In 1971, audiences were delivered the message that the freewheelin’ sixties were over, and so were the innocent fifties for that matter, when long-legged Clint Eastwood stepped onto the screen as “cop on the edge” Harry Callahan in the groundbreaking crime thriller, Dirty Harry. Other tough-as-nails cops and private eyes followed in Harry’s cynical footsteps, including Shaft, Serpico, and a guy named Popeye Doyle. This new generation of cop film was a marked departure from past crime films, where guys like G-Man Jimmy Stewart would walk proudly through spotless backlots dispatching ne’r-do-wells with precision shots from six-shooters balanced on their wrist. They were a return to the hardboiled, world-weary detectives of the 1940s. Callahan and his compatriots were angry, disillusioned, and cynical.
If you’ve ever encountered someone from my generation grumbling about flying cars and nightclubs on the moon as if they were some kind of denied birthright, it’s films like Wild Wild Planet that are largely to blame. The movie was a staple of Saturday afternoon TV at a time in America when the idea that the space program would someday slow to an underfunded crawl was beyond imagining, and, along with similarly groovy sci-fi pictures like The X From Outer Space, was responsible for inspiring a generation of young boys whose visions of adulthood were inseparable from thoughts of martini-fueled day trips to Mars and compliant lady robots.
No genre is so simple that it’s well suited by being made a genre, just as no individual member of a race is justly served by being made part of said race. But in the quest to classify or define easy descriptions, these broad-sweeping categories are the best we people can come up with. It is a concept that dismisses any sense of variation or individuality, and while I admit that generalization is often a necessity for making it through everyday life, it’s also a big part of why we tend to miss out on so much wonderful stuff. Take the Spaghetti Western, for example, or the Western, since that’s how most people tend to see it. I can’t even begin to process the number of people I’ve spoken to who hate Spaghetti Westerns even though they’ve never seen one. They equate the Western with polished American films, with John Wayne or Gene Autry, or they simply hate country music, thus they hate cowboys, thus they hate Westerns. An entire genre of film is then dismissed despite the fact that there are hundred of films that break the mold, that would prove entertaining to these people if they could only get over the fact that the people in them are from the wild west.
Hot on the heels of the spectacular High Crime, director Enzo Castellari and actor Franco Nero take another stab at the burgeoning poliziotteschi genre, this time eschewing the popular “cop on the edge/Dirty Harry” approach and instead turning to the template established in 1974 by Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. The primary difference between the two is that Bronson’s character was a man of peace pushed to violent extremes, constantly grappling with the morality of vigilantism even in the face of his family suffering a truly nightmarish crime. Franco Nero’s Carlo Antonelli, by contrast, gets roughed up by some crooks and almost instantly launches a campaign of murderous violence against them without any real philosophical debate. It’s like he was already a well-mustached powder keg of vigilante vengeance just waiting to be unleashed. Instead of confronting the moral ambiguity of vigilantism through the doubts of its protagonist, Street Law elects instead to address it on a slightly more meta level, one in which the hero’s actions aren’t questioned by the hero himself but instead by the fact that, at the bloody end of all things, he is just as frustrated and unfulfilled as he was at the beginning.
What is it, to be a man? This is the question, indeed, many of us ask ourselves. In this, our post-macho, post-feminist, post-metrosexual era, what then becomes the measure of a man? What is it that defines his life, gives him meaning, makes him a man? Indeed such a question is difficult to answer, at times perhaps even seemingly impossible. And so we enter an era of confusion, of aimlessness, until at last something emerges from the chaos to point the way, to illuminate us, to help us along on our journey and, at long last, make the answer as clear as the crystal blue waters of Cozumel. What is it, to be a man? Let Franco Nero tell you. No, no — let Franco Nero show you.
The first fifteen minutes of Enzo G. Castellari’s Shark Hunter play as follows. We meet the titular shark hunter, Franco Nero, looking like he just stumbled out of the jungle and fell into a puddle of crazed hippie biker, while perched on a rock overlooking the ocean. Suddenly a shark catches his eye, causing him to leap up, run down the beach while accompanied by the sounds of Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis prog rock, and struggle to haul the thrashing beast to shore. He then retires to his open air beach bungalow to make love to his beautiful Mexican senorita, then goes to a bar where he beats the crap out of half a dozen thugs. Happy that Franco has whooped ass on the goon squad, a local takes him out for a bit of parasailing. I know, I know. You’re thinking to yourself that while hauling in a fishing line hooked to a man-eating shark is tough, and making love on the beach to a sexy gal is tough, and beating up half a dozen hired bruisers is tough, there’s not much that’s tough about parasailing. That’s what sunburned fat Americans do when they visit resorts, right? What’s so tough about that? Well, nothing. But while Franco does admittedly get a kick out of the parasailing, what makes this tough parasailing is that, while in mid-air, he spies a shark in the water below, let’s out a primal whoop of excitement, cuts himself loose from the parachute harness, plunges into the water, and immediately starts punching the shark in the face.
