Eureka! Entertainment treat us to more cult cinema in HD. This time, we're getting Cannon Films' enjoyably demented 1980s trilogy of NINJA films in a 5-disc blu-ray and DVD dual-format set...
The first film, 1981's trend-setting ENTER THE NINJA, opens with a breathless extended fight sequence based in the woods, where white-clad Cole (Franco Nero) takes on several opponents adorned in red or black attire. Much bloody violence ensues, including the use of Samurai swords, pocket explosions, Chinese throwing stars and at even one decapitation.
It's a great - albeit curiously nonsensical - introduction to Cole, which culminates with him earning his stripes as a ninja as a result of the preceding 12 minutes' action.
Despite master Komori's (Dale Ishimoto) endorsement, fellow ninjutsu warrior Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi) doesn't take kindly to Westerner Cole joining his clan. Ooh, that might spell trouble somewhere down the line.
First, though, Cole pays a visit to his old pal Frank (Alex Courtney) in the Philippines, where he takes an immediate shine to his friend's spunky wife Mary Ann (Susan George). Following a flirtatious dinner, Cole and Frank take a walk on the latter's land and we learn that Frank contacted Cole for help: his old army pal's farm land is under threat from ruthless property developers.
Who better to ask for help than a middle-aged moustachioed fella who clearly has designs on your wife? Especially when it transpires that you're actually impotent?!
Well, Cole does both the decent and indecent things: sticks around to protect his friends, and manages to fuck Mary Ann while doing so. All of which brings him into direct combat with nefarious extortionist Charles (Christopher George) and his newly appointed henchman - gasp if you will - Hasegawa! It takes a ninja to kill a fellow ninja, after all...
Performed with straight faces throughout, directed with panache by Cannon Group co-owner Menahem Golan, and chock-full of gloriously daft practical stunt action, ENTER THE NINJA is a triumph of absurd action. The pace is lightning quick, the action is violent and silly. The sound design is brilliant in its exaggerated impact. How can you not love it? Indeed, the world did love it and it's now widely credited as having spearheaded the ninja craze that ran amuck throughout the 1980s. Sequels were inevitable.
1983's REVENGE OF THE NINJA (a.k.a. NINJA 2), directed by Sam Firstenberg, focuses on Cho (Kosugi again) who this time is a lapsed ninja whose home is attacked by former brethren. They slaughter his wife and one of his kids. He's then approached by American Dave (Keith Vitali) to relocate to the US, where he can start a new life with his surviving son and grandmother (Grace Oshita). Despite misgivings about Dave's sincerity, Cho accepts the offer for the sake of his kid. Six years later, we catch up with them living in Salt Lake City and realise that the lad - Kane (Sho's real-life offspring Kane Kosugi) - is being bullied by local children. Cho's life doesn't turn out too well either: he's resigned to showing off his collection of dolls in a local gallery, which he soon learns is actually a front for an international heroin-smuggling operation. Oops.
Of course, grandmother's reservations about Dave prove to be justified and betrayal - along with Kane's kidnapping - becomes the catalyst for a whole heap of batshit fun. Cue lots of crazy action, crazier stunts, car chases, macho dialogue, 80s fashions and outlandish violence.
If REVENGE ups the ante in terms of crackpot stunts work (well before the era of CGI), then third instalment NINJA 3: THE DOMINATION just goes all-out to be bonkers on every level.
This 1984 action-horror hybrid kicks off on a sunny golf course, where a wealthy businessman and his entourage are bloodily slain by a masked ninja assailant. The ensuing police pursuit of the assassin is made up of gory throwing star violence, slow-motion car leaps and even an instance of a helicopter exploding into a mountain.
Eventually - yes, it's another 12-minute opening set-piece - the evil ninja is cornered by law enforcers and shot at least 100 times. Of course, this isn't quite enough to kill him: he limps off into the Arizona desert until he finally comes across fabulously glamorous telephone line worker Christie (Lucinda Dickey). Following a scuffle, he's able to demonically possess her moments before his death.
Pretty Christie then becomes the main focus of the film, as we discover that she also has a second job as an aerobics instructor (an excuse for lots of cheesy 80s music, big hair and unfeasibly tight lycra).
Christie first becomes aware of the superhuman powers her possession has gifted her, when she's accosted in the street by a gang of hoods who've been admiring her moves at the gym. She fends them off successfully, which also catches the eye of ridiculously hirsute policeman Billy (Jordan Bennett).
A love affair between Christie and Billy soon blossoms (hide the cans of V8!), though all the while she is compelled to don a ninja suit and mask, on a mission to systematically kill each of the coppers responsible for the evil ninja's death. Oh my, could it really be that Billy was one of the cops in question?
Eventually Billy cottons on to what's happening and - just when you think this plot can't get any wackier - enlists the help of exorcist Miyashima (James Hong).
