Commando tells the story of young Chandu, who’s name changes in the subtitles to Chander about halfway through the movie. Either way, I’m simply calling him Commando, in honor of his arch nemesis being named Ninja. The movie begins when Commando is but a boy, and his father is the commando of the family, prone to taking his young son out on early morning workouts that involve singing, at least half a dozen different track suits, running, judo, horsing around on the playground, karate, riding horses on the beach, riding bikes, shooting rifles, getting punched repeatedly in the face by his father, and doing push-ups that look less like push-ups and more like a little kid making sweet, sweet love to the ground. Perhaps this is an allegory for young Chandu’s love for Mother India, but I don’t think it’s a proper way for a boy to behave toward his mother. So let’s just chalk it up to appalling push-up form and leave it at that.
For better or for worse Chuck Norris and his big bushy 1970s mustache will forever be the face of the American martial arts film. It’s not because his films were any good so much as it is the simple fact that he was there and he never went away. Guys like Jim Kelly and Don Knotts simply faded into the background, while Van Damme and Steven Seagal were relegated to the rows of direct-to-video fare when audiences finally caught on that there was no real reason to be watching On Deadly Ground when you could watch Jackie Chan instead. By all means, Norris should have joined one of these two groups by now, but like an agile cat, he manages to bend and twist and avoid the arrows, keeping himself just above the ranks of the fallen.
He got his start in movies thanks to Bruce Lee’s many contacts in Hollywood, namely Dean Martin. Martin used Norris as a stunt extra for one of the Matt Helm movies before Norris really made an impact as the boss bad guy in Bruce Lee’s classic Way of the Dragon. Their confrontation during the film’s finale in the Roman Coliseum is one of the top screen fights in kungfu film history. Bruce wanted to work with Chuck Norris because, unlike most martial arts stars, he was adamant about casting real-life martial artists to fight n his film. Most filmmakers were happy with dancers, gymnasts, or people who could just wave their arms wildly at the camera and tumble around.
When Lee got a chance to direct a film, one of the first things he did was set about hiring the best martial artists he could afford. For the film’s biggest fight, he turned to Chuck Norris. After making such an impact in that film, where audiences around the globe were wowed by his intense fighting style and abundance of body hair, it was no surprise that people started thinking about casting him in larger roles. His first was as the head heavy in Yellow Faced Tiger, released in the United States as Slaughter in San Francisco. What that role had in common with his role in Way of the Dragon was that it was a Hong Kong film that didn’t really require more from Chuck than kicking some ass. His lines can be summed up pretty much as the following: “Hmmm,” “Arrrr,” and of course, “Ha ha ha ha ha!”
When Chuck finally got to start speaking his own language (or any language at all beyond primal grunts and evil laughter), people found that he wasn’t really that great an actor. What did they expect? It’s not like he was actor. How good at karate are your average actors? Luckily, scripts rarely demanded more from Chuck than his poor man’s Clint Eastwood, and when they did, he was wooden but certainly not the worst performer in the world. Not that it mattered. People weren’t lining up to see Force of One in hopes of catching some really heart-wrenching scenes of Chuck Norris emoting all over the place. They were, however, hoping for heart-wrenching scenes in the most literal sense. In that category, Norris always delivered. Throughout the 1970s, Norris’ fame and onscreen body count grew rapidly. His specialty was the “man of peace driven to extreme measures by evil people,” his days as a cackling villain long behind him. Norris’ characters were always noble, humble, and generally fond of cowboy garb.
Folks liked Chuck Norris movies because they identified with him. He was just this normal looking guy: not all that handsome, not all that muscular, but possessed of intense inner strength matched by fists that could shatter brick and bone. He was always the moralist, always the straight guy, always the hero at a time when antiheroes were all the rage. Sure, he butted heads with the higher-ups and rattled a few cages, but that’s because there was so much corruption around him. He was just as likely to put cowboy boot to ass on a corrupt politician or police chief as he was coke dealer or robber-baron. While there was no shortage of tough-as-nails heroes for the urban crowd, Norris was one of the few guys out there dealing double-fisted beat-downs in the name of all the rural, small-town guys who talked softly and wore bootcut jeans. He was Billy Jack without the endless scenes of improvisational theater and explanations of the alternative hippie school.
The one problem aside from his limited acting range was the limited writing range of whoever was dreaming up those movies. Pretty much every one of them entails Chuck beating up a bunch of small-town thugs or international drug lords employing small-town thugs. Rarely did he face off against other martial artists, which I guess is realistic (how many fights have you seen that bust out into fully choreographed kungfu fights?) but not all that interesting to watch. Uneven pacing and cliché scripts only helped to muddy the waters, keeping most of Chuck’s films in the “not good but still enjoyable” range until the 1990s, when he dropped the “but still enjoyable” aspect of his work.
