Saturday, September 1, 2012

Enter the Ninja (1981)... Tony's Pick for September


Tony

Enter the Set-up

There was a time, not so long ago, when the word “Ninja” evoked images other than those of a certain foursome of anthropomorphic pizza-eating adolescent reptiles. In the early 80s, Ninjas were mysterious. Ninjas were deadly. Ninjas were Japanese... except when they were Caucasian. Which brings us to this, our first entry in the Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange: Enter the Ninja.

Enter the Credit Card

Much to my shame and dismay, I didn’t already own Enter the Ninja. When I searched Amazon, the cheapest copy available just so happened to be VHS - the original release, no less. Like listening to Beatles on vinyl, something about watching this on VHS just felt right, so I hit “buy” and waited for the Ninja to enter my mailbox.

Entering the Ninja

Our first example of the sheer, unmatched power of Caucasian Ninjitsu comes about a minute in. The title sequence features an impressive weapons display by one of our villains, Hasegawa (played by actual Ninjitsu practitioner, Sho Kosugi). This is interrupted when our hero, Cole (usually played by bar-hopping practitioner, Franco Nero, but likely by his stunt double here), comes flying in from screen right and delivers a flying sidekick that misses Hasegawa by the length of a slip-n-slide. Yet such is the ferocity of that kick the mere intent to actually connect sends Hasegawa reeling.

The opening scenes feature our hero, clad in white, skulking through the forest with a gaggle of Ninjas, all wearing bright red, in pursuit. Now, I ain’t no Ninja, but I always thought that part of their job description was concealment. Unless they’re sneaking around a giant candy cane, red and white outfits seem like bad choices to me. But again, not a Ninja. After cutting his way through the Ninjas, besting the smartly attired Black Ninja (Hasegawa), and cutting off the head of an old man standing guard outside of a temple, the White Ninja enters and we learn that this has all merely been an absurdly elaborate test. Congrats, you’re a Ninja! Here’s your diploma. Everyone is happy, save for Hasegawa, who feels the Westerner has not truly earned the right to be called “Ninja” (think this will come into play later?). Like any graduate, Cole is anxious to put his new found skills to the test in the real world, so he packs up his crisp white Ninja uniform and leaves the temple behind in search of adventure.


I should probably stop here for a second and describe our hero to you. Imagine the Marlboro Man with a black belt. That’s Cole (like Cher, he needs no last name). To be fair, even though he looks like he just stumbled in off the set of Behind the Green Door, Franco Nero has an appealing pre-feminist machismo, tempered by a constant twinkle in his eyes. He looks like the kind of guy that could kick your ass, even though his fighting moves look like that time your Uncle Larry tried to do The Robot at your 10th birthday party. Though the Italian-born Nero’s voice is clearly dubbed, the overall result is a likeable hero.

Back to our story. Cole arrives in the Philippines at the home of Frank Landers (Alex Courtney - think James Caan without all that bothersome talent), an old war buddy, and his beautiful wife, Mary (Susan George, of Straw Dogs fame). Frank, to the dismay of just about everyone except Frank, has become a boozer, content to drink his way through life while his wife runs their large farm. The put-upon Mary initially dislikes Cole, so you don’t need super-secret Ninja intuition to know that she’s eventually going to sleep with him. The only question is, does Cole have better aim with his dick than his foot?

The next stretch gives us the local flavor, not to mention several scenes of Frank bonding with his workers over some good old-fashioned cockfighting. It’s here we learn that local tycoon Charles Venarius (played like a honey baked ham by the late Christopher George) is desperate for the Landers’ to sell him their property. Why? Well, it’s not for their stable of fighting cocks. You see, unbeknownst to the Landers, their land sits atop a rich deposit of oil. When “pretty please, with sugar on top” doesn’t work, Venarius begins to dispatch his henchman to force the issue. Of course they all end up feeling the wrath of Cole’s ass-kickery, forcing Venarius to plan B: find a Ninja of his own. Through a series of events so convoluted that embarrassment prevents me from describing them to you, he hires Cole’s chief rival, Hasegawa. Did you just hear a gong? ‘Cause I did.

