Warriors of a lost martial art! Hired assassins…human killing machines!
For better or worse, Cannon Films played a big role in popularizing ninjas in the 1980s. Through a trilogy of completely unrelated movies save for the use of the word “ninja” in the title and the presence of martial artist Sho Kosugi (playing three different roles), Cannon introduced a generation of video store and cable brats to the highly secret and deadly arts. 1981’s Enter the Ninja and its two sequels, 1983’s Revenge of the Ninja and 1984’s Ninja III: The Domination helped make “ninja” a household name, leading Cannon to continue exploiting the trend with its long-running American Ninja series. Once confined to the shadows, the early 1980s put ninja center stage in pop culture.
The first film in Cannon’s ninja trilogy, 1981’s Enter the Ninja, kicks things off in glorious Cannon style with clumsy filmmaking, graphic violence and jarring tonal switches. Franco Nero (Man, Pride, and Vengeance) stars as Cole, a war veteran who has just completed his ninja training. He goes to see his old war buddy Frank (Alex Courtney) and his wife Mary Ann (Susan George, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry), who are being harassed to sell their house by evil businessman Charles Venarius (Christopher George, City of the Living Dead). When they won’t comply, he sends another ninja — Hasegawa, who just happens to be Cole’s sworn enemy — to finish the job. It’s time for ninja on ninja action!
The first thing one notices about Enter the Ninja is just how spectacularly miscast Italian exploitation star Franco Nero is in the lead role. I love Nero’s westerns and his cop movies from the ‘70s, but he is only a slightly more convincing ninja than I am. There’s something alarming when a badass ninja removes his hood and turns out to be balding with an enormous, busy mustache — it’s like finding out your dad is a ninja. Nero has also been dubbed by another actor for maximum American-ness, which just adds to the feeling that something is off with this character. He doesn’t look the part, he doesn’t sound the part and, because he’s doubled so often by a stuntman during the ninja scenes, he often doesn’t even play the part. If he had been cast despite being an unconvincing ninja because he’s the better actor, that might make sense. But then he’s not even allowed to act the role himself.
The movie is directed by Menahem Golan, co-owner of Cannon Films, who took over from original director Emmett Alston. Golan’s approach to making movies — both as director and as the producer of dozens upon dozens of Cannon films — is to do away with anything that doesn’t entertain. The things that entertain him happen to be lots of violence and dopey comedy, so Enter the Ninja is packed wall to wall with both. This is a movie in which a secondary character has his hand chopped off and then a comically funny song plays on the soundtrack like he’s in a “Debbie Downer” sketch. The juxtaposition is unlike anything else, which is what I’ve always loved about Cannon Films — they are so much their own thing and so different from most other films of the period. Enter the Ninja distinguishes itself not just with its “ninja” hook, but also by unabashedly playing right to the pleasure centers of genre lovers’ brains.
The action in the movie is far from great, but we’ve gotten spoiled by just how fast and intense martial arts movies can be now. Enter the Ninja isn’t even up to the standards of most ‘70s kung fu films; the action is too slow, the direction too crude. But there’s a certain charm to the way the action is built not through onscreen displays of physicality (save perhaps for Sho Kosugi, which might explain how he landed the lead role in the sequel) but through the editing of static shots: ninja hurls throwing star, cut to star flying through the air, cut to star embedded in bad guys’ head. If I want to watch a movie with amazing fight choreography, I’ll throw on something with Scott Adkins. If I want to remember what low-budget action movies looked and felt like in the early ‘80s, I’ll watch Enter the Ninja. I love it.
Previously only available from MGM as a DVD-R, Enter the Ninja finally arrives on Blu-ray (alongside its sequel, the equally sublime Revenge of the Ninja courtesy of Kino Lorber as part of their “Studio Classics” line of catalogue releases. The 1.85:1 1080p transfer looks very good considering its age, with only minor print damage visible throughout. Colors are stable, detail is decent and Kino hasn’t don’t any digital tinkering with the image. The only audio option is a lossless stereo track, which is pretty much standard for these catalogue releases by now. The dialogue is clear and there’s just enough life to the track to keep things interesting. The only bonus feature included is the original trailer.
I love Enter the Ninja. It’s the kind of movie many would classify as a “guilty pleasure” because it doesn’t meet the requirements of a conventionally “good” movie, but I’m not a big believer in feeling bad about the things I like. This movie makes me very happy, which means it must be good, right? I enjoy all three movies in Cannon’s ninja trilogy for different reasons. Enter the Ninja is the most rough around the edges, but also has the most personality. Unlike most of my friends, watching these movies as a kid in the ‘80s did not make me want to go out and be a ninja. It just made me want to watch more Cannon ninja movies.