Friday, April 13, 2012

Enter the Ninja (1981)

Let's try a little experiment. Close your eyes for a few seconds and try to visualize a ninja. What image comes to mind?

I'd be willing to bet it's probably something like this:

Or if you're from my generation, maybe it's something like this:

I would put down money that whatever your image of a ninja might be, it probably isn't a 40 year-old Italian guy in a white leisure suit. And yet, dear friends, that is the premise of the 1981 martial arts film Enter the Ninja. The movie is the story of Cole, our aforementioned white ninja. Played by Franco Nero, who would later go on to play the bad guy in Die Hard 2, Cole is a former soldier who retired from the front lines in order to travel to Japan and study ninjitsu. It's a peculiar set-up to be sure, but not so weird as to distinguish it from other 80s action flicks. So what sets Enter the Ninja apart? Read on.

The first 15 minutes of the film is a heaping pile of awesome ninja carnage as Cole faces off against a veritable army of red-garbed ninjas led by the deadly black ninja Hasagawa, played by martial arts star and real-life ninjitsu expert Sho Kosugi. The whir of nunchuks, clash of swords, and two unmotivated slow-motion leaps over a waterfall accentuate an extravaganza of all-out ninja warfare. Eventually Cole emerges victorious and it turns out that the entire battle, including a decapitation, was simply a part of Cole's final exam to attain the rank of Ninja MasterTM. Through a combination of wooden body armor and wax heads, none of the ninjas slaughtered along the way actually got hurt - except for one guy who took a sword to the face, but that's an occupational hazard when you're a ninja - and soon everyone is enjoying a celebratory afternoon tea to congratulate Cole for a job well done.

Everyone, that is, except for the black ninja Hasagawa, who's feeling burned that a foreigner has attained the highest rank in ninjitsu. Dun dun dun...

After completing his ninja training, Cole decides to visit his old war buddy Frank at his coconut plantation in the Philippines. (That's one hell of a sentence right there.) Climbing over a fence to surprise his pal using his fancy new ninja skills, Cole finds himself confronted by his buddy's shotgun-toting wife Mary Ann. He quickly overpowers her, scoring a blatant boob grab in the process, but the limp-wristedness of the sequence serves as a dire warning of the film's greatest flaw: Franco Nero is no martial artist.

A ninja can grope you five times
before you even know he's there.

It turns out that Cole is conspicuously much better at being a ninja when he's wearing his virginal white dogi and mask, as well as when he's kind of far away from the camera and his hair's a slightly different color. The fact is that Mike Stone, the film's fight choreographer, played the white ninja in almost all of the fight scenes. When Cole actually has to fight with his face in full view, it's a cornucopia of exaggerated karate chops and wildly leaning kicks. Since we won't actually see Cole in his ninja dogi again until the last ten minutes of the film, this is a bit of a problem.

In any event, Cole soon discovers that his pal Frank has turned into a souse since the end of the war and has little motivation to do anything other than loaf about in his hammock and watch cockfights. That's all well and good, except that Frank's plantation is being menaced by a dwarfish hook-handed man and his small army of thugs. After a handful of clumsy fistfights, many of which are bizarrely infused with comedy sound effects, Cole and a local information broker played by the Grandpa from Silent Night, Deadly Night discover that the hook-man is only the henchman of a shadowy evil businessman. The hook-man's employer is trying to drive Frank away from his coconut farm in order to exploit the untapped oil wealth beneath it.

This sinister job-creator, Mr. Venarious (played by frequent Love Boat and Fantasy Island guest star Christopher George), has deduced that Cole can only be a ninja because of the way he's used an onslaught of waist-high kicks and over-sold backhands to spank the best goons that a fistful of five dollar bills down at the wharf can buy. Venarius, who spends most of his screen-time dressed in what looks like a wizard robe and waving a conductor's baton at a handful of bored-looking women in a swimming pool, soon dispatches his right hand man Mr. Parker to Japan to recruit a ninja of his own to serve as Cole's foil. Free cookies to anyone who can guess where this is going.