Although everything about the movie, from the title to Franco Nero’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for punching sharks in the face, would lead you to believe that this is going to be another in the brief but highly enjoyable line of Italian Jaws rip-offs along the lines of director Castellari’s own L’Ultimo Squalo, a film that so closely aped (or sharked) Jaws and Jaws 2 that an injunction was issued against it, spoiling big plans to unleash it in American movie theaters and, in fact, even going to far as to ensure that it would never see the light of day even on home video. However, after the insane opening and Franco Nero’s lesson on how to be a real man, Shark Hunter settles down into being a rip-off not of Jaws, but of another American film, 1977’s The Deep starring Nick Nolte and Jaqueline “Miss Goodthighs” Bisset as scuba divers who stumble across a fortune in sunken drugs. That film was remade in 2005 as Into the Blue, starring Paul Walker and Jessica Alba. That movie was completely idiotic, but I enjoyed it if for no other reason than it had cool scuba scenes and lots of shots of Paul Walker and Jessica Alba being scantily clad. Plus, it’s not like doing a dumb remake of a movie that was pretty dumb to begin with was any great crime against cinematic art. Of course, I also like The Deep, and it used to scare the crap out of me as a kid.
You see, I come from a long line of scuba divers, and by “long line” I mean my dad and, later, my sister. But I grew up around diving and diving equipment, and as a kid I used to get into my old man’s trunk full of equipment and get gussies up in the way-too-large for me wetsuit and flippers, mask, and dive knife, which I referred to more dramatically as the shark knife. I’d then stomp around the basement, playing Thunderball and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and trying to throw the knife into the bare 2x4s of the unfinished walls. When I got to watch The Deep on our brand new Betamax video machine, it enthralled and terrified me. I loved all the scuba stuff, and even at a young age I know there was something special about Jaqueline Bisset in a bikini. But the one thing anyone remembers about that movie is the moray eels. My dad used to tell me outrageous tales about moray eels, and how the way their teeth curved in meant that once they bit you, it was impossible to remove them. You just had to pull out your knife and amputate your arm. The Deep certainly backed those stories up, and for years, the sight of sharks and barracuda did little to phase me, but I was always wary of eels. Even after I learned that moray eels are basically docile so long as you don’t go shoving your arm into their hidey holes, I still get antsy when I turn around underwater and see one of them floating there, staring at me inquisitively with that horrible, evil grin they all have.
Shark Hunter, however, is better than either The Deep or Into the Blue, and Franco Nero looks less like Nick Nolte in The Deep and more like Nick Nolte in his more recent mug shot. But the gist of Shark Hunter is that Nero’s character, Mike di Donato, gets pressured by a local gangster into helping salvage a downed plane full of loot. Franco and his parasailing buddy try to figure out a way to get the gangsters off their back and outsmart them. Despite the expectation generated from a title like Shark Hunter, there isn’t much shark action in this film other than the beginning and the very end. Most of the action revolves around Franco Nero in his ratty shirt and bell-bottom dungarees getting into fights on the beach, only to have his beloved Juanita (Patricia Rivera) threatened by the gangsters. And there’s a lot of scuba diving, sometimes with sharks present, which is a touchy subject for a lot of people.
Scuba scenes usually get a bum rap in movies for being somewhat slow moving and boring. They do happen underwater, after all. I actually think a lot of scuba diving scenes are kind of keen, owing to my enjoyment of scuba diving, and depending on how they are filmed. Thunderball, for example, has pretty thrilling scuba scenes. All those Jacques Cousteau documentaries have cool scuba scenes. The Incredible Petrified World does not succeed as well with its many scuba scenes of guys sort of doing nothing for like ten minutes at a time. Anyway, point is that scuba scenes don’t have to boring, even if they frequently are. Shark Hunter has pretty good scuba scenes, though one wonders why Nero spends so much time diving in his blue jeans when he later reveals he owns perfectly good shorts and a wetsuit. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to swim in blue jeans, but it’s not pleasant. The scuba scenes are also aided by the fact that Castellari was fond of slow motion action scenes anyway, so you hardly even notice the diving is slow. At least he didn’t film them in slow motion.
Castellari and Nero worked together several times before most notably on the superb 1971 poliziotteschi thriller High Crime. Among the many, many directors who made a living in the murky waters of Italian exploitation films, Castellari was one of the best when he was on his game. Like Umberto Lenzi and Antonio Margheriti, Castellari managed to direct some really great action films. He also managed to direct some really awful ones. Castellari, however, directed fewer truly awful films than did Lenzi and Margheriti, possibly because Castellari managed to avoid having to make crappy cannibal movies. Where as other directors skipped from one genre to the next based on whatever trend was at the forefront of exploitation cinema that week, Castellari stayed pretty well grounded in action films. He avoided horror almost entirely. Even when he ventured into the realm of other genres — most notably a few post-apocalypse Road Warrior rip-offs in the 1980s — he treated them more or less like action films. The one time he worked almost completely outside the realm of what he was familiar with was 1989’s Sinbad of the Seven Seas, and we can see how that worked out for him. By the 1980s, there was no doubt Castellari knew his stuff, even if he wasn’t exactly what you might call a visionary artist. He did have his style though, and he seems interested in Shark Hunter, which he keeps moving along nicely and crammed full of action both above and below the ocean surface.
