Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Ninja III: The Domination
Ninjas are a reliable go-to for cheesy goodness. Every so often you’ll find a dud, but for the most part, they nearly always delivers as unscrupulous movie producers could sell a ninja picture quite easily on a poster alone and produce a low-cost action/adventure picture for a high return. But when you take this concept to the international film markets in Cannes and other parts of Europe, it mingles with other forces (and probably some cocaine) to create something amazing. Oh, what could be better than ninjas, you ask?
Ninjas brought you by your friends at the Cannon Group.
That’s right, this week’s cheesy movie is a two-for-one shot of ninjas as filtered through the deranged 1980s minds of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Well, at least as delivered via their proxy director, longtime Golan compatriot Sam Firstenberg. But the Golan and Globus ninja story begins a few years early with Golan’s 1981 directorial effort Enter the Ninja. It featured a dubbed Franco Nero as American ninja (but not the American Ninja) known only as Cole. The film is said to have actually jumpstarted the Ninja craze of the 1980s — though you have to assume Golan got the idea for ninjas from some other film — and sequel, Revenge of the Ninja, was soon in the works. Actor Sho Kosugi, the only holdover from Enter the Ninja, stars as a new ninja character. Firstenberg took the helm and while it made modest money at the box office, it has a cult following in its own right.
So you might be wondering why I’d skip these other films to focus on the third in the series. The answer is really quite simple. The first two films are relatively pedestrian ninja movies. They’re sanitized revenge pictures with male protagonists wearing pajamas. But for all their cheese, they stay inside the realm of mostly feasible reality. Ninja III replaces that sense of proportion with a new twist: ninjas can also be demons.
The plot revolves around an aerobics instructor/telephone company engineer named Christie (Lucinda Dickey of Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo fame). Her life gets thrown for a loop one day when a ninja staggers out of the desert brush and dies. But before he does so, he imprints himself upon her soul. The imprint gives her fantastic ninja training and magic to help her seek out the dozens of policemen involved in his death. So while she repairs phone lines and teaches classes at the local gym during the day, the spirit of the ninja compels her to kill by moonlight. It also possess the arcade cabinet she has at her house and secrets a light-up katana into her closet for all the murderizing to come. After visiting a, um, medicine man(?) played by the beloved James Hong, Christie and her cop boyfriend learn the only way the demon ninja can leave her body is if it confronts another ninja. Luckily for them, Kosugi, in yet another new role, is already in Arizona and on the trail of his demonic foe.
And for once, the plot is not part of the charm of the film. Instead, the charm lay almost entirely in the madness Firstenberg puts on screen. For example, the opening sequence, in which the ninja attacks a scientist at an golf course, looks and feels like the sort of ninja fight an overly-sugared nine-year-old might devise. Don’t believe me? I have video:
And this is only the first handful of minutes. It builds to the ninja taking on the whole police force and a helicopter before they finally get the best of him. Then there’s the premise itself. This ninja is somehow a supernatural entity with heightened strength, resiliency and the unique ability to possess other people. That last one definitely comes in handy when the police finally overpower him and he happens upon Christie. From there, she must face an increasingly uncertain future and a very hairy cop who will not take no for an answer. Of course, when she finally agrees to date him (because the 80s), part of her seduction technique includes pouring V-8 vegetable juice down her front.
Once again, Firstenberg’s choice of details stuns and amazes.
But that only scratches the surface. From a Halloween II-style hot tub hit to a fight involving pool cues, Ninja III feels like it was more outlined than scripted with Firstenberg frantically creating magic because film needed to be shot and the cut he delivered to Golan needed to be 92 minutes. Which is not say Golan didn’t have some input. The decision to make Christie a telephone repairman and an aerobics instructor definitely sounds like someone saw Flashdance and co-opted some ideas for his increasingly bizarre ninja movies. I’m assuming that same somone also saw The Exorcist just before the film was conceived. Knowing both were hits, but not understanding why, it’s easy to imagine Golan instructed Firstenberg and the screenwriters to include these elements. They sit uneasily together in a giddy sort of way. Like that opening ninja fight, new levels of absurdity just keep happening until Kosugi shows up so the two ninjas can fight at last.
Oddly enough, that fight is the least interesting element of the film. Despite some poorly rendered effects animation, it returns the film to the more conventional realities of the previous movies. It’s definitely one of the few films I’ve profiled here that genuinely fizzles out at the end, but the wild ride you get before it is worth the price of admission. So much so that I’d say my description of Ninja III: The Domination doesn’t quite do it justice. Nonetheless, for as much cheese as ninja movies can offer, few offer it at this level. Seek it out now.
Ninja III: The Domination is available for streaming on Hulu. And once you’ve fallen in love with it, Shout! Factory has a Blu-ray release for you to purchase.