Venarius' yes-man travels to the Orient to hire a ninja through a talent agency and not only does he actually succeed, but gee-golly the evil ninja he hires just happens to be Hasagawa, the black ninja from the prelude. Hasagawa hurriedly rushes to the Philippines to advance the plot and launches a stealthy attack on Frank's compound. In what is easily one of the best sequences in the film, Hasagawa bloodily dispatches Frank's guards with a variety of ninja weapons. The sequence includes a fantastic (and oddly funny) shot in which Frank and his wife are eating dinner while you can see Hasagawa picking off guards one-by-one in the background. Hasagawa easily confronts and kills Frank, then kidnaps Mary Ann (who, by the way, Cole has been porking) to lure Cole into a final confrontation. Just to be a dick, Hasagawa then sets fire to the village where Frank's plantation workers live. Briefly forgetting the point of being a ninja, Hasagawa races through the streets in a not-so-stealthy fashion while laughing maniacally and waving a burning torch in each hand. Maybe he's apeshit crazy, maybe he's just a man who enjoys his work.  I'm not here to judge.

Cole at last dons his ninja attire and sets off on a mission of revenge. Despite being laden down with every ninja weapon ever conceived (including two swords, a pair of sai, a tanto, caltrops, a blowgun, a tonfa, a billion shuriken, and a bow and arrow) and wearing a blazing white costume, Cole sneaks into Venarius' downtown office building under cover of afternoon and slaughters a whole bunch of guards...and also some guy answering the phone. In a bit of a Super Mario Bros. moment, Mr. Parker appears and tells Cole that the princess is another castle and that he'll have to accompany him to another site to rescue Mary Ann.

Cole, still in his ninja outfit, accepts a car ride to small stadium where a plexiglass arena has been erected in anticipation of the final duel between the white and black ninjas. Unfortunately for Venarius, Hasagawa is nowhere to be found and Cole quickly lays waste to his remaining toughs. Without his goons to hide behind, Venarius is finally forced to confront Cole himself and is quickly killed in the best death scene ever.

Suddenly Hasagawa appears and, surprisingly, sets Mary Ann free - All he wants is a duel to the death with Cole. I guess he's not such a bad guy after all...except for killing all those people and burning down a town for no good reason. The two rivals finally square off in a well-choreographed spear vs. sword battle for supremacy. Regrettably, the tension of their all-too-brief fight is hamstrung by the fact that we saw Cole kick Hasagawa's ass at least three times in the opening battle sequence. The outcome is never really in doubt and within a few moments Hasagawa is ten pounds lighter and a foot shorter.

The movie ends with Cole, er...heroically abandoning the newly widowed woman he's been banging for the entire movie and heading off for other adventures that, thankfully, never made it onto film.

Sorry baby, but you just can't tie a ninja down.
Also, sorry your husband got killed by ninjas...

Enter the Ninja is an odd, badly paced film that has nonetheless made its way into the pantheon of classic ninja movies based largely on the 20 minutes of the film with Sho Kosugi in them. Large parts of the film are honestly kind of boring, which is doubly inexcusable because of how frenetic and fun the opening moments are. There are too many plodding, sloppy fight scenes of Franco Nero gamely flailing about, and the it seems like as soon as the movie finally gets started, it's over.

That said, the main problem with the whole movie is that it focuses on the wrong ninja. When you watch a martial arts flick, you reasonably expect the hero to actually know what the hell he's doing. Enter the Ninja has it backwards, with the guy who's obviously a bad ass playing second fiddle to another, slightly paunchier guy with lots of action movie credits but not much action movie cred. This movie should have been about Sho Kosugi kicking ass and taking names; a showcase of martial arts and ninja weapons with a much faster pace. We eventually got that film in the form of an unrelated 1983 sequel called Revenge of the Ninja, but that's a tale for another day.


Jay said...

Lest we forget Ninja III: The Domination, featuring Lucinda Dickey.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Ninja on the golf course! Run!