This all ends in the inevitable showdown where Frank dies (come on, you knew it was gonna happen!), Mary is kidnapped, and Cole dons the cowl of the White Ninja. One. Last. Time. Cole cuts his way through Venarius’ men, then Venarius himself, before squaring off against Hasegawa for the ultimate prize: honor. After an intense battle, Cole vanquishes Hasegawa, and he and Mary embrace. Though he clearly has feelings for her, Cole cannot stay rooted in one place for long, so he packs his bags and, with a promise to return some day, sets off for destinations unknown.

Exit the Ninja

Let me say this right up front: Enter the Ninja is not a good movie. It’s not even a good Ninja movie. Hell, it’s not even a good cockfighting movie. Yet in spite of all this, it still manages to be entertaining. Part of that is due to the hammy acting and over the top action, but there’s also a quirky likeability to this film that I can’t quite put my finger on.

As a member the early 80s Ninja invasion vanguard, Enter the Ninja is sometimes clumsy, but essential viewing.


Angie

I have to admit I had never heard of this film before we set out to do this project. That's really no surprise, though, as I have little to no experience with martial arts films. The "little" experience would include American Jackie Chan films and Jet Li being a bad ass in Lethal Weapon 4, so I at least don't think it counts. That also means I had no idea what to expect from the film, and now that I've seen it, I have no idea how typical this film is of the genre or not. That's a lot of words to say that I have no idea what I'm talking about, right?

I was both amused and impressed by that opening credit sequence. Sho Kosugi is clearly talented and I am immediately now a fan. I also enjoyed how the interruption takes us directly into the film itself. Unfortunately, this also led me to believe that the ninja dressed in black was the good guy at first. Admittedly, I was giving this movie far too much credit. Black = evil and white = good, and red is the color of blood and, well, redshirts, so of course they are the fodder. These first ten minutes of the film had no dialogue at all, just fighting. I have to admit, I started to worry whether or not the film was going to hold my interest at this point. While I appreciate a good fight scene, I like to have actual story behind it.

Well the film does give us story, but unfortunately, after this great fight scene, it largely slows to a crawl in an effort to give it to us. Far too many scenes are spent showing us that Frank is a drunkard scarred by war who doesn't care about anything. This film also has a bad habit of showing us things and then explaining afterward. Beyond that training fake out opening scene, there is also our introduction to Mary. She attacks Cole the second he shows up to their property, and she's made to look foolish and brash because of it, treated poorly by both Cole and Frank, but then a little while later, we find out that Venarius has been sending people to pester and attack them regularly, and Frank didn't bother to tell her Cole was coming. With that in mind, her defensiveness is actually quite reasonable. But she walks out of the room to get a glass of orange juice, and when she returns to offer it to Cole, she suddenly likes him. I suppose the idea is that she just can't resist that manly mustache, and I'm afraid I was born too late to understand that appeal.

Another thing I may be born too late for was the cock fighting scenes in the movie. While they're not graphic, Frank is very excited to see them happen, and no one in the film seems to think anything wrong about them. I thought for sure this was going to be a moment where Cole stood up for what's right, but he just shrugs at it. The birds were trained to at least attempt to peck at each other, and the brief glimpse alone was enough to disturb me. It happens at two different times in the film, so I was starting to worry just how much I was going to have to endure.


I was very surprised to see them introduce the idea of ninjas having a code of honor that they subscribe to. Batman told me that ninjas have no honor, and Batman would never lie. Samurais are the ones who value honor and have strict codes of combat, so it was interesting to see them try to meld the two into one here. It doesn't entirely hold up, though. Can a mercenary who kills without conscience truly have honor? They seem to subscribe more to the Klingon idea of honor, in that it's better to die in battle then go home a loser.

Despite all that, there are things I enjoyed about the film. While a lot of it is downright silly, I think that's actually when it becomes the most entertaining. Venarius is just so over the top evil and smarmy that I love every scene he's in. Dollar, whose role is so inconsequential I can see why Tony neglected to mention him, serves no real purpose to the story other than to provide comic relief, but he excels at it so well that I wish he was in every scene. All of the gore effects are very cheaply done, but I think that adds a lot to the film's charm. Though it did make it confusing when Cole threw something that looked like a book shelf at a goon and it somehow killed him.