In 1980, Chuck Norris made a film that used what was then a little-known but increasingly popular martial arts legend. The legend was the Ninja, and the movie was The Octagon. The ninja trend would really start rolling a year later with the release of Cannon Films’ Enter the Ninja, but Norris beat everyone to the spinning punch when he incorporated the mask-wearing shadow warriors into this not altogether bad little martial arts adventure. Norris plays Scott James – an action hero who has a normal name instead of being named something like “Derek Ice” or “Maximilian Scorpio, Esquire.” Scott’s just your average Southwestern dude who happens to have a secret Ninja past and a Ninja brother who wants to kill him some day. Scott also has a tendency to allow his thoughts to be broadcast as echoing whispers throughout the entire movie, which gets pretty annoying after about, oh let’s say the first time it happens. Call it personal preference, but I really hate the whole “echoing voice-over” thought-bubble thing. It just seems goofy to me, and I can’t stand that they always have to make it a whisper. Scott never thinks in a normal voice, just like all those people in Dune thought to themselves in whispers. I tend to think to myself in Patrick Stewart’s voice, all booming and commanding.
Scott gets tangled up with a militia that trains potential terrorists using Ninja techniques. Watching these would-be thugs get their ninja training reminded me of the year Phillip Holder moved to Gainesville and amused us all with his self-aggrandizing fliers stapled up all over town. Anyone who has ever picked up a copy of Inside Kungfu is no doubt familiar not only with Chuck Norris brand karate jeans (with increased stretchability for when you need to kick a trucker in the head while still lookin’ good and not ripping the seat of your pants), but also with (self-proclaimed) Grand Master Phillip Holder, who peppered the magazine with ads hocking his instructional videos. When he moved his global training center to Gainesville, Florida, he put signs up everywhere looking for students who wanted to be trained by “the world’s third deadliest man.” No one ever explained that title to me. I guess there is some international governing body that hands out “deadliest man” rankings, but that still doesn’t explain the exact nature of Holder’s claim. Is he the third man to hold the title “world’s deadliest man,” or is that in the race to be the world’s deadliest man, there are two men in the world deadlier than Phillip Holder?
Anyway, he crossed over into Octagon territory when he opened a summer camp for “Bodyguard and Ninjitsu Training.” I have no doubt that Phillip Holder could hand me my ass on a silver platter, just as I have no doubt that the few beer-swilling, Joe Don Baker looking good ol’ boys who attended the Grand Master’s ninja summer camp could kick my ass in less time than it would take them to down a can of Red Dog, but let’s face it: being able to kick my ass doesn’t exactly qualify you for Grand Master status or serve as a major stepping stone on your way to becoming a ninja. I’m guessing that alumnus of the Phillip Holder Ninja Camp (or “Kamp” if you are funny) were about the same as the people graduating from this Octagon thing, meaning they’re the type of gang who would get their ass kicked by a single well-trained individual.
But Norris is a man of peace, and he doesn’t just haul off and kick someone’s ass without dragging the decision out for the first two-thirds of the film. Luckily, people keep trying to kill him for no real reason, so he does get to fight a lot in between echoing voice-over thought whispers of him going, “Sakura, could it be you?” as he contemplates the possibility that his old ninja brother is the man behind the terrorist ninja camp. Speaking of terrorist camps, here’s a question I’ve had on my mind since I first saw all that footage of Al Quaeda training facilities with the guys scrambling over ramps and stuff: why do terrorists need to know how to perform well on gymborees? Honestly, I think whenever Osama bin Laden couldn’t think of anything more destructive for his thugs to do, he’d just send them out to jump over the bars and swing on the ropes. Are they planning on taking down America by challenging us to a footrace through an obstacle course? Or are they training to win that Gymkata game?
One of the women at the terrorist training camp decides this is all a little much, and makes a hasty retreat, eventually coming into contact with Scott (Norris), who has been busy playing games with some rich chick while his best friend grumbles and Lee Van Cleef drifts in and out of the film in an attempt to spur Chuck’s character to action or possibly just collect a paycheck. You’d say that Van Cleef was slumming it in b-movie action realm if his filmography wasn’t so full of shame. Given that he would later go on to star in the abysmal Master Ninja television series, it’s safe to say that this movie is the pinnacle of all things Lee Van Cleef has done involving ninjas. Eventually, the reformed terrorist chick shows her boobs to Chuck Norris and he finally gets off his peace-lovin’ ass track down Sakura’s ninja camp. The terrorist chick shoots stuff, Lee Van Cleef gets to blow things up, and Chuck Norris has to fight his way through a maze filled with ninja henchmen before facing off against the final ninja henchman (who insists on wearing an elaborate get-up and metal mask even though the training facility is in the middle of the desert in Mexico) and, ultimately, his estranged blood brother.
