Sorry, Luke, but Revenge is for Ninjas
1983 was supposed to be the year that the Jedi got their Revenge, but they had to settle for merely Returning after Star Wars creator George Lucas decided that a Jedi doesn’t seek vengeance. Thankfully, Ninja have no such qualms, as we’ll discover in December’s entry for the Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange: Revenge of the Ninja.
Revenge of the Ninja is the second film in what is typically referred to as the “Ninja Trilogy”. While not directly connected, these films were all released by Cannon films, two were directed by Sam Firstenberg, and all starred or co-starred Sho Kosugi. Released in 1983, the movie was a box office success, raking in over $13 million dollars, but it was pay cable where it really found its niche, particularly with kids who were too young see it in theaters.
I own Revenge of the Ninja on DVD, but in keeping with the spirit of the project, I forked over a couple bucks for a VHS copy. I should also note that I was one of those kids who watched this movie on HBO dozens upon dozens of times in the 80s, and dozens upon dozens of times since, so a re-watch was probably unnecessary. But you think I was going to let that stop me from watching it again?
Revenge is a dish best served Ninja!
It’s the late 20th century, but don’t tell that to Cho Osaki (Sho Kosugi)! He and his family like to party like it’s 1599, so when an American businessman named Braden (Arthur Roberts) arrives to discuss a potential partnership with Cho, he finds the Osaki clan living a bucolic life and dressed like extras from the set of Shogun.
Braden wants Cho to help him set up a Japanese-themed art gallery, but Cho is reluctant to leave his ancestral home and move his family to America. While the two men are out for a walk, a group of Ninjas show up at Cho’s home and begin slaughtering his family. “Why?” you ask. Don’t you know anything about Japan? Random Ninja attacks and giant monster invasions are a way of life there. Anyway, turns out Cho is a Ninja, too, and a pretty fair one considering he overcomes 20-1 odds to dispatch the rival clan in a bloody battle that sees only Cho, his mother, and his infant son survive. Braden appeals to Cho to leave the violence of Japan behind and take his family someplace safe... like Los Angeles, California.
Six years later, Cho has settled in America. It seems opening an art gallery is harder than it sounds, because he and Braden are just now putting the finishing touches on theirs. Though Cho has forsworn his Ninja ways, he still teaches martial arts to a young police officer friend named Dave (Keith Vitali) and to Braden’s assistant, Kathy (Ashley Ferrare), a striking blond with eyes for Cho. Apparently, Cho left his dick in Japan, because he sidesteps Kathy’s sexual advances like he’s dodging a spear.
Meanwhile, Cho’s only surviving son, Kane (Kane Kosugi), is having a hard time adjusting to life in the States. For one, Cho sends him to school dressed in a pink Izod sweater and an LA Dodgers cap. That shit might fly in Japan, but here in America, it gets you an ass whuppin’... or would if you weren’t a mini-Ninja. To make matters worse, when Kane does use Ninjutsu to fight off a group of bullies, he’s chastised by Cho - the same Cho who racked up a Voorhees-like body count in the movie’s first five minutes. It must be said that young Kane, the real life son of star Sho Kosugi, is an impressive little fighter, and a far more convincing Ninja than Franco Nero (from our very first feature, Enter the Ninja) on his best day. Granted, I think you could pluck a senior citizen out of a YMCA Tai-Chi class that would make for a more convincing Ninja than Franco Nero.
Little Kane isn’t done making trouble, however. While messing around inside his Father’s gallery, he accidentally knocks over a doll and breaks it open, exposing heroin hidden inside. It seems Braden isn’t a patron of the arts after all and is only using the gallery as a front for his drug smuggling operation. I know, I was shocked, too. Ahhh, but Braden is a man of many secrets, as we soon discover after he’s screwed over by a local mafia boss named Chifano (Joe Pesci look-a-like Mario Gallo). Cloaked behind a silver demon mask, Braden begins picking off Chifano’s family one by one, Ninja style. That’s right, Braden is not only a drug dealer, he’s a Ninja too! I bet you have no idea where this is headed do you? Guess. Come on, guess! Wha- well yeah, he does eventually fight Cho. How’d you know?