Despite the slow down, the film does eventually ramp up again when Hasegawa returns and it creates a pretty strong ending. Knowing that there are two sequels to go, though, I was a little disappointed. I was imagining a great rivalry between Cole and Hasegawa that would last throughout the movies, but with Hasegawa's head chopped off, I don't think that's happening. I'm guessing Hasegawa's family will seek revenge, or at least I hope so, because I found his character far more interesting than Cole's.

This isn't a movie I would revisit too often, mostly because the pacing is just too uneven, but I'm glad this project gave me an excuse to watch it. There are some scenes here that are just too fun to miss. It's definitely worth the price of a rental.


Noel

If you were to ask an 11-year-old boy to rattle off what a ninja is and does, he'd go off on a breathless list as he describes all of the following in awkwardly worded and hopelessly enthusiastic detail: silent assassinations, poisons, throwing darts, samurai swords, tree climbing, camouflage, smoke bombs, kicks to the head, decapitations, and split-toed shoes. The first ten minute of this film are like someone transcribed that kid's ramblegasm and put it up on screen for the world to soak in as a white ninja dressed in white spills the red blood of ninjas dressed in red, then takes on a rival ninja in black, then bows before a wise master before decapitating that old codger as well. This is early 80s sugary cereal for my youth as we get seeping packs of blood so far off the natural shade they actually do look like ketchup for once, thwacks and hacks and slashes and whirls, and arrows and throwing stars that all fly through the air with a scifi synth "FWORP" sound that rewrites nature into allowing it to exist for this special display. Sure it pulls an April Fool's Day at the end, complete with a dummy head and everyone being okay, but if you were to ask me what a ninja is, I'd sit you down and have you watch these ten minutes while I tried to be all stealth and pretend to kill you with that day's junk mail.

Sadly, the majority of the movie doesn't carry on the momentum of the opening. Once our hero Cole's training is complete, we're off to a very typical plot of a fighter rolling into an old friend's house for a visit, only to discover the friend is in hot water that can only be solved with broken limbs and judo chops to the spine. Aside from some flourishes I'll get to, there's really no more meat to this plot than the average episode of the Bixby/Ferrigno The Incredible Hulk, right down to the threatened friend escaping into the bottle, leaving his dissatisfied wife to shack up with the new mystery hero in her life.

And it's all being carried on the musky shoulders of Franco Nero. Being largely unfamiliar with Nero's work, I honestly didn't know what to expect while waiting for the mask to come off and his looks to be revealed. Tony's right in repeatedly tapping the Caucasian button, because Nero truly is a packaged roll of Brawny paper towels. He's so white, he spent years throwing himself into the training of a ninja, but never once questioned keeping his 70s sideburns and moustache. He's so white, he keeps the training and knowledge of killing a secret by practicing it on the front lawn. He's so white, his uniform itself is Caucasian by proxy. Seriously, they set out to find the perfect ninja for the ultimate ninja movie, but it's like the casting call memos all went out with the word "ninja" accidentally misspelled as "lumberjack". That said, I like him in the part. He has the grace of a sack of potatoes in an industrial dryer, but the man can glare like a badass, his chops spring forth with unbridled hilarity, and half this guy's moves are some of the most gloriously ridiculous flying kicks this side of Chuck Norris's shadow.

So, yeah, despite the plot being boring - and the guy playing Frank being... I don't know what the hell he was doing, but it certainly wasn't acting - everything is executed with such a sense of sincere panache that it stakes a tent and proudly celebrates itself as camp. How do we see Franco Nero take out 14 men before the villains even know he's there? A montage of hysterical neck-breaks, throat chops (even a double chop at one point!), and the yanking of people into shadows followed by bloody thunk sounds. How do we learn the history of Cole and Frank? By flashing back to their time as soldiers in Africa, looking exactly the same as they do now, as they creep through someone's wooded back yard while combat sounds play on a turn table. How does Frank enjoy his day? Repeated bouts of cockfighting, both instances of which thankfully cut out before we witness the bloody reality a film from Nero's homeland wouldn't hesitate to portray.