The Octagon takes a lot of flack for “looking dated,” which has never hit me as an especially meaningful criticism. It’s what people say who can’t remember back more than three years. It’s not Chuck’s fault that fashion in the late 1970s was so abysmal. Luckily for him, cowboy fashion has been the same pretty much since the 1800’s, so at least he isn’t strutting around in all those plaid flares Sonny Chiba had a tendency to don. That a film looks dated really doesn’t bother me or register, most likely because I’ve been watching film so closely for so long now that I’ve simply learned to disregard certain trivial things that other people seem to get hung up on. Besides, there’s plenty of stuff to complain about in The Octagon without having to dwell on the khaki pantsuits and things like that.
First, of course, there’s that damn whispering. I go to bed at night, and I hear Chuck Norris whispering in the wind. I’m thinking of recording all his weird echoing whispers and playing them at random intervals during subway rides around town. That would at least afford me some small amount of satisfaction for having to hear ol’ Chuck’s whisper-thought so much. It seems weird to have to yell “Shut up!” at a guy who isn’t actually saying anything. Watching The Octagon is a simulation of what it must feel like to have ESP.
Coming out when it did, The Octagon is basically a 1970s action film with a 1980 release date. As such, it suffers from many of that era’s shortcomings, which are actually many of the same things that endeared the movies to me. It’s needlessly arty in some places, amateurishly crude in others. Flashbacks have a freaky tint to them, and many of the nighttime scenes are poorly lit (or at least poorly transferred from the original negatives). The pacing is also pretty uneven. When there’s action a-brewin’, it’s generally pretty good, but when it comes down to scenes of Chuck Norris engaging in witty banter with Lee Van Cleef or the rich lady, things just grind to a halt. Luckily, the final third of the film dispenses with the dialogue altogether save for the occasional shout of “Sakura!!!” and just makes with the martial arts mayhem.
I also don’t begrudge Chuck Norris the chance to have a cute girl get naked for him during the film’s one short love scene. Given the chance, I’m sure most of us would write ourselves a script that involved some attractive young gal rubbing her boobs against us, or some strapping young cabana boy giving us a cocoa butter rub-down. But understandable or not, I’m not so into seeing Chuck Norris’ carpetlike chest stroked lovingly like someone might pet a furry dog or a sasquatch. I mean, you slide your fingers into that jungle, and there’s a chance some of them won’t come back out.
Action, of course, is what we’re here for, and when the movie shuts up long enough, it delivers some solid martial arts fun. Sure, we’re not talking Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, but as far as American martial arts films go, The Octagon has better than average fight scenes. Norris is in good form and this movie has the wisdom to pit him against other martial artists rather than fist-swinging country lugs. While the choreography isn’t mind-blowing, it’s definitely solid and even believable for the most part. Sakura is played by Japanese karate movie mainstay Tadashi Yamashita, and Richard Norton shows up as a thug, so this movie isn’t devoid of martial arts talent. For the most part, fights are well done. I’m sure fans of the wild wire-fu and undercranked nonsense will find the fights sluggish, but since I enjoy the old school even if it’s slower and doesn’t fly through the treetops, I thought The Octagon’s martial arts were pretty enjoyable.
As for the ninjas, I’m not quite sure what their deal was. I know that ninja popularity was on the rise as this film was being completed, but none of the ninjas in the movie do anything particularly ninjalike. Sure, they sneak into houses and try to strangle Chuck Norris, but there’s no real reason to do masks and cloaks for that. Well, masks maybe, but you don’t exactly blend in with the surroundings running around your average Southwestern city in a ninja uniform and cloak. They don’t seem to be teaching their students very much, either. Sakura and his sai-wielding ninja right hand man kick dirt at people and do that thing where you teach them a lesson by beating them up, but none of their pupils seems especially accomplished at any point. I wonder if Sakura and his masked pal didn’t go back home after a day of watching the recruits screw up and bemoan the sorry state of ninjitsu students these days. Additionally, if the entire idea behind the art of ninjitsu is that you blend in to your surroundings, why would a bunch of Japanese ninjas build their camp in Mexico then strut around the local barrio in their ninja outfits? Mexico is a pretty laid back place, but even the most stereotypical Mexican peasant would be stirred from his siesta by a troupe of ninjas marching down the street. Maybe Sakura just passes his men off as some Cirque du Soliel type of thing.