Throw in Kosugi, who returns in an extended cameo this time as an enigmatic ninja named Yamada, and the scene is set for one of the strangest, most deliriously enthralling films of the 1980s.
If, like me, renting videotapes during the 1980s formed an integral part of your youth, you will already know how essential these films are in terms of sheer entertainment. The fact that, historically, they now take on a greater significance as ambassadors of the mighty, sadly lamented Cannon Films legacy, is just the icing on the cake (though the films have obviously been sold on since Cannon's liquidation, and each one opens with an MGM logo here).
Do the films hold up after three decades? Of course! Each one plays out at breakneck speed, with nary a concern for their ripe dialogue, hammy performances or gaping continuity flaws. Or the fact that not a single actor manages to move with the stealth that you'd imagine an actual ninja to be capable of. Such unintentional hilarity was not lost on the viewer back in the 1980s and certainly doesn't pass by unnoticed now. But all of this simply adds to the charm of these guiltlessly exciting, madcap adventures.
The stellar cast of the first film; the warm colourful exterior action scenes shot across all three movies; the glorious locations which have been captured unexpectedly well; the insane plot devices; the surprisingly gory levels of violence; the 80s-as-fuck synth-led scores ... If you don't get a huge grin-inducing rush of nostalgia watching these, you really are dead from the thighs up.
In fact, trying to think of any trilogy that can entertain this much is a thankless task.
The series ended with DOMINATION, due to the fact that it only made half as much at the box office as its predecessor (something its producers attributed to the decision to have a female lead). All was not lost, though, as Cannon then embarked on the famed AMERICAN NINJA series as compensation...
This collection is presented by Eureka! in a 5-disc boxset, offering the films in HD across two blu-ray discs, and also on each of the individual three DVD disc also contained in the set. We were sent screener copies of the two blu-ray discs to review.
Each film is presented in its original ratio (1.85:1 for the first two; 1.78:1 for DOMINATION) and given the benefit of 16x9 enhancement. The new 1080p HD transfers are proffered to us as nicely sized MPEG4-AVC files, each one boasting warm colours - especially in the red department. Images are bright and natural, with a keen sense of depth felt throughout. Minor flecks here and there don't rob each transfer from the fact that the prints utilised are largely very clean affairs. Blacks are deep and strong; detail is greatly improved over previous releases. REVENGE does have a softer look to it than the trilogy's two other entries but even this instalment looks great in general.
I can't speak for Shout Factory's 2013 US release of NINJA 3: THE DOMINATION incidentally, I haven't seen it. But I'm entirely satisfied with how the film looks here.
The running times for each film are as follows: ENTER, 98 minutes and 43 seconds; REVENGE, 90 minutes and 6 seconds; DOMINATION, 93 minutes and 30 seconds.
English lossless stereo is sturdy and well-balanced across all three films. Optional English Hard-of-Hearing subtitles are provided across the board too, offering a well-written and easily readable service for those who may require them.
Each disc opens to a static main menu page. Although there are no scene selection menus provided, each film has 8 remote handset-navigational chapters.
Extras on disc 1 begins with original trailers for ENTER THE NINJA (3 minutes) and REVENGE (1-and-a-half minutes). The excitable male narration on the former is worth the price of admission alone.
We also get a 3-minute introduction from Firstenberg for the latter. He concedes that he was a novice when he took on the job of directing the film, and credits his crew for pulling him through. Using occasional written cues, he comes across well as he speaks with affection and good memory for his subject.
Firstenberg is also on hand for REVENGE's audio commentary track, which he provides alongside stunt co-ordinator Steven Lambert. The Polish filmmaker speaks excellent English, and both he and Lambert have great recollections for the shoot. There's a fondness for the production and its stars too, making for a light and fact-filled chat track. Bill Olson moderates but his job is made easy by the talkative duo. From cuts that were made to attain to an R-rating, to the FX work and Lambert's multiple roles as ninjas and beyond, this is a comprehensive companion piece to the main feature.
Over on disc 2, we get another commentary from the above folk, which again is rife with fun details, anecdotes, mirth and sincerity. No trailer this time though, oddly enough.
The set is rounded off by a quality 28-page colour booklet. The centrepiece of this is a witty, informed and highly readable new essay by CJ Lines. Excellent stuff. It's complemented by handsome stills, credits for each film and the usual notes on how to best view them.
Grab some friends, make sure the fridge is well-stocked with booze and almost five hours of shamelessly over-the-top thrills. From Nero's incompetence as a ninja (he was an eleventh-hour casting choice, after all) through plenty of insane stunt work and all the way to the excessive fashions of the doolally DOMINATION, you cannot fail to be entertained by this awesome set.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Eureka! Entertainment|
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