Folks, it’s come to this. I’ve covered slashers, killer animal flicks, foreign ripoffs and blind samurai played by Roy from Blade Runner. But there’s one realm of movie garbage I have yet to delve into. With this, my final column, it’s time to talk about ninjas. Sort of like Bigfoot movies, there’s an insane number of ninja films out there, and a lot of them are absolute garbage (and not in the fun way). I’m here to point you to the cream of the garbage crop.
Pray for Death (1985)
Ninja Type: Remorseful Ninja
We can’t talk the art of cinematic ninjitsu without talking about Sho Kusogi. The man played approximately 65% of all ninjas in ‘80s movies. If there were a Ninja Oscars, he’d have a lifetime achievement award. A lot of Kosugi’s credits come from Cannon films, which were a massive player in the ‘80s ninja craze.
This one, however, comes not from Golan & Globus, but Gordon Hessler, the virtuoso director of Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, legitimately one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. Unlike that movie, this isn’t a reject Scooby-Doo episode starring a band who looks like they’d rather be anywhere else. This movie, ladies and gentlemen, is NINJA DEATH WISH. Either you’re already on board, or Pray For Death isn’t for you.
Kosugi stars as Akira Saito, a high-powered executive of a Japanese food company. He opens the movie by deciding to throw away his position because his wife wants to move to America and open a restaurant in Texas. This is the first of many terrible decisions made in the movie. Once the restaurant is up and running, a miscommunication makes Akira cross paths with the diabolical Limehouse Willy, a portly British gangster.
Willy isn’t even the boss of the local crime syndicate, but he acts like he’s the Joker, more willing to kidnap and murder women and children than believe that maybe this family who just moved into town didn’t actually have anything to do with a missing necklace. Once he kidnaps one of Akira’s sons, the father must enact ninja vengeance upon the mob. Akira is secretly one of the last descendants of an ancient ninja clan, and by the end of the movie he ends up cutting, stabbing, impaling and shooting his way through an entire army’s worth of out-of-shape goons.
However, it’s very important that you understand he does all of this while being very sad about it. Akira doesn’t want to have to ninja his way out of this situation, but ninja he must. The movie doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and the gore effects aren’t great, but it’s got a ton of idiotic energy, which helps a lot. At one point, Willy interrogated a man who looks like he’s 120 years old by threatening to beat him to death with a crowbar but immediately just does that anyway. Then he sets fire to the car the man is sprawled out on and it blows up. Fuck that grandpa. The biggest takeaway from this movie is that Texas is basically if Gotham City was an entire state crawling with crime, and only a food magnate/family man/secret ninja can come in and save it from itself.
Ninja III: The Domination (1984)
Ninja Type: Exorcist Ninja
It is a common understanding in cinema that only a ninja can kill a ninja. The average Joe just doesn’t have the nerves of steel and sick flips to do it. However, there’s a footnote to this common saying: even in death, only a ninja can kill a ninja. ONLY A NINJA CAN EXORCISE A NINJA!
Ninja III is deceptively named, as there’s no Ninja 1 or 2. There’s Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja, which all share The Domination’s core themes of “being produced by Cannon” and “having Sho Kosugi do sick shit,” but there’s no lore or backstory to worry about. Ninja III: The Domination opens with one of the sickest ninja rampages in history. Some dudes are on a golf course, casually having fun. Suddenly, a ninja shows up, and he starts KILLING. ABSOLUTELY. EVERYONE.
Nobody is safe. Dudes on foot? Slaughtered. Dudes in golf carts? Annihilated. Cops with guns? Fuck that, the police can’t save you from a ninja. Even when they bring the chopper in, the ninja blows that up too. Eventually, countless bodies later, the unnamed warrior gets the Sonny Corleone treatment at the hands of a firing line of cops. This is the opening of the film. It is one of the best opening scenes ever. Unfortunately, you just can’t keep an evil ninja down.
Shortly after his unceremonious death, an aerobics instructor gets possessed by the vengeful spirit of the ninja, represented by a ghostly katana that flies (or dangles from a fishing line) through her window. And from this point on, Ninja III: The Domination holds the honor of being the only Exorcist ripoff to be centered around martial arts. The battle to save her soul is waged by her boyfriend and a heroic ninja (obviously played by Sho Kosugi) who has been gunning for this particular evil ninja for some time.
The film also benefits from being painfully, powerfully ‘80s. Aerobics is the latest craze, the hair is big, the outfits are wild and V8 gets a product placement in an incredibly confusing sex scene. Eventually, evil is vanquished, but a big door is left open for a sequel where the undead ninja comes back again. Unfortunately, Cannon never gave us Ninja IV: Legion or anything. But if it’s the quantity, not quality, of ninjas you’re looking for…
Five Elements Ninjas (1982)
Ninja Type: Multitudinous; Theme-oriented
Five Elements Ninjas is what happens when Hong Kong caught the ‘80s ninja craze. It’s directed by an absolute legend of martial arts cinema, Chang Cheh, and features some glorious, ridiculous gore on top of its primo fisticuffs.
The plot concerns a rapidly escalating rivalry between two martial arts schools. When the students of the kind instructor Zeng easily defeat the pupils of Chief Hong, Hong swears revenge by ordering a secret sect of foreign warriors to slaughter those who made a fool of him.
The ninjas are, obviously, themed around the five elements. There’s the fire ninjas, who throw road flares in your face to distract you; the water ninjas, who can hold their breath for a long time; the earth ninjas, who can tunnel under the ground; the grass ninjas, who are very different from the ground ninjas and dress up like trees; and…the gold ninjas, who wear shiny clothing and try to blind you. You know, the five elements.
After getting his ass kicked early in the film, a big chunk of the movie is spent with our hero training up to take on the evil ninjas in a final free-for-all, and the final confrontation is totally worth it, with ridiculous bloodshed and goofy gimmicks all over the place. Hong Kong martial arts movies rule, ninjas rule, obviously this is a slam dunk.
Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013)
Ninja Type: White
Hollywood has taught me that the white ninja is never to be underestimated. Cannon understood this when they made the American Ninja movies, and direct-to-video action auteur Isaac Florentine understood it in this ninjitsu slaughter-fest.
The pitch: master-level white ninja Casey (played by the always entertaining martial artist Scott Adkins) has his wife murdered. Who did it, and what do they want him? To find out, Casey has to beat the absolute shit out of a whole lot of dudes. He fights guys in the dojo; he gets absolutely hammered at a bar and fights guys drunk; he Macgyver’s ninja tools out of random items he finds in a Burmese market; and he even has the time to go into the jungle in a quest to find ninja buried treasure.
The majority of this movie is action, and all the fight scenes absolutely rule. Florentine gets that you’re here for the fisticuffs, and all the blows look like they hurt like hell. By the time Casey is fighting guys in a burning meth lab, you’ll have seen so many high-flying kicks and insane takedowns that you’ll wonder why other action movies even try. It owns.