And then there's the villains. Oh how I love the villains. Over at the Showcase, Tony and I have had some bad run-ins with "white guys in suits conspiring around a pool", and admittedly, the plot to steal a farm for a batch of oil we never see is the slimmest of motivators, but just look at Christopher George as Venarius. The dude is in full on Veruca Salt mode as he buys his own ninja, conducts a pool full of girls to be his own living mobile, gleefully shouts "NINJA! HEY, NINJA!" to a room full of his own increasingly deceased men, and just gleefully camps it up with an "I'm so amused by all the fucks you think I give" flair, ending with one of the finest death gestures I've ever seen. And then there's Mr. Parker (Constantine Gregory), his oh-so-British right hand man who diligently follows every order to the dot of an "i", right up until he takes an arrow through the arm and says, "I think I've been hurt, sir." Who, by the way, also manages to track down a secret order of ninja by going to an acting agency. And then there's Hook (Israeli actor Zachi Noy), the left hand man without a left hand, who's generally a sweaty ball of slime, but has a marvelous moment where a man is ordered to kill him and moves in to do so, only for Hook's hook to hook the man right between his dangling fruit.

In the last half hour, the ninja iconography returns, bringing with it Sho Kosugi. I know people love him (I'm so sorry, Tony!) and he's made a career out of playing this role, but wow is he awful. I don't know which was a more awkward display of his skills: the opening credits, where all his abilities are for naught when he takes that Slip-n-Slide boot to the near-his-head, or his re-introduction where he keeps ducking out of view to retrieve new weapons, the little pauses in between "hidden" by cuts so awkwardly obvious that this could be some teenager's YouTube video. When we do see him in all his ninja glory, I'll admit there's moments where he works, but they don't include him totally getting his ass kicked by Susan George's elbow, pouncing out of the shadows with a bellowing "HEE-HEE-HEE!!!", or switching to a "HAW-HAW-HAW!!!" as he prances about a village with torches in either hand, setting the whole place ablaze. The first one demonstrates questionable skills, the remaining two just seem so remarkably stealthless and undisciplined for a ninja. At least the final fight guarantees he won't be back for a seq-- [*Tony whispers in my ear*] son of a bitch, they brought him back but not Nero? Huh. Curious to see how they'll pull that one off. Was his head yet another April Fool's Day trick with rubber? I guess we'll see.

I really enjoyed this movie. There's not much plot, Kosugi is bizarre in his choices, and Susan George looks like she's questioning why she's there for half her role (which was actually pretty typical of George - even her A-list stuff), but you can't deny this film is oodles of fun. The body count is ridiculous. The choreography is adorable. The music is a whimsical ripoff of both John Carpenter and Goblin. The hero is a finely sculpted log of oak who spends most the film thwacking people with himself. And the villain is such a charming sleaze that I'd totally let him fuck my life over just to witness the grand way in which he'd do it.

Tony, thanks for finally finding an excuse to get me to watch this one. :)


Tony

Half the fun of going first was sitting back and waiting for the reactions to roll in. Noel and I have been at this together for a few years, but I had no better guess at how he’d respond to Enter the Ninja than I did Angie, who I’m just now getting to know. You see, Noel has a certain knack for finding majesty where others see travesty, and an ability to turn a mirror on beauty and make it shriek in horror at its own reflection. Oh, he’s not contrarian. He’s just... Noel.

I took a certain delight in this being Angie’s introduction to Ninja Cinema. As an 80s kid, I suppose I take this sort of film for granted, so to see it through her eyes was both educational and entertaining. First off, Angie, I’d like to apologize for the cockfighting and assure you that no cocks were harmed in the making of Enter the Ninja (except the one belonging to the goon who was hooked by Hook's hook). In all seriousness, life in general is quite disposable in this genre. The body counts tend to be high and the action quite bloody, but the line between good and evil (or sometimes goodish and evil) is usually clear enough to make it palatable. The Ninja did have a code of honor, but it was less romantic than the famous Bushido of the Samurai. The difference is akin to the harsh pragmatism of a guerilla fighter vs. the chivalry of a Medieval knight.