A desperate Chifano sends what to my eyes appear to be a Village People tribute band to the gallery to steal the heroin-filled dolls, only to be confronted by Cho. Cho and the macho men duke it out, and when they hop in their van with the goods and split for the YMCA, Cho hops on board, too. The gang eventually manage to shake Cho free, causing him to tumble hard to the street. Back at the gallery, Ninja-Braden shows up and sees that his merchandise is gone. Cho’s mother appears and makes a pretty good fight of it before Braden kills her. Unfortunately for Braden, that silver mask is hot, and when he takes it off, he’s spotted by Kane, who flees. Battered and bloody, Cho stumbles back to the gallery to find his mother dead and his son missing. How’s that pacifism working out for you, Cho?
Meanwhile, Braden doesn’t want any loose ends. Using an old Ninja mind trick, Braden hypnotizes Kathy into finding Kane and kidnapping him. When she finds the boy, the two engage in a fight that sees Kane inadvertently get to second base a couple of times, which is more than we can say for his father. Kathy eventually subdues the pint-sized Ninja and takes him to Braden, who plans to kill the boy. Kathy manages to break free of Ninja-Braden’s spell and makes a desperate call to Cho, explaining everything. Braden discovers Kathy’s treachery and sets up an overly elaborate Bond-like death scenario for her and the boy, and heads off to Chifano’s office tower to settle the score once and for all. In true Bond fashion, the pair escape and race to Chifano’s office tower.
Cho breaks his vow, dons the mask of the Ninja once again, and sets off after Braden. At Chifano’s office tower, Ninja-Braden slices, dices, and juliennes his way through a series of comical guidos, and then Chifano himself, with Cho one step behind. Unfortunately for Cho, his police pal, Dave, gets in Ninja-Braden’s way, eventually dying in Cho’s arms. You smell that? Smells like Revenge.
Ninja-Braden and Cho eventually meet atop the building and engage in a Ninja battle for the ages. Apparently, The Sharper Image has a special Ninja edition catalog, because Ninja-Braden whips out everything from a flame thrower to a full scale dummy-Braden. Alas, it’s not enough. The true spirit of Ninjutsu prevails, and Cho opens Ninja-Braden up in spray of crimson just as Kathy and Kane arrive. I love happy endings, don’t you?
Bottom line... of the Ninja
Revenge of the Ninja is light years ahead of Enter the Ninja in every possible way. The story is better, the fights are more exciting, and the score is epic. Sho Kosugi isn’t the most charismatic lead, but he acquits himself fairly well in the acting department, and the fact that he’s an actual Ninjutsu master adds credibility to the film’s many fight scenes.
Yes it’s cheesy and over-the-top at times, and sure, every single character looks like they just walked out of Stereotypes “R” Us, but it’s also wildly entertaining with a truly memorable finale. This is the Citizen Kane of Ninja movies, for whatever that may be worth.
Now this film is far more what I expected this series to be! Lots of ninja fights with only brief stops here and there to advance the plot. It's a pretty predictable plot - I knew Braden was using Cho for some hidden purpose, and as soon as the doll broke and revealed the heroin, it all fell into place - but that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable. Besides, you don't come into movies like this for the plot. And you better not come into it for the dialogue, because even beyond Sho Kasugi's largely wooden performance, most of the other actors also deliver their lines in an amateur fashion. No, we're here to see ninja fighting action!