If there’s anything to criticize in Castellari’s direction, it’s the choice to use footage of real sharks being caught and killed. This only happens once or twice, and I suppose scenes of shark fishing are more defensible than other scenes of real animal cruelty that pop up in Italian exploitation films, but it’s something to warn people about. I understand why they used real footage, though I don’t necessarily agree with the decision. But then, I used togo fishing, and lord knows we used to take pictures of ourselves with our fish, so I guess that’s why I can’t see to getting too worked up about the scenes of a hooked shark in this movie, as opposed to the far more frequent and far more abusive animal killing that goes on in those cannibal films.
Franco Nero is in good form here, looking completely deranged and badly in need of a shower. You’d think a dude who constantly went swimming and shark punching in the clear waters of Cozumel, Mexico, wouldn’t have so much soot and crap smeared all over his face, but then you’d also expect that a guy with a girlfriend that pretty would have at least two pairs of clothes. But the only thing he has is his outfit, and then the same outfit with a hat and sunglasses. Nero throws himself headlong into the role though, lending it gravity and a great intensity, and the look is pretty spectacular. Nero made a career out of playing bad-asses, and while he’s not as bad-ass here as he was in some of his old cop films, he still punches sharks in the face and jumps out of parachutes to wrestle them. Eventually, the movie gets around to explaining why sharks piss him off so much, but it’s pretty uneventful and predictable. He goes on to have family members killed in a traffic accident, but he doesn’t run around Mexico punching cars and trying to drag them back to his bungalow. And given how much the guy hates sharks, and how he seems to spend all day sitting around just waiting for a change to sock one in the jaw, you have to wonder they come to his aid all Aquaman-style during the underwater finale. I guess they respect his predatory, killer instinct and knotty tangle of blond locks.
Helping the movie be that much cooler is the music by Italian exploitation film staples Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis. Blending rock, prog, and film orchestration, G&M, who also worked under collective name Oliver Onions for some reason, turn in a great score that perfectly matches the action and fires up the blood. Pairing all that with nice location work in Cozumel — my dad’s favorite dive spot, incidentally — makes for an all-around thrilling action film that is far different than the Jaws inspired title would otherwise lead you to believe.
Golan and Globus. Say the name. It rolls off the tongue with silky smoothness, leaving only the faintest oozing trail of snail-like effluvia in your mouth. Golan and Globus. A name that, along with the banner studio Cannon, means many different things to many different people. None of them are good, but many of them are enjoyable. In the 1980s, the powerhouse production tag team of Menahem Golan and his partner, Yoram Globus, assaulted the world with a seemingly endless stream of cinematic swill that quickly became a staple of my early film-watching life. Nary a trend went unscathed as Cannon Films latched on to one flash in the pan after another, producing as many movies as humanly possible before the trend died out and the next thing came along.
We dealt with these gentlemen and their contributions to human society during a review of Treasure of the Four Crowns, the movie that proves you can make an Indiana Jones type adventure without a big budget, big stars, a good story, a good director, or good special effects; it just won’t be a very good film. I’d like to say that when I was young and foolish, Cannon Films comprised the vast bulk of what I wanted to see when I was over at my friend’s house who had one of those big satellite dishes. The only reason I can’t say that is because I’m not exactly young anymore, except when compared to Carl “Oldie” Olson or Young Mr. Grace, and I still love most of the Cannon Films I watched as a wee one. You could chalk it up to nostalgia, or more realistically, you could chalk it up to incredibly immature and undeveloped taste.
Finding out that Golan and/or Globus produced a film is enough to send most people heading for the hills with shotgun in tow, ready to board up the windows of their ramshackle cabin and send an assful of lead the way of anyone who approaches them waving a copy of Braddock: Missing in Action III or The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington. Hardened fans of the films that tend to settle closer to the bottom of the barrel greet each Cannon Films release as a treat, albeit a treat not unlike a pack of Good ‘n’ Plenties. Say what you will, but these guys know exactly what to cram into their films to assure thousands upon thousands of adolescent boys will be going out of their way to borrow them from friends with premium cable channels or to just watch them between the wavy scrambled lines. The vast majority of Cannon productions can be boiled down to two fundamental elements that exist at the very top of the periodic table of bad movie elements: sex and violence.
