Cannon Films’ “Ninja Trilogy” (1981-1984)

Interest in the Cannon Films productions from the 1980s has had a growing resurgence in recent years.  The films of that ‘golden era’ came under the leadership of Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.  2014 marked not only the death of Golan and associated memorial publicity but also the release of two documentaries about Cannon Films.  “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films” and “The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films” both covered the ‘golden era’ ground.

Besides a slew of Chuck Norris films, Cannon released numerous movies focused on ninja characters during what was the ‘sweet spot’ of ninja fandom in the 1980s.  We all like ninjas, right?  Kicking off that string of releases was Cannon’s ‘Ninja Trilogy,’ which consisted of three films that were only very loosely connected (if at all).

Enter the Ninja (1981)

Although only 100 minutes long, “Enter the Ninja” felt like it ran for at least a couple of hours.  I don’t mean that as a criticism either, I just mean that a lot was going on in the movie.  The film’s main plot was pretty much over with fifteen minutes remaining, but the film kept going.  Why?  Because viewers needed a fina one-on-one ninja battle!

Menahem Golan personally directed the film and it had all of the hallmarks of an ‘independent’ production of the era.  For example, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the cockfight in this film wasn’t filmed using stunt doubles.

Franco Nero played a Caucasian ninja who earned his ninja status in the film’s action-filled opening sequence in Japan.  He dressed in an ill-advise bright-white ninja outfit and took on the formidable black-dressed ninja played by Sho Kosugi.

From there, it turned into a ‘save the buddy’s plantation from local corrupt businessmen’ movie.  Nero’s buddy thought that he was simply being terrorized by local thugs, such as a hook-armed henchman.  In reality, a particular businessman wanted access to oil that was hidden beneath Nero’s buddy’s plantation in Manilla.  Circumstances eventually escalated to the point where Sho Kosugi was hired to come in and face Nero on behalf of the corrupt businessman.  Of course, Nero saved the day in the end.

“Enter the Ninja” had a plot that wasn’t as straightforward as it might sound, since there were odd touches such as Nero and his buddy’s wife finding themselves in an uncomfortable love triangle.  One of the stranger moments in the film involved Nero’s buddy suggesting that his wife wasn’t being satisfied by him.  Nero had been flirting with the woman throughout the film, so that pseudo-blessing led to Nero and the wife having a late-night encounter in the very next scene!

I liked that the film’s settings began in Japan and then went to Manila for most of the action, since that added an exotic feel.  I’m sure that the shift saved on the budget too.  The music was unexpectedly catchy, with creative use of percussion.  It didn’t take itself too seriously though and the filmmakers weren’t afraid to even include a sad trombone sound during one comedic moment.

While “Enter the Ninja” was a fun film, there was clearly something ‘off’ about the acting and/or scripting and I wasn’t sure of the root cause.  Lines often either felt improvised, were delivered poorly, or were simply written poorly.  As a result, “Enter the Ninja” certainly felt like a second-tier action film of the era.  Some may chalk that ‘off’ feeling to simply being the Cannon style of filmmaking.

A weird tidbit:  Susan George, who played the female love interest in “Enter the Ninja,” was romantically linked to Prince Charles during his single days.

Revenge of the Ninja (1983)

“If you want to work out, you forgot your pants.” – Sho Kosugi to an attractive blonde who wanted him to show her ‘the way.’

This unrelated film was considered a thematic sequel to “Enter the Ninja” and this time Sho Kosugi was the protagonist.  In what was very nearly a modern day “Lone Wolf and Cub” (aka “Baby Cart Sword of Vengeance”), Kosugi’s family were killed by a band of ninjas during the film’s opening sequence.  Devastated, Kosugi headed to Los Angeles with his infant son and worked with Braden, his American business partner, amid plans to open an art gallery together.  Kosugi’s mother warned him about not trusting Braden in the offer, which came oddly fast after the death of Kosugi’s family.

L.A. life for Kosugi worked out well though, as he had an attractive blonde love interest (who happened to also be tied in with Braden) and his son grew up into a little butt-kicker.  Kosugi’s mother’s hunch turned out to be good advice after Kosugi later discovered that his partner was using his art in an international heroin smuggling scheme.

Amid that scheme was a subplot whereupon Braden turned out to be a ninja himself who was at odds with a mafia leader named Caifano.  Kosugi’s family gets into the middle of the ensuing mafia war and his mother ended up being killed while Kosugi’s son was kidnapped by Braden.  The truly convoluted part of that kidnapping was that it occurred at the hands of the blonde love interest that Braden had hypnotized.

The film’s plot wound down after Braden stormed the mafia leader’s headquarters.  Kosugi was also pulled into the mix after the mafia threat had been eliminated and Kosugi defeated Braden in the film’s finale.