I saw in the credits "Introducing Kane Kosugi" and I was thinking this was perhaps Sho's brother or other relative. I was pretty surprised when I realized it was in fact his son, and even more surprised to see that this young boy was fantastic! When you see the beginning of the scene of him walking with his grandmother in that bright pink sweater, you think you know where the scene is heading - boy gets bullied and eventually finds the strength to fight back. I was so happy to see it turned on its head and to actually have Kane dispatch all those bullies all on his own. I was also really happy to later see that the Grandmother herself was also a highly skilled fighter. She was killed far too soon, I was really hoping for a final showdown where three generations of ninjas take on the bad guys.
Unfortunately, most of the Americans did not hold my attention as well. I was simply not interested in the rivalry between Chifano and Braden. Why is this stereotypical mob plot being forced into my ninja movie? The moment he used the term "bafangool", I was rolling my eyes and dismissing most of it. The Native American goons wearing leather vests and fighting with tomahawks were also cringe worthy.
The movie slows down a bit at this point, where the police are trying to figure out what is going on and turn to Cho for his ninja expertise, but he refuses to help them, wanting only a peaceful life. The only thing that makes these scenes worthwhile is when the lead cop knocks his coffee over and the film switches to slow motion while Cho catches it without spilling a drop. It's hilarious!
The good thing is that once Cho accepts that he must return to being a ninja, the mob plot just becomes background set dressing. I loved watching Braden sneak into Chifano's complex via zipline, then watching Cho scale the building with his ninja claws, just to have Cho's American friend waltz right in the front door after dealing a few punches to the goons guarding it. The movie is filled with many of these subtle bits of humor. At least I'm assuming the multiple fake outs that occur with Cho attacking Braden only to find out that he's sliced through a hollow mannequin or cut off a fake arm are also done for humor's sake. This is a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, and I appreciate that. Why else would you set an epic brawl on a kid's playground?
But that isn't to say that this movie is meant to be a comedy or spoof. The scene where Cho pursues the thugs stealing the dolls and ends up hanging on for life to the back of their van is very thrilling. I couldn't help but compare it to some Jackie Chan moments I've seen on film, and it definitely holds up to that comparison. I imagine Chan is a bit more famous, thanks to his natural charm, but Kosugi definitely gives him a run for his money in terms of his ability as an action hero.
I think the only character I haven't brought up so far is Kathy, and that's largely because I can't find much to say about her. While Ashley Ferrare certainly fits the part of 80s blonde beauty, her character is too typical to be of any interest. She shows up trying to seduce Cho in their first scene together, so it's no surprise that she's working with Braden, nor is it any surprise later when she decides that Cho is the one she truly likes after all. I will say, though, that the fight between her and Kane is well executed. It could easily have been a silly fight scene, but the two of them have enough acrobatic talent to pull off the choreography and make it seem at least somewhat real.
Speaking of the two of them, I really like the fact that it's Kane who saves her and not Cho. Not only is it good for the story, as it shows he has forgiven her for abducting him while she was hypnotized, but it's just different enough than what you expect to happen to make it fun. His ability to escape his capture puts him higher on the sidekick scale than Robin in most situations.
As hard as I was on Kosugi for his acting performance for most of the film, the final scene where he takes Kane in his arms with tears of relief in his eyes was a truly sweet moment. Much like the first film in the series, I found this to be a flawed but fun movie that I wouldn't mind watching again. I look forward to seeing where the series goes next in Ninja III!
Tony, I hate to disappoint you. Wait, no, scratch that. I'm pretty used to disappointing you after all this time, but let's just act like I hate it for appearance's sake.
I'd hardly say this film is light years ahead of the original. In some way, yes, but not every possible one. In some, it's actually weaker. The general filmmaking, for example. The original, while on the cheap, still had a very clean, crisp look to it in terms of cinematography and editing, whereas this one has the wavery camera on a constant zoom lens that leaves it no better in the visual department than your average episode of Automan. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of great choreography and staging on display, but the way it's shot is pretty flat and rushed. Even during great moments like Braden going ninja on a couple from his point of view. Or the fight on, in, and around the speeding van. Or any of the frequent sparring matches. It's clumsy, and often fails to hide the battle gore effects being slipped in. On a purely technical level, this film is quite average.