When all else fails, or when you happen to be too lazy to try anything else, a sleazy movie producer can always rely on these enchanted looms to spin cinematic gold (or green, as the case may be) every time. Against our better judgment, it almost always works. Heck, the advertising for Showgirls was one degree shy of just flat-out saying, “It’s a bad movie, but it’s full of tits!” and you know what? People paid to see that. Striptease made a big deal out of the fact that Demi Moore bared her bosoms for the film, and folks flocked to the theaters to catch a glimpse of her nipples, apparently forgetting that she’s shown them off in damn near half the films she’s ever been in. The only difference is that in About Last Night, they weren’t perfectly spherical, gravity-defying orbs similar to Jim Kelley’s afro in the 1970s.
Golan and Globus productions generally fall somewhere below your average Dino De Laurentiis film but still above your average Roger Corman picture. At least Golan and Globus would spend some money on a movie. They may not pay to fly the crew to Japan, but they’d be more than willing to spring for a few weeks in Manila as long as you worked cheap. From Sylvia Kristel to David and Peter Paul, the steroid-powered twins, the halls of Cannon are filled with the sort of macho heroes and nekkid ladies people demand from their cheap exploitation cinema.
When an author by the name of Eric Von Lustbader penned a novel called The Ninja that quickly shot to number one on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed perched atop that pyramid for five months, the boys at Cannon smelled a trend that had been steadily building for the past several months. Genres of film go through popularity cycles, and every seven to ten years, what was popular then becomes popular again. Martial arts movies were due for a return to the big screen, as packed revivals of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon had shown throughout 1979. The popularity of The Ninja and the smash 1980 miniseries Shogun starring Richard Chamberlain (who would later work with Cannon Films on King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel) and the legendary Toshiro Mifune foretold that this time around, Japan would be the focus rather than China.
Like the masters of sneakiness and surprise that they are, ninjas had slowly and quietly been infiltrating the mainstream consciousness of America for quite some time. One of the first non-Asian films to feature a ninja was the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice, during the filming of which the production ruined the ancient, wooden walls of Osaka Castle by throwing real shuriken (throwing stars) into them. Throughout the 1970s, people became more familiar with these mysterious denizens of the shadows when they were featured as the heavies in many a kungfu film. By 1980, the success of The Ninja and Shogun (which also features a ninja or two) opened the doors to the big screen in the form of Chuck Norris’s The Octagon, arguably the first of the ninja exploitation films that leapt out of the trees and onto an unsuspecting American public.
As they were passed down from one movie to the next, the authenticity of the ninja became warped beyond comprehension. Basic facts were still more or less intact – specifically, that they were highly skilled assassins and masters of disguise – but little else remained true to any historic roots. The ninjas of old got their start round about eleven hundred years ago with two separate mountain clans in central Japan – the Iga and the Koga. Isolated form the greater portion of Japan in much the same way that the people of the American Appalachians were insulated from the United States, the mountain clans developed into legendary farmers, healers, and weather forecaster with a profound respect for the land that lent them their livelihood.
It was from these mountain clans, steeped in ancient tradition and religious beliefs, that the ninja would acquire their mystical flavoring. Drawing from the Shinto reverence for nature and the esoteric philosophy of Mikkyo, ninjas came to rely on a belief in secret symbols and sacred words as a way to enhance personal power. The religious aspects of ninjitsu eventually mixed with the martial arts of China, which were carried to Japan by exile warriors seeking asylum after the fall of the T’ang dynasty.
The final ingredient in the birth of the Ninja clans was the influence of a sect of people known as the Shugenja, wandering holy men who sought enlightenment through self-imposed physical suffering. They’re the sort of guys who would sit naked in the snow or hang off the side of a cliff in order to understand cold or overcome the fear of hanging off the side of a cliff. Through these acts of punishment, the Shugenja would come to understand nature, and in understanding nature would be able to draw power from it. There’s really very little that’s different from the philosophy of the Shugenja and the philosophy of a mountain man or pioneer. The concepts of “drawing power from an understanding of nature” manifests itself practically as knowing how to stay alive in the woods, knowing what plants and berries you can eat, what certain signs in the weather might imply, things like that. Although approached from a religious frame of mind, the philosophy of the Shugenja and the Ninja is astoundingly practical and down-to-earth.
What the sundry warlords of feudal Japan saw in the Ninja were easy targets. Hillbillies who could be taxed and exploited and were too powerless in government to defend themselves. They weren’t entirely correct. Their superior knowledge of nature and of wilderness survival made a Ninja a fearsome opponent even for a well-trained samurai. Small groups of Ninja could hold off entire armies simply by employing a greater understanding of the land and how to use it to one’s advantage. All that cool looking samurai armor isn’t going to do you much good when some bunch of farmers are rolling boulders and logs down on you. Contact with Chinese martial artists helped them develop a fighting skill and tactical sense that was often greater than the commanders of the samurai legions, and it wasn’t long before the Ninja clans added political savvy to their repertoire. The manipulated policy to protect their villages and would gleefully promote any ignorant superstition about themselves that kept people nervous and away from their hills. Once again, similarities to the so-called hillbillies of Appalachia abound.