On the acting front – well, you get what you pay for. That Chuck Norris has never been nominated for a “Best Actor” Oscar is no travesty of justice, and he proves that here. He’s not bad, per se, but he is stiff. He gives it the ol’ college try, and he’s better than a lot of the other actors in the genre. Lee Van Cleef is there to pay some bills, but he turns in a decent performance, though half the time exactly what he’s even doing is a bit unclear. Yamashida is all action, few words, as is Norton. The rest of the cast – well, let’s leave it at the fact that there’s a good reason you’ve probably never heard of most of them before or after this film.
Problems aside, The Octagon really isn’t such a bad film. It was the first out of the ninja gate, even if Enter the Ninja was more popular, so it gets points for being historically important in that regard (or however historically important low-budget B-movie action films can be). It’s certainly better than vast many ninja films that would be released throughout the 1980s, sitting at the top of the heap alongside the likes of Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, and Pray for Death. Granted, that’s not an especially tall heap, but it’s better than nothing. If you’re looking for wild ninja action and people disappearing into puffs of purple smoke, your better off with a film like Ninja Hunters. If, however, you appreciate decent low-budget 1970s action films, The Octagon has a lot of fun to offer despite the stop and go pacing and low production values. I’m much happier with a low key film like this than I am overblown, special effects laden crap like we see today. Call me a cranky old redneck with no taste, but I’d much rather see Chuck Norris beating up ninjas in some sandy courtyard than I would ever watch Jet Li do cgi-fu and “bullet time” effects.
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.
Just when you thought America’s cities were getting safer (as our suburbs and rural towns get more dangerous), you leave the house to walk down to the corner bodego and catch sight of a bunch of cops fighting with a ninja. It’s more than likely that at some point the ninja throws down an eggshell grenade and disappears into a puff of red smoke. Or maybe you stumble upon a couple of ninjas all fighting each other in the middle of 2nd Avenue. It may sound weird to our late 1990s ears, but way back in the 1980s, this is how things were. America’s cities were infested with ninjas, usually wearing the traditional black ninja suit, but sometimes also wearing shiny gold, red, green, or purple outfits. The urban ninja is not above a fashion statement, after all. Statistics estimate that in the early- to mid-1980s, for every thousand cockroaches in a city, there were also five ninjas. Since every American city has a cockroach population numbering in the hundreds of millions, you can bet that’s quite a few ninjas along for the ride.
Sometimes, real life events contribute to the effectiveness of an on-screen story. A tremendous act of synchronicity results in the alignment of elements, each one falling into place so perfectly that it could never be orchestrated by anything but nature itself. Such is the case with the mini-flood of ninja movies during the 1980s, and the life of the star of most of the movies — a man named Sho Kosugi. No one had heard of Sho Kosugi, but when the ninja craze hit American shores, he suddenly stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight, bringing to our attention the secret tactics and lives of the mysterious warriors known as ninja. When the craze finally died out, Sho Kosugi vanished back into the shadows without a trace. Some said he went into hiding, pursued by an ancient sect of ninja who wanted to kill him for divulging their secrets to the world. Some say that to this very day he is kicked back and living the good life in some secret mansion alongside Bruce Lee, also in hiding from those who would seek to murder him.
Whatever the case may be, there is no denying that Sho Kosugi’s mysterious past, present, and future, contributed to the mystique of the ninja movie. And though his son, Kane, carries on the tradition established by his father of Kosugi family members starring in sub-par martial arts films (Kane has starred in shows like KakuRanger and Ultraman Powered), he does not wield the power or command the respect his father did. Sho Kosugi was a Asian bad-ass in American film when there were no Asian bad-asses. Bruce Lee had passed on and wouldn’t enjoy a revival until the 1990s. Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan were busy kicking ass over in Hong Kong, but their wild exploits were all but non-existent if you were living in America. No, the best we had over here was Chuck Norris, donning the traditional martial arts garb of a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, some rawhide vest, and of course, Chuck Norris brand karate stretch jeans, as advertised in early 1980s copies of Inside Kungfu.