Also, I felt it takes itself too seriously at times. There is humor in there, but whereas the first film fully embraced and enhanced the campier side of its nature - which also added a lot of color to the varied personalities, something we also don't get here - nobody really feels inspired to chew the scenery this time around. With the exception of Gallo as Chifano, who's still brief and nowhere near as entertaining as Hook, it's all about smoldering stares and dangerous stances instead of villains who revel in their villainy. Some parts come off unintentionally funny, and I'd rather they go for an honest laugh instead of stumbling into it. Stuff like the Granny Ninja, or the leggy blonde in a brutal fight against a seven-year-old child, or how the film just pauses for a few minutes to answer the age-old question of "Who would win in a fight between a ninja and an Apache warrior armed with two tomahawks?" This film needs to have more fun with itself. Instead, it feels like it has laughs desperate to get out, but it's worried it won't be taken seriously if it lets them, so it just holds them in tighter and tighter. Thus, constipation.
Now, where the film does shine is in plot. Cho has a very good arc here as he's innocently pulled into events that start destroying what little family he has left. It's a man running from his past only to find a future that isn't any better, so when he makes the choice to break the seal he placed on his sword, cutting to flashbacks of the slaughtered loved ones he left behind, it's a rousing moment, and the film does an excellent job of building us to it. On the flip side, Braden is a compelling villain because the moment someone crosses his plans, he'll don his demon-masked garb and teach them a lesson, one murdered goon at a time. [Incidentally, though the film doesn't state it outright, am I the only one who suspects Braden was behind the murder of Cho's family?] The film does a great job of laying its threads in place, then pulls them together for the big climax, which is staged to perfection to not only show off every single ninja tactic and weapon they can come up with, but also makes excellent use of the geography of the location, involving a tennis court, an air conditioner unit, and a final duel on a helicopter pad.
Tony, here's where I won't disappoint you. Sho Kosugi won me over. He's not a master thespian, but he's no worse in the acting department than half the action stars out there, and the film does a good job of playing to his strengths. They keep him quiet and firm, constantly boiling an animal rage that violently unleashes itself when the situation is ready for it. He has the skill, he has the presence, he has that heavy glare that's equally pained, enraged, and fully in control. One can believe that this is a man who will instantly end you if he has to, who can survive hideous gashes, scale concrete walls, break bones with his fingers, and suddenly go into a flying... okay, no, the obvious trampoline leaps over the walls were another victim of the mediocre cinematography, but the dude still kicks ass. Shame they decided to dub him over with a white guy trying to sound like a stereotypical Japanese guy.
Another highlight of the cast is young Kane Kosugi. He has the believable awkwardness of a child, but man can the kid kick ass with his tiny frame, and do so with a vibrant energy that makes for a fine little screen presence. I'm not surprised to see he co-starred in several more of his father's films before growing into steady gigs both here and in Japan. I am surprised, though, that Golan & Globus never leapt on the idea of letting him lead a couple films back in the day, giving him his own "little ninja" style series that would predate the 3 Ninjas craze. Who knows, maybe they did and Sho said no. Either way, missed opportunity for some fun.
Unfortunately, the film doesn't have much of a female lead as Salt Lake City fashion model Ashley Ferrare spends most of her part as a pretty punching bag. At least Susan George, while phoning it in, had a character that kept marching right up into the face of overwhelming odds and never giving them the dignity of taking her in easy. Kathy, on the other hand, is constantly smacked left and right, gets her ass handed to her by a child (before discovering his fatal weakness: picking him up by the waist), is slammed to the floor as payment for her seduction tactic of forgetting to wear pants, is hypnotized by Braden's "wax on, wax off" gesture, is tied into a pool for a round of Chinese wet T-shirt water torture, and is sexually assaulted by Professor Toru Tanaka. Her entire role is... uncomfortable.