In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu became the ruler of Japan and ended the bloody era of warring states and petty lords. The new shogun decided he would hire Ninja to be his personal bodyguards. For the most part, members of the Ninja clan stayed out of the mainstream political and military scene, preferring to stick to things that directly affected them and their villages. The allure of money is strong, though, and for some Ninja it was more than enough to lure them out of the mountain forests and valleys and into the halls of the Imperial Castle, newly established in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) instead of its traditional home in Kyoto. Other Ninja looking for a quick way to make money rented themselves out as spies. Ninja had always been willing to do a little infiltration here and there in order to protect their family and community, and now some of them were putting these skills up for auction to the highest bidder rather than sticking to the tradition of working for and as part of the Ninja community.
These are, of course, the Ninja embraced by film and literature. Though noble and definitely interesting, the fact that most Ninjas were farmers and herbalists doesn’t necessarily make for rousing tales of action. Few and far between are the people who would see a movie called Furious Blade of the Ninja that was all about a clan of Ninja diligently hoeing the garden and using scythes to clear a patch of land for planting. The Ninja who rented themselves out – the sell-outs, basically – made for cooler stories, and so the renegades and the Ninja in the service of the Tokugawa shogunate became the basis for the bulk of the books and movies that were to come.
Unfortunately for the sell-outs, with the Tokugawa era came relative peace throughout Japan. Ninja eventually moved from roles as saboteurs, spies, and assassins to being castle guards, and eventually they came full circle, being relegated to the ranks of palace servants — most specifically, the gardener.
The outlandish notions regarding the Ninja that have become de rigueur in most ninja films evolved directly from a combination of widespread ignorance, propaganda, and creative license. Because the Ninja clans followed a different set of rules than those that governed the samurai lifestyle (ninpo instead of bushido), most of Japan’s looked down upon the Ninja as backward hayseeds and uncivilized countryfolk. They were the rednecks of medieval Japan. Part of the resentment toward the Ninja communities also came from the fact that the samurai were generally so unsuccessful at dealing with them. Masters of guerilla warfare – a necessity for a group of poor mountain folk who are vastly outnumbered by well-equipped armies – the Ninja were often able to befuddle even well-trained samurai through their command of the land and understanding of the sneakier aspects of a fight. Defeated samurai decried the Ninja tactics as dishonorable and deceitful; the Ninjas claimed they were fighting the only way practicality would allow.
To a samurai lost in the woods, it must have seemed like these backwoods yokels were wielding some sort of magic power. They would appear and vanish without a trace, use every part of nature to their benefit. Combine befuddlement with ego, and a samurai would return home with tail between legs and spin fanciful yarns about how the only reason he was defeated was because the Ninja disappeared into thin air, flew over the treetops, and performed other feats of wizardry.
The Ninja clans, in turn, were more than happy to take this hyperbole and run with it. The more people feared them, the less likely people were to come around and stick their nose into the Ninja communities. Because the Ninja were a secretive and insular community, there really wasn’t anyone to talk sense into people and refute the claim that Ninjas disappeared into clouds of multicolored smoke or were able to explode into hundreds of tiny ninjas.
While most early filmic depictions stuck to the historical facts about the ninjas who became assassins and spies for hire, the farther things moved from their Japanese roots, the more the wild old stories were once again embraced. Before too long, thanks in part to Chinese kungfu films, ninjas were everywhere, often clad in garish neon outfits and doing things like flying over castles and shooting flame out of their hands. By the 1980s, things really got out of hand, and more than a few movies from both sides of the Pacific featured people in wildly colorful ninja outfits running around the streets of modern-day cities. Of course, any real ninja would understand the key to performing their job is to blend end and seem nondescript and normal. You don’t get very far as a spy if you look like a spy, and there is very little that’s nondescript about a guy in metallic red pajamas and a facemask running down the streets of modern-day Duluth while waving a katana over his head.
Logic and history didn’t really matter of course. What people wanted wasn’t historical accuracy; they wanted guys screaming and using weird weapons and wearing hoods. And by 1980, American filmmakers were ready to give it to them.
Hot on the heels of The Octagon came Golan and Globus with 1981’s Enter the Ninja, the film that really kicked the trend into high gear. Real-life martial arts superstar Mike Stone had this script called Dance Of Death. He’d been shopping it around without much success, and eventually the thing landed on the desk of Menahem Golan. It took Golan a while to read it since he wasn’t initially interested in a martial arts movie. The success of The Ninja novel quickly changed his mind, and before long he and Stone were heading down to the Philippines to make a little movie called Enter the Ninja. Stone was set to star, at least until production began. Then all of a sudden, Stone was just the fight choreographer and stunt double for the new star, Italian action star Franco Nero.