When the notorious production team of Golan and Globus, who gave us many of the films we watch today on Mystery Science Theater 3000, decided they wanted to make a film about ninjas, they called upon Sho Kosugi to be the heavy. For some reason, Italian B-movie star Franco Nero was cast as the doughy hero. He’s best known for his role as Django, the cowboy who wanders the old west with a coffin in tow. That’s cool and all, but now he got to don a white ninja outfit and have a stunt double jump around. It … didn’t work. The film was Enter the Ninja, and while there are many interesting stories about it, I will save those for an actual review of Enter the Ninja. Suffice it to say that audiences were wowed by the zany ninja antics, a trend was born, and no one gave a shit about Franco Nero. They did, however, dig Sho Kosugi. So when Golan and Globus decided to milk the genre for all it was worth (but not as badly as Thomas Tang would milk it) and make another ninja film, they called on Sho Kosugi to play the lead.
This was at a time when Asian men were reduced to playing ass grabbers (Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects) and seedy criminals (Year of the Dragon). Even black heroes had fallen by the wayside. The 1980s were the era of big white heroes, and the days of Bruce Lee and Fred Williamson were gone. So it was a big deal to have Sho Kosugi storm the party and lend a non-white face to violent, heroic derring-do. Although Sho Kosugi was still fulfilling a stereotype (martial arts bad-ass), you gotta admit that’s not a bad stereotype to have. It’s better than most. And it’s cooler than the white American stereotype, which is a big dumb-ass with a gun. He fulfilled a more important role, though, that had been vacated with the death of black action films and the gentrification of kungfu films. He was a non-white hero kicking ass in a predominantly white world. It’s no wonder Sho and the ninja films were embraced so whole-heartedly. For anyone who couldn’t relate to the time-hopping exploits of Michael J. Fox or the sweaty machismo of Rambo, Sho Kosugi was all they had.
Incidentally, there are a lot of big dumb-asses with guns in this film, which was called Revenge of the Ninja. It has nothing to do with Enter the Ninja, other than having ninjas all over the damn place. During the 1980s, you could actually see more ninjas running around in broad daylight in downtown LA than you saw at night during the middle ages in Japan. In the case of Sho Kosugi, he is a former ninja (I didn’t know there were such thing — do you get a good 401k as a retired ninja?) who moves to Los Angeles to run an antique shop with his friend. What he doesn’t know is that his friend is using the antiques as a way to smuggle dope. As more and more thugs start hanging around the shop, Sho starts to catch on that something is up. In order to stop his firestorm of ninja powers, the dope smuggling gangsters kidnap Sho’s son (played by his real son, Kane). So let me get this straight — you have this ninja who you’ve pissed off. And the best thing you can come up with to make him stop hassling you is to kidnap his son? Why would you kidnap a ninja’s son? Don’t they know that will just piss him off more and make him do even more flips than ever before?
Another ninja is called in to kill Sho Kosugi after the shit hits the proverbial fan. Mobsters are getting slashed left and right as Sho seeks revenge and the other ninja just doesn’t give a shit. Big surprise when the other ninja turns out to be Sho’s friend. What was he expecting? I would imagine the society of ninjas is pretty small, even on a global scale, so you get to know all the other ninjas after a while. The finale has Sho and the other ninja storming a high-rise that has been fortified by the mobsters. They kill lots of gun-toting toadies before finally facing off on the roof. Somewhere amid it all, a police office played by Keith Vitali (Wheels on Meals) crawls around wounded in the hallway.
Despite the fact that it contains more cheese than one of those disgusting stuffed crust pizzas, I really like Revenge of the Ninja. I remember the first time I saw it. I was at my grandparent’s house for the weekend. They just got cable TV, and I was up late watching HBO, hoping to catch a glimpse of some boobies or something. Revenge of the Ninja gave me that and so much more. I was going wild, and although I didn’t go out and buy a headband that said “Ninja” on it in that jagged “oriental” typeface (whatever), I was definitely hooked on gory ninja films as much as I was on gory kungfu films. Revenge of the Ninja is tons of fun, with a tremendous body count, fountains of blood, cheap 1980s sex scenes, Kane Kosugi kicking ass on gangsters, Sho Kosugi kicking ass on gangsters, dueling ninjas, and pretty much everything else a boy could ask for. The martial arts, which are mostly sword fights, are actually pretty good. The bag o’ ninja tricks each ninja has is more fun than any of that James Bond gadgetry.
Sho Kosugi is a fun hero — the man of peace pushed too far. We don’t see too many of those these days, but they were always my favorite. These days, everyone is all to ready to duke it out and go to war, but Sho demonstrated restraint. Even when faced with physical violence against himself, he held back, partly because he didn’t want to reveal that he was a ninja (as if kicking someone’s ass would make them automatically go, “Shit, that dude must be a ninja!”), but mostly because he believed in peace. Violence was always the final, tragic solution, but when he resigned himself to it, he sure didn’t hold back! A solid 90 minutes of entertainment.