On the other hand, Braden and Chifano make for good villains. Chifano has the humor, Braden the genuine menace and lethal skill. As clunky as it looks, the demon mask is a good idea, allowing Arthur Roberts to stay the face of the character while the hidden stunt doubles back up his thread with impressively lethal abilities. Unlike Franco Nero, it also helps sell the part in that we never once see Roberts try to pull off martial arts. He leaves it all to the experts.
I enjoyed this movie, but I can't ultimately say that it's better than the original. It has a stronger lead, a more threatening villain, a much more tightly constructed plot, and a seven-year-old who will cut you, sucka. Unfortunately, it also has a troubling female lead, is bland on the technical side, and takes itself too seriously. It needed to revel a bit. Loosen up the mask so it could sink its teeth into the scenery, and not just nibble, but fully chew on that goodness. The material is there, they just forgot to bring the right crayons to fill those lines with colors that shine.
I’ll admit, I’m a little surprised by your reactions. Particularly yours, Noel, though perhaps I shouldn’t be. To paraphrase Gandalf, “Noels really are amazing creatures. You can learn all there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after four years, they can still surprise you.” Using your positive, albeit tepid, responses to Enter the Ninja as a gauge, I guess I was expecting something bordering on the orgasmic from each of you on this one. Generally, you both seemed to appreciate the elements that I thought you would, just not to the degree I was hoping. Of course, if we could accurately predict these things, this project wouldn’t be much fun, would it?
What’s really interesting is how the two of you had such different takes on the tone. Angie, you felt the film didn’t take itself too seriously and appreciated that, while Noel felt it was lacking the intentional humor and conscious camp of Enter the Ninja. I agree with Noel in that, for the most part, I think Revenge of the Ninja does take itself quite seriously. Angie, I believe some of the things that you mentioned - catching the coffee cup, the playground fight, Ninja Braden’s bag-‘o-tricks - were all meant to be played straight. Through contemporary eyes, your reaction is completely understandable, and this gets back to Noel’s comment that “Some parts come off unintentionally funny, but I'd rather they go for an honest laugh instead of stumbling into it.” I agree that some parts come off unintentionally funny, but I’d strongly disagree that the remedy to that is to ham it up on purpose. When it comes to certain eras of film, there are elements that just don’t age very well. The melodramatic acting of the 30s and 40s, or the intrusive and instantly dated pop culture of the 70s and 80s, for instance. These are things I can overlook. But Revenge of the Ninja is a much darker story than its predecessor, and intentional camp would’ve cut that drama right off at the knees in my opinion.
Quick hits: Angie
- The scene where Cho battles the thugs on top, inside, and dragging behind the van is probably my favorite in the film. The comparison to some of Jackie Chan’s work is a good one, with the tension enhanced by letting the audience know it’s actually Kosugi in the thick of things most of the time, and not some double.
- You’re so right about Kosugi’s performance in the final scene of the film. I think we’d all agree that he isn’t exactly Laurence Olivier, but the tearful embrace between Cho and Kane feels absolutely authentic, no doubt aided by the fact that Kane is Kosugi’s real life son. After twenty minutes of ceaseless violence, it’s a nice emotional capper that brings the story full circle and back to the human element.
Quick hits: Noel
- The general consensus, and my own personal opinion, is that Braden did indeed orchestrate the massacre at Cho’s home.
- I may be wrong, but I believe that was Sho Kosugi’s actual voice used in the film, and not an over-dub ala Franco Nero in Enter the Ninja. Interviews I’ve watched with Kosugi on Youtube seem to back this up, but I don’t know for certain.
And so we close the book on this chapter of the “Ninja Trilogy”. Our final installment will introduce elements of the supernatural, give us our first female lead, and features what surely must be the first and only time V8 Juice has been used to seduce someone. How will Angie and Noel respond? I don’t know, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
We'll be back on the 1st of January with a pick from Angie: Memories (1995)