One look at Nero will explain the sudden change. He oozes ninja. When you think of a ninja, the mental image in your mind is going to be very close to Franco Nero: tall, blond, a little solid in the weight department, and adorned with a thick Maurizio Merli mustache. Stone was baffled, but what the hell? He was getting paid more to work behind the scenes and as a double than he was originally offered to be the star. The one problem that emerges in the film with Stone as Nero’s double is that he’s not only leaner, he also has a big, dark white guy ‘fro while Nero has fairly thin, blond hair. The end result is that one minute you’re watching Franco Nero strike a ninja pose, and the next minute you’re going, “Is that Screech kicking that guy’s ass?” Luckily, most of the action takes place behind the hood and mask of a ninja uniform, so the difference is only obvious in a few scenes.
Nero plays Cole, the first Westerner to ever be recognized by a Japanese school of ninjitsu. He gets this recognition by running through a bamboo forest and pretending to kill his ninja brothers and master. He looks resplendent in his bright white ninja uniform, the perfect color for blending in with his lush green background. As a testament to the sophistication of his skill, he manages to bury himself, climb trees, jump off cliffs, and swim in a brackish pond while still keeping his duds sparkling white. Now my friends and I used to do run around like ninjas in the woods fairly regularly, but no one ever flew in from Japan to give us any recognition, I assume because Sho Kosugi was working behind the scenes to prevent us from receiving our due. At least, that’s what he does here. Kosugi plays Cole’s ninja brother, Hasegawa, who is not as impressed as the master by Cole’s ability to sprint through the jungle and pretend to behead people. Hasegawa displays his ninja training prowess by tipping over his tea cup, pounding his fists on the table, and whining, “He is no ninja!” If you’ve ever been to a friend’s birthday party where one kid starts crying, or your friend gets yelled at by his mom in front of everyone, you have a general idea of how this feels for all the other ninjas. They just keep quiet, stare at the table, and pray that the cake comes soon.
With his newfound ninja credentials secure, Cole heads to the Philippines to visit his old war buddy, Frank Landers, played by Alex Courtney. Courtney looks like a b-movie version of James Caan. He and his British wife have one of those standard issue pieces of land that some greedy developer wants to buy. They, of course, won’t sell, having fallen in love with the simple, rustic life of owning a lavish Filipino plantation house. The greedy businessman, who of course, lounges about his posh high-rise office space in a silk robe, employs a variety of ludicrous goons in hopes of strong-arming Frank into selling the land. Leading the goons is Sigfried, a bulbous limping worm of a German stereotype in a white Panama Jack suit (you’ll see many of those during the course of the film) and sporting a keen hook hand. Exactly why a man who could best be described as “hamster-like” or “not dissimilar to that Goatman on Saturday Night Live gets to be in charge is a mystery.
Movies, especially bad movies, have a tendency to always cast some incredibly greasy little twerp as the leader of the evil thugs. What are they thinking? Fat German weasels who sweat a lot and can’t walk are seldom the leader of vicious street toughs, but in movies, gangs always get lead by the goofiest guy imaginable? I mean, what makes a criminal mastermind look at an overweight sweat hog with a bum leg and think, “This is the perfect guy to be my main thug!” Oh sure, he has a hook hand, but his nasal voice and gland problems negate the coolness of steel, and his primary value of a fighter seems to be the ability to stick the occasional surly dock worker in the thigh.
Cole quickly becomes entangled in Frank’s fight to get rid of the thugs, which in a way is actually in line with ancient Ninja priorities about defending their farms and small rural villages from big city heavies. This could be an accident, though. The script from here on out is pretty much what you would expect. There’s a scene of Frank getting drunk and losing hope, followed by a scene of Cole kicking someone’s ass. Peppered throughout are scenes of Filipino farmers getting beat up by the lamest looking bunch of thugs you could possibly imagine. Someone apparently employed the cast of Taxi to be the muscle, only they told Tony Danza to stay home.
Isn’t there a single Filipino who can fight? Here’s the thing movies have never understood. They always feature some backwater town full of helpless peasants who get bullied by even the lamest of villains. Try this experiment: go to some small hick town, go to the local bar, and try to start some shit. Walk up to the first guy you see and pour his Red Dog into his lap, then say, “I think you work for me now, asshole.” As the six-foot six factory worker with a belt buckle bigger than your head stands up in preparation for pounding your ass into next week, reflect on why it is movies always feature skinny-ass, no-fighting-talent goofballs reigning over entire hick towns like little Hitlers. In my experience, small towns are over the world are pretty much the same, and whether it’s Africa or the Philippines, I find it difficult to believe there’s not a single Filipino bad-ass who could just strut up and beat the unholy crap out of the sweaty German goatman or the floppy-haired beanpole whose big 1970s mustache weighs more than the rest of him.
