The Cannon Ninja Trilogy
The wild (and wildly mixed) output from the notorious Cannon Films has been of keen interest to both fans and critics since the company's formative years, peaking in the 1980's, while being the subject of recent documentaries Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films and the official The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films.
Notorious for their wild concepts, boundary-pushing taboos and often humourously cheap production values, the company became notorious; sometimes loved, sometimes hated, but immensely influential in the action genre and the moviemaking business as a whole. What's more, their impact is still felt today.
Often credited for starting the "Ninja" movie craze of the 1980's, the studio was known for bringing new, often exotic ideas and concepts to those genres audiences loved and this very franchise was no exception. It even made a genre star of Sho Kosugi before he'd appear in the likes of Black Eagle (made more famous through Jean-Claude Van Damme's subsequent stardom) and the hit Ninja Assassin years later.
Beginning with Enter the Ninja before raising the stakes in Revenge of the Ninja and going shamelessly surreal in Ninja III: The Domination, these original films spearheaded a craze for the titular character-type that would surge in popularity over the years, becoming ingrained in popular culture.
Today, pretty much everyone - young or old - has some idea of what a ninja is, or looks like. However, for a real taste of the formula, you need to go back to the beginning.
Enter the Ninja (1981) was the first in this "unofficial" movie series and starred the great, but strangely cast Franco Nero, shot in the Philippines and directed by Cannon's own Menahem Golan. The story follows Cole (Nero), a war vet who completes his ninjutsu training in Japan. When he visits his old war buddy Frank and new wife, he discovers the couple are being harassed by a wealthy industrialist forcing them to sell their land. Before long, a ninjutsu rival from Cole's past (Kosugi) is brought in to help eliminate the problem. The film became a VHS hit and earned a largely positive reception upon first release, marking the beginning of a new ninja obsession. For me, the film holds more of a late 1970's feel, by no means a bad thing, and remains a lot of fun with plenty of colourful characters, hammy acting and quotable lines: "Give him a message for me... I don't like to be followed!" In retrospect, it's also interesting to see Kosugi make his first appearance in the series as the bad guy.
Revenge of the Ninja (1983) shifted the spotlight onto Sho Kosugi (playing a totally different character) as a new, titular hero and relocates the action to Salt Lake City, Utah, where Cho (Kosugi) and his son Kane (yes, Kane Kosugi!) begin a new life after their family is killed in Japan. Having opened a traditional doll shop, a betrayal from Cho's friend and business partner starts a turf war with the local mafia over drugs, with Cho's family caught in the middle. This time directed by Sam Firstenberg, who later helmed American Ninja, the film distinctly raises the bar in the action department and features edgier, violent physical action and stunts, as well as more ninja tricks and weaponry which audiences were craving. Finally, it cemented Kosugi's reputation as the rising ninja to watch out for, with plenty more success in this genre still to come.
Ninja III: The Domination (1984) steps into even more bizarre territory and is once again helmed by Sam Firstenberg. This one unleashes the tale of Christie (Lucinda Dickey), an aerobics instructor who becomes possessed by an evil ninja's spirit and who uses her physical being to gain revenge from beyond the grave. From there, it's up to heroic ninja Yamada (Kosugi) to save her and exorcise the evil spirit. It's completely insane and even incorporates dance sequences, 80's synth pop music, references to The Exorcist and plenty of ninja action. It's trashy, surreal and, for fans of late night B-movies, it's a blast. It's also very much a by-product of the Cannon machine, so you know what you're getting.
Remembering the legacy of this genre and franchise, re-visiting these films is perhaps more fun now than ever. Just think that young Kane Kosugi made his screen debut in Revenge of the Ninja and would co-star with Scott Adkins 30 years later in 2013's Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, the modern day incarnation of the ninja movie. Golan would be proud. As well as embodying the no-fluff, hard genre traits we still recognise today, Cannon adopted the old Hollywood studio system using stables of the same actors, directors and crew, who worked on multiple projects together, often back to back. It's a trait I've always enjoyed in old Hollywood and you see the same here: an inherent DNA linking multiple films which are otherwise unrelated in story. This is one of the many things that made Cannon Films so much fun and most people who liked them were fans of the company as a whole, rather than one or two key films.
As well as the chance to own the complete trilogy, newly available in Dual-Format, this new Eureka Classics set includes:
HD presentations of all films
Commentaries, interviews and trailers
Booklet featuring new essay by critic and author C.J. Lines with archival imagery
With sharp HD transfers of these video shop staples, complete with some great and insightful content, helping frame and contextualise the movies, this set is a great collector's piece. It provides an unmissable opportunity to either revisit the glory days of low-budget American action cinema, or for new fans, a chance to discover some of the weird and wonderful films which started this craze.
Particularly if you enjoyed the Cannon Films documentaries mentioned at the start, or have a curiosity to dissect and analyse early films which influenced a generation of modern movies, this original Cannon Ninja Trilogy is compelling viewing.
The Cannon Ninja Trilogy is out now from Eureka Entertainment