all cartoon characters in live action form. Not everyone here is bad (Kosugi comes off well), but nobody in this talks or acts at the way most civilized human beings do. Even the gym rapists start off as over the top. The whole movie feels like it was made by a director and Israeli film producers who seemed to have no clear idea of what America was actually like in the 1980’s even though they had been making films in and for the country for years. Which is likely true.
As a time capsule into the most ridiculous aspects of the 80’s and the studio that defined these aspects, “Ninja III” is essential. As a baffling movie experience unlike any you’ve seen before, “Ninja III” is essential. When you get down to it, “Ninja III” is essential in general for fans of cult cinema, as well as for those who think they’ve seen it all. I can guarantee you that you haven’t seen it all, and when it ends you will believe an evil ninja that possesses beautiful women can only be defeated by another ninja.