Trust me. Go to some seedy Filipino bar in some small farming shantytown, start throwing your weight around (possibly while faking a limp and a sniveling German accent) and see if a dozen muscular, tan guys with mustaches, cowboy hats, and open Hawaiian shirts don’t line up to teach you a valuable lesson about the difference between movies and real life.
Because this was the 1980s, Cole is joined by the “comic relief codger,” who fulfills the role with gusto, even performing the standard routine of popping up to cover the hero with a gun when faced with a dozen opponents. He also fulfills the role by upholding the tradition of not being very funny. You know, you could probably count the number of comic relief characters who were actually funny on one hand, even if it was a hook hand.
Seeing how Cole has a cackling old fart with a white beard, a drunk guy with a white dude afro, and a sassy British gal as his army, the developer sends out a couple more guys in white suits and hires Hasegawa, telling the ninja master that they are fighting local thugs and bullies who are hassling the farmers. The ninja master doesn’t really research this claim too heavily. Hasegawa himself isn’t as naive about the motivations of his new employers, and he doesn’t much care so long as it gives him a chance to face off against Cole. After all the expendable characters have been dealt with (how many films feature a guy who turns to alcohol and doesn’t get killed as a means to motivate the hero?), and a large amount of sneaking around is done, Cole and Hasegawa finally face off in an old boxing arena. Cole also finally slips on his form-fitting white ninja uniform to contrast nicely with Hasegawa’s black uniform. It’s a welcome change from the tight slacks Cole’s been sporting for most of the movie.
Enter the Ninja isn’t what one would call a great movie, but it’s not as bad as you might thing. Though Cannon’s follow-up, Revenge of the Ninja was both better and sillier, Enter the Ninja is still a fair movie and certainly better than the vast majority of ninja films that would follow in its footsteps. Golan’s direction is pedestrian and uninteresting, but it gets the job done. His big flirtation with style is to play the “wah wah wah wahhhhh” comedy punchline music when Cole rips off Sigfried’s hook hand and throws it to him with the singer, “Hey! You forgot something.” The acting is not half bad. Franco Nero is not very convincing as a master of the martial arts, but he is convincing as a fist-swinging bad-ass, and on top of that, he’s a decent actor. The supporting cast is okay, though most of them are relegated to the ranks of speechless thug or over-the-top action film cliche.
The plot has its fair share of goofiness, of course, but at the heart of things is a predictable though time-tested story about the greedy developer picking on the innocent. That plot worked for a million black action films, so there’s no reason it can’t work for a ninja film. The silliness stems mostly from the fact that Cole and Hasegawa feel the need to thrown on their ninja uniforms for the big finale. What’s the point? All the bad guys already know who Cole is, and everyone knows who Hasegawa is as well. What’s the point in wrapping your head up in a sight-restricting hood to hide your identity? Nothing looks sillier than a guy in a white ninja suit stepping out of a Caddie in a modern setting.
Another big question would be: where the hell are the cops? Not to mention the Filipinos who can fight? I mean, the Philippines aren’t a savage and untamed land. They do have police there. The first thing Cole does when he gets to town is impale a guy on a work bench. You’d think someone with some authority would want to have a chat about that. People are killed left and right, and not once do the authorities show up to even be corrupt and take a bribe from the rich guy.
And then of course, there’s the final joke in which Cole thinks about killing the now reformed and utterly defenseless Sigfried just for shits and giggles.
All things considered, and in the greater scheme of things, Stone’s script commits no great offenses worse than anything you’d find in any other low-budget action film. In fact, as far as ninja films go, it’s one of the most sensible scripts around. Although Hasegawa and Cole do eventually suit up in the traditional garb, Cole does most of his ninja-ing in a pair of slacks and a seersucker shirt or in a jogging suit. And not once do they perform mystical feats like flying or disappearing or splitting themselves into phantom decoy images. It’s all pretty straight-forward, no-nonsense stuff, and given the utter absurdities that would soon clog the ninja arteries, the simple yet grounded-in-reality (relatively speaking) story is a welcome thing. It wasn’t until after this film that things would get ridiculous and Tomas Tang would have lanky white guys in shiny red, white and blue ninja outfits running around with bright yellow headbands that said “Ninja” on them in that jagged “Oriental” font.
Enter the Ninja takes a lot of flack as a result of just how low the genre would sink – not that it was ever that high. When your two best entries in a genre both come from Cannon Films, you’re in trouble. Most of the disdain is unwarranted however, and people often attribute the foibles of later movies to this one. A quick viewing will reveal to you that, while not a great movie by any stretch, Enter the Ninja also isn’t a bad movie. As action fare goes, it’s fairly harmless and even enjoyable in that late 1970s/early 1980s way. It maintains a pretty violent pace despite the lame comic relief bits, the action comes frequently, and the script, while no work of art, at least makes simple sense in the world of action films. Try on any plot from any Tang/Godfrey Ho film and tell me if you don’t find yourself with a newfound appreciation for Mike Stone’s derivative but more or less logical story (again, this is all relative).
