Franco Nero and Susan George Usher in 1980s Ninja Fever!
DIRECTED BY MENAHEM GOLAN/1981
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: OCTOBER 31, 2023/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
At the very end of February 1984, Marvel Comics released one of the single most unique and memorable issues on an ongoing series. Larry Hama, who’s writing stint on the monthly G.I. Joe comic would eventually go down as one of the great (nearly) uninterrupted runs in the medium’s history, set a high bar with issue #21- an entirely wordless story (“Silent Interlude”). In it, the popular, silent and mysterious Snake Eyes must infiltrate a villainous fortress to rescue a close teammate.
Throughout the story, our hero must take down a series of red-clad ninjas, eventually crossing paths with a new character, the white-clad ninja Storm Shadow. Though nothing was said, it was clear that they had a shared past. What was the unspoken link between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow? So much intrigue, such a cool single comic book. I was in fourth grade, and suddenly ninjas had entered our collective fascination.
Ninja fever spread across our playgrounds (dowel rods + chain = homemade nunchucks, kids!) and classrooms (waitaminute- ninjas were real?!?). Masked martial arts assassin warriors who are loaded with countless ancient weapons (Swords! Shuriken! Blowguns! Nunchucks! Bola! Bow & arrow! Sai! Spear-staff! More!!!) and are yet deadly silent? How are we just now learning about this?!???
As it turned out, the movie that went a long way towards popularizing the 1980s “ninja fever” in the west, Cannon Films’ 1981 Enter the Ninja, was rated R- meaning that it was off limits to us obedient goodie-two-shoes kids. (For those not keeping track… Making your own nunchucks in your garage and bringing them to recess: Okay with mom & dad. Watching an R-rated ninja movie: not okay).
Available to rent at choice mom & pop video rental shops, Enter the Ninja had a cool cover, but was unthinkable to ever see. By 1984, it had been joined on the VHS rental shelf by a follow-up of sorts, Revenge of the Ninja (1983, which had an even cooler cover), and a third one that we were actually cognizant of its brief theatrical run, Ninja III: The Domination. Word spread that Ninja III was as insanely violent as the other two, but this time starring a girl ninja who apparently is briefly seen bare-chested. We knew we’d never, ever, ever see that!
Now, a half-century old and thousands of movies later, I’m only now getting around to seeing the fabled, weirdly-in-my-mind-forbidden original, director/producer/company namesake Menahem Golan’s (of Golan-Globus Films) Enter the Ninja. Never mind the aging Franco Nero’s sometimes stilted turn as a Caucasian ninja who gets caught up in his old war buddy’s tensions with the local criminal element in the Philippines (this, sir/ma’am, is Cannon Films- they are going to the Philippines!!), the ninja action in this film is swift, bloody, and executed with personal unending arsenals of bladed and blunt-edged weapons.
The ninjas wear white, black, and red uniforms, complete with facial coverings. The only problem is that they don’t don this official ninja gear but twice- during the film’s absurd opening sequence, and at the end, when Nero’s character, Cole, and the evil ninja, Hasegawa (Sho Kozugi, who’d deservedly rise in the ranks of 1980s martial arts actors), square off in a plexiglass cockfighting ring. (Twice in this film, everything stops cold when someone yells, “Let’s have a cockfight!!” Roosters are then thrown into a makeshift dirt circle, and everyone gets very into it). The great Susan George is on hand as the convincing Strong Female Lead who inevitably needs rescuing.
Most of the film is taken up with plainclothes action/drama, Nero (and his amazing mustache) still somehow making an impact despite that it’s clearly never him doing any of the fighting. The one doing the actual fighting, doubling for Nero, is renowned martial artist Mike Stone. Stone was originally to play the lead in Enter the Ninja, but after a few days of production resulting in reportedly subpar footage, he was aggressively replaced by Nero, who just happened to be in the Philippines and was willing to step in. Stone stuck around to double Nero, who had zero martial arts ability. (As they point out on the disc’s new audio commentary, Nero is at his best in this movie when he’s being still).
As Enter the Ninja unspooled before me, I couldn’t help but realize that more of my fourth-grade friends had probably seen this movie than I realized. The ways certain characters yelled, even certain lines of warrior dialogue- this stuff rang familiar. This stuff was definitely echoed on the playground. Not only that, but G.I.Joe writer Larry Hama probably totally saw this movie. Hama would go on to do much better due diligence towards ninjitsu in his comics (as opposed to the vague enlightenment mumbo jumbo we get here), but the whole black ninja/white ninja/red ninjas thing combined with the film’s notions of a ninja’s non-literal “invisibility” rang familiar to this old G.I.Joe fan.
This release of Enter the Ninja adds a new audio commentary by “action film historians” Mike Leeder and Arne Venema. I don’t know what kind of triple-shot latte binge that these two went on just prior to recording, but… wow. Suffice to say that this commentary is going 100 miles per hour from the word “go”, and only ramps up from there. That can’t be a complaint, as Leeder and Verema know an astonishing amount about this film, its actors, Menahem Golan, actual ninjas, and on and on. It’s a highly educational romp that’s equally as exhausting. You can always break it up into separate viewing chunks.
This Blu-ray release of Enter the Ninja marks its second release from KL Studio Classics. This “special edition” is a good thing, part of the company’s recent wave of quietly redoing a few of its earlier titles. Though the transfer is the same, the disc is a superior BD-50, which gives said transfer additional “breathing room”. The result is a fine, fine presentation, which now also boasts a slipcover over the case with the same kinda-tacky original artwork. (Artwork that glaring doesn’t feature Franco Nero).
Though a B-movie that’s obviously on a lower budget, Enter the Ninja is, quite effectively action-forward. Nero, despite his martial arts limitations, succeeds as a noble and believably dangerous presence. Susan George is a high-quality addition to this nonsense, classing it up in her uniquely earthy British way. On the whole, however, the film consists of far too much Philippines stuff and not enough costumed ninja warrior stuff. Though on second thought, maybe the ratio is fine as it is. The absurd opening sequence wherein Cole, in his ninja gear, must battle his way past red ninjas and Hasegawa to get into a temple to achieve Ninja Master status sets the film’s tone as laughably absurd. Despite minutes on end of bloody killings in the woods and even a prominent decapitation, it all is revealed to be a test. A test?? With full gore prosthetics and a fake severed head??
But let me be honest about Enter the Ninja: Despite its crazy stretches, veers into action cliche, and all the very uncomfortable whiteness surrounding an inherently Japanese subject, I’m fully here for it. I’ve always been fully here for it, ever since studying at the feet of the Great Master Larry Hama. But now, at age fifty, Enter the Ninja is also here for me. That is, thanks to this spiffy new revisitation to Golan’s Philippines by Kino Lorber. Thank you, thank you, and I hope I passed the test.