Angie, I realize this was likely a film totally out of your wheelhouse, but you watched it with an open mind, made valid points, and ultimately passed your introduction to Ninja 101 with flying colors! Thank you for indulging me here, and I look forward to returning the favor.

True to form, Noel managed to find treasure amongst the trash, however I’ll admit I was a bit surprised by his reaction to Sho Kosugi. I’m certainly guilty of a bit of hero worship now and then, but even taking off the rose colored glasses for a second didn’t allow me to see the same buffoonishness here that Noel did. This may be yet another instance where we’re viewing the same events from opposite sides of the generation gap and seeing two completely different things. Time will tell, as Kosugi actually steps into the tabi boots of leading man in the films to come. Oh, and about that. I should clarify that the “sequels” aren’t really sequels in the classic sense. The so-called “Ninja Trilogy” is composed of three films with no real canonical continuity, sharing mainly just the presence of Kosugi. But for now, I will say no more.

Noel, you tend to write at least one line per review that leaves me cursing the Writing Gods that they didn’t see fit to send it to me. Here, it was the following:

Seriously, they set out to find the perfect ninja for the ultimate ninja movie, but it's like the casting call memos all went out with the word "ninja" accidentally misspelled as "lumberjack".
*shakes fist at the sky* Curse you!

It needs to be said that Enter the Ninja doesn’t represent the best the genre has to offer by a long shot. While the Ninja film never reached the level of high art, it did achieve a level of primal excitement often lacking here. So consider this a warm-up. The best is yet to come.


We'll be back on the 1st of October with a pick from Angie: The Calamari Wrestler (2004)

11 comments:

NoelCT said...

A few thoughts:

- No, I didn't like Kosugi. I think part of it is them playing Hasegawa as a guy so full of himself that he occasionally bumbles into ineptitude, but I found Sho's performance just didn't gel with it. Every other villain was glorious when they hammed things up, but Sho just couldn't sell it, so stuff like his "HEE-HEE-HEE" and "HAW-HAW-HAW" moments felt off. I don't think the guy is a comedic actor, but I'll give him a fair shot as the lead, so I do look forward to the sequels.

- Another example of Hasegawa's ineptitude... Look at the scene where Cole sneaks into a stronghold and takes out the guards. He's quick and efficient, never allowing for noise or a mess to give him away. When Hasegawa is sneaking into Frank's house, what's the first thing he does? Brain a guard with hand spikes, causing the dude to rip out an extended shriek while spraying blood everywhere. I get that Cole being the better ninja is part of the point, but Sho played his role so straight that it kept trying not to acknowledge Hasegawa's shortcomings.

- Gah, how could I forget to mention Dollar, too. He doesn't really serve much purpose to the plot than to be a fun sidekick that keeps tagging along, but I like how Will Hare played him with a laid-back naturalness instead of pushing it as over-the-top as, say, Hook (who I still liked, but he's in a part where that style works better). I also like that the film didn't go the expected route of his greed causing him to flip sides in the last act, and that he forgoes any potential profit because he's having so much fun tagging along with these heroes that the experience alone is enough for him to treasure.

- Susan George was a mixed bag, becoming all passionate when she has to deal with the hardships of the farm, but losing interest when the romantic triangle plays out. Angie's spot-on that her introduction is awful. Cole sneaks onto someone's property and when greeted with a woman with a shotgun, he never once tries to explain himself, instead kicking her to the ground. It made him an asshole, and his half-hearted apology soon after doesn't really make up for it. And why did he never once regret sleeping with his best friend's wife? That twist was all about him and her, and never once did thoughts about Frank - as boozed up a looser as he was - come up.

- The small piece of furniture Cole slashes one goon and stabs another with is a little stool with a large blade on one end, which is used to shave the coconuts they harvest on the farm.

- A few other moments I really enjoyed... The villains realizing they're short on guards, then Cole walking out of the shadows with all the downed mens' guns. Cole taking out a building full of guards and even one of the main henchmen, only for Mr. Parker to walk up, rolling his eyes, as he says, "Was this necessary? We have been expecting you." Cole realizing Hasegawa's part in things when he and Dollar discover the inexplicably professionally shot and edited film of him killing some random goon. Cole taking out two goons with a handstand mule kick. The fact that the final showdown takes place in an actual cockfighting arena. The final tag where we learn the fate of Hook, and Cole turns to the camera and winks in a move as smooth as one of his roundhouse kicks.