The fight choreography ranges from typical to slightly above-average, with the final sword fight between Cole (being played under the mask by Mike Stone) and Hasegawa being the high point. It’s obvious that you have two real martial artists doing the work during that scene, and while no one’s going to look at it and see Swordsman-like movies, it’s a not a bad bout. The rest of the fights consist of the typical American “guy with martial arts fights lugs without martial arts,” so there’s very little in the way of martial arts choreography. Franco Nero basically hits the guys a lot, then transforms into Mike Stone to deliver the occasional kick or flip. Not good stuff, but not bad if you are just looking for fist fights. All in all, if you want scintillating martial arts mayhem, Enter the Ninja is going to leave you cold. If you want historical facts about ninjas, you’re going to be just as cold, and you really should start exercising better judgment in where you look for historical information.
If, however, you’re looking for an unpolished but fairly enjoyable low-budget action film that just happens to feature two guys who don ninja uniforms at the very end, then you could do worse. It may not be art, but it’s got a certain grimy charm. Art or not, it was a box office hit, and then it was even bigger when it debuted on the new medium of cable television, the format on which Cannon would build an empire. A quick release to theaters just to be polite would then be followed by heavy rotation on HBO, and an army of underaged brats would become instant fans.
People like to rip apart American-made martial arts film, with the basis for the action usually being that they’re generally really horrible movies. The fights are plodding and poorly done, the scripts are atrocious if there’s even enough work put into it to be atrocious, and the production values are slightly above what you might find in your better infomercials. They’re easy targets and generally deserve the wrath they inspire. But they’re not all totally worthless. Enter the Ninja has very few examples of what might be called good writing or good fighting, but it’s not the worst thing ever. When Stone and Kosugi lock up, there’s some decent stuff. When Franco Nero is in control, he caries himself with all the fleet-footed grace of a drunk lumberjack, but at least you’ll believe he could kick the shit out of Sigfried. The biggest problem American films have, especially from this period, is that they almost always feature a guy with kungfu fighting a guy with no kungfu. The end result isn’t much to see. While Enter the Ninja certainly has its fair share of such scuffles, it at least has the good sense to move along at a brisk pace. Within the realm of American-made martial arts films, and that’s a sad realm indeed, Enter the Ninja is probably one of the top ten films, falling behind contemporaries like Revenge of the Ninja and newer films like Shanghai Noon.
Cannon followed the success of this film with Revenge of the Ninja, this time turning the tables and making Sho Kosugi the hero. He did very little in Enter the Ninja until the end, but Revenge was his show. It was supposed to be Stone’s show, but once again, Golan pulled the rug out from under the karate champ and left him standing in the rain. It seems kind of cruel, but given Stone’s acting career after his time with Cannon (as in, he didn’t have one), perhaps his acting skills were simply not as impressive as his fighting skills. Revenge of the Ninja did pair Kosugi with another real-life martial arts star, Keith Vitale, who would go on to star in a number of crappy American martial arts films and the not crappy at all Jackie Chan/Sammo Hun/Yuen Biao film, Wheels on Meals, where he was outshined by creepy Benny Urquidez.
Enter the Ninja allows Sho Kosugi to enjoy what would in the ensuing years become known as the “Boba Fett Phenomenon.” Named for the Star Wars bad-ass who never actually does a single bad-ass thing gets his ass handed to him lickety-split the first time we see him fight, the phenomenon happens whenever a character is perceived as an ultra-cool bad-ass despite there being a single bit of onscreen evidence to support the reputation. In Enter the Ninja we see Sho Kosugi fight twice. He gets his ass kicked both times. The only time he wins a fight is when he’s tangling with a drunk. All things considered, his onscreen fight victories are no more impressive or numerous than those of Sigfried.
But at least he looked good getting his ass kicked, and Sho Kosugi was aggressive enough behind the scenes to parlay his supporting villain role into a short but memorable career. When the ninja craze died out a few years later, Sho disappeared back into the shadows from whence he came, emerging only once in the 1990s in an attempt to market his “Ninjasize” workout video, complete with spandex-clad “Ninjettes.” It didn’t really grab the world the same way Tae Bo or the Gazelle did, but I guess it paid a few bills.
Good or bad, and I maintain that there is actually more good than bad, Enter the Ninja is a landmark film, the one that started it all, the Conan the Barbarian of ninja exploitation. Just like Conan, Enter the Ninja’s reputation is harmed by the infinite crimes that would be committed in its name, from crappy American ninja movies to guys with mullets wearing ninja pants and practicing their nunchuka skills in the park, Enter the Ninja spawned far more idiocy than it actually contains. It’s not as good as Conan by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s also not as bad as you may think if you haven’t seen it in a long time. Goofy action fun is all I need sometimes, and that’s all Enter the Ninja delivers.