Again, this was strictly b-list entertainment.  That said, there was still quite a bit of satisfaction to be found in the work.  Familiar tropes and low-budget exploitation-like hallmarks abounded, but there was enough wackiness to make it entertaining.

The action in “Revenge of the Ninja” was more-solid than in “Enter the Ninja,” since traditional ninja twists were better married with 1980s standard action.  There were some nice ninja hallmarks throughout the film, such as the use of tacks on a hallways floor that led several mafia henchmen to fall face-first into sharp traps.  The rooftop ninja duel at the very end was a highlight of the film.

The film’s story purportedly took place in Los Angeles, but it was actually filmed in Salt Lake City due to Utah’s push at the time to land Cannon Film productions.

Ninja III: The Domination (1984)

Poor Sho Kosugi took a back seat again in the different, but still ninja-filled “Ninja III.”  “Ninja III” has continued to have quite a following decades after its release and has been referred to as a ‘gonzo masterpiece’ (amongst other things) by the initiated.

My major childhood memory of “Ninja III” involved the awesome opening sequence and it was easy to see why that memory lingered.  In that lengthy opening an evil ninja inexplicably massacred people on a Phoenix-area golf course, then evaded law enforcement over a fantastic ten minutes of crazy ninja action.

As the evil ninja was about to die, he possessed an electric line utility employee who happened to be working nearby.  That worker was Lucinda Dickey, the film’s female lead and main star.  Did I mention that she had a side-job as an aerobics instructor?  Dickey ended up being a ‘discovery’ for Cannon Films and appeared in some of their other hits of the era, such as “Breakin’.”

Sho Kosugi made periodic appearances as the ‘good ninja’ throughout “Ninja III” and it felt like only a matter of time before he fixed the situation.  In the meantime, much of the film focused on the struggles of Dickey’s character as the evil ninja inside her head kept compelling her to take revenge on local law enforcement figures.  Complicating matters, Dickey’s character was dating a local police detective.

As was the case with “Revenge of the Ninja,” “Ninja III” featured a lengthy final ninja showdown.  This time it was atop a scenic mountaintop that was filmed in Simi Valley.  In general, most of the film was shot in Phoenix and that location made for a nice change of pace.

The Blu-Ray release for “Ninja III” featured a commentary By Director Sam Firstenberg and Stunt Coordinator Steve Lambert.  It was a downright fantastic commentary, with Lambert being quite animated in describing how he literally appeared in nearly every other shot during action scenes, often playing multiple parts.  Funny stories on the commentary included Lambert fooling friends into thinking that he had a ‘nice body’ while doubling for the lead actress.  Firstenberg directed most of Cannon’s 1980s Ninja-related movies and he had insights into the general Cannon style of filmmaking.

Cannon couldn’t just do the typical, so something as mundane as a love scene ended up being an example of the bizarre tendencies of “Ninja III.”  As part of foreplay in a scene with Dickey and her boyfriend, Dickey dumped V8 juice (!?) on herself and had her lover lick it off of her body.  On the commentary track, Firstenberg took credit for that idea and seemed quite amused with it in hindsight.

One common misconception about Cannon Films was that they were considered ‘medium budget’ for the era, costing several million dollars each.  Unlike true low-budget films, a film like “Ninja III” took 8-9 weeks to film and had the luxury of two units shooting.

“Ninja III” was apparently less successful than “Revenge of the Ninja” but was still quite profitable and played well in the ‘neighborhood’ cinemas to teenage males.  Firstenberg admitted that perhaps the film veered too much into mysticism, but the plan at the time was to cash in on the popularity of “Poltergeist.”  Somehow, a heavy dash of “The Exorcist” was thrown in as well and that influence led to an incredibly wacky exorcism scene.  Unfortunately, the end result of this mash-up wasn’t as cool as it might sound but “Ninja III” was still a fun film


Of the trilogy, “Revenge of the Ninja” was the most focused and authentic in terms of ninja action.  “Enter the Ninja” was interesting if flawed.  “Ninja III” was notable for its opening sequence and for being the most bizarre of the three.

Cannon Films continued in the ninja genre with the purportedly very profitable “American Ninja” series that starred Michael Dudikoff.  Sho Kosugi would go on to be a later grand statesman of the ninja genre, appearing in the big-budget “Ninja Assassin” in 2009.

Viewers not familiar with Cannon Films would do well to understand the peculiarities of their style prior to watching the films that made up the “Ninja Trilogy.”  It’s hard to say that any of the films in the trilogy were ‘great’ movies, but they certainly had their moments in regards to the larger 1980s action film world.

D.S. Christensen
Latest posts by D.S. Christensen (see all)

One thought on “Cannon Films’ “Ninja Trilogy” (1981-1984)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.