Tony Williams said...

- Just wait until Kosugi goes from antagonist to protagonist, that's all I'll say for now.

- I found it difficult to get past the fact that Cole and Mary-Ann sleep together while Frank is still very much alive, however I give Mary-Ann a saving roll on this one, as who could refuse the sexual advances of a mustachioed Ninjitsu Master? Not me.

Angie Tusa said...

-I'll agree that there's not a whole lot of meat to what Hasegawa is all about here. It may be that I found too many of Cole's traits unlikable that I automatically liked Hasegawa better.

-I'm fairly convinced that beyond his first scene, all of Dollar's lines were just Will Hare making them up on the spot. Everything he says is just pure reaction to what's happening around him, and he always made me laugh.

-I think the painfully slow scene where Frank admits to Cole that he's impotent is supposed to be proper set up for Cole and Mary Ann sleeping together. Because when your husband is having a hard time in his life, it's totally okay to cheat on him.

Tony Williams said...

- Will Hare and Zachi Noy (Hook) were the unsung heroes of this movie.

Will Hare fun fact!: Mr. Hare played Old Man Peabody in 'Back to the Future'.

NoelCT said...

Tony: as who could refuse the sexual advances of a mustachioed Ninjitsu Master?

But did Cole ever really make any advances? At all? He was just (arguably) studly and was there for her in moments where Frank wasn't.

Angie: It may be that I found too many of Cole's traits unlikable that I automatically liked Hasegawa better.

Just to clarify, I don't really like Cole as a person, a character, or Nero as an actor, I'm just endlessly amused by how out of place he is in pretty much every way. It worked for me simply because it so spectacularly didn't work. :)

Angie: Because when your husband is having a hard time in his life, it's totally okay to cheat on him.

At least, upon discovering Frank's body, Cole didn't say, "I did her for you, Frank. I did her for you." :P

Tony: Will Hare and Zachi Noy (Hook) were the unsung heroes of this movie.

I'll agree to that. There's so much life and quirkiness in the supporting cast. Mr. Parker, too. And the casting agent in his two quick yet memorable scenes. And I even like seeing distinctive henchmen, like Preacher and the long-haired guy tailing Cole, all showing up again for the curtain call of the climax as Cole brutally slaughters his way through them.

NoelCT said...

Also, the second screengrab? The one with Cole about to double-chop the two guards? That's currently my desktop background. :)

Tony Williams said...

- Whether Cole grabbed the cookie or someone handed it to him, it still ended up in his mouth ;-)

- "At least, upon discovering Frank's body, Cole didn't say, "I did her for you, Frank. I did her for you." :P

LOL!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I finally watched this tonight and I'm afraid that I wasn't too impressed, for reasons already mentioned here. Angie is right that the pacing is really uneven, making the movie seem much longer than it was. And I'm with Noel on Hasegawa being a surprisingly bad mercenary.

But why don't we look at the bright spots? Like the other villains! The penthouse office with the swimming pool in the middle was the best set in the whole movie! I'd love to see what that building looks like now . . . And like Noel, I love the moment when Hook gets to stand up for himself against the stevedore. =)

NoelCT said...

Yeah, it's totally not a good movie, but I still have fun with the colorful villains and how wildly out of place Franco Nero is as the lead. :)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I also had some difficulty suspending disbelief when watching Nero. =/ Was he supposed to be American? Angolan? And that was the least of it. He just didn't suit the role. I would have found him more believable as Frank--if the role of Frank had called for someone more genteel, "old rich," and maybe slightly decadent. =P Which is actually the sort of person I'd expect to have a house like that in the Philippines.

Tony Williams said...

Nero's stay atop the list of "Least convincing Ninja ever" was short-lived, as he was handily dethronend three years later by Mr. Lee Van Cleef and his very un-Ninja-like paunch in The Master.

Coincidentally, The Master also co-starred Sho Kosugi.