Friday, March 1, 2013

Ninja III: The Domination (1984)... Tony's Pick for March


The Power of Kosugi compels you!

I think most of us would agree that what keeps William Friedkin's 1973 film The Exorcist from being a classic is its baffling lack of Ninjas. Thankfully for us, director Sam Firstenberg would rectify that a decade later with our March entry in the Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange: Ninja III: The Domination.

Ninja... III?

Yep. III. Not III as in the third film of an interconnected trilogy, but III as in the third Ninja film released by Cannon that featured Sho Kosugi, but are otherwise unrelated.

Like its predecessors, Ninja III was in heavy rotation on HBO when I was growing up. I naturally loved its senseless violence, but for me, Ninja III was really all about the lovely Lucinda Dickey. Best know for her role in the breakdancing duology Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (the latter helmed by Revenge of the Ninja and Domination director Sam Firstenberg), Dickey experienced a short-lived brush with almost-fame before retiring from acting in 1990 to raise her two daughters.

With that enlightening bit of history out of the way, it's time to put on our leotards and crack open the V8 juice (this will make sense later, I promise) as we Ninja for the third and final(?) time!

Ninja III: The Description

A Ninja assassin (David Chung), for reasons never specified, shows up at a country club and murders a scientist, his wife, several body guards, and a couple of golf course security officers. This turns out to be a mere warm up for our naughty Ninja, because when the police arrive, the real killing begins. After taking out police motorcycles, cars, and even a helicopter, the assassin is cornered and riddled with bullets. This only seems to piss him off, though, and he kills even more policemen before once again being filled with lead. Finally, he uses his ninja skills to disappear, leaving the surviving cops too stunned to initiate an effective search of the surrounding area.

Mortally wounded, the Ninja manages to find a young telephone line technician named Christie (Lucinda Dickey) working on a nearby pole, and gives her his sword before dying. Soon, Christie - who also works part-time as an aerobics instructor (because it was the 80s, and all women were required by law to be part-time aerobics instructors) - begins to experience strange visions of the fateful events at the golf course. Christie is ultimately compelled to go to the secret cave where the Ninja assassin kept his weapons, don his uniform, and begin taking out the cops who were responsible for his death, one by one. This includes the young and extremely hairy Billy Secord (Jordan Bennett), a stalker officer who takes a special interest in Christie. The two eventually fall in love and share the only bit of V8 juice-infused foreplay in the recorded history of sex.

When science fails to answer Christie's questions about what's happening to her, she and Billy seek the help of a Japanese mystic (James Hong). There they learn that Christie is possessed by the spirit of the evil Ninja. Frightened and unable to exorcise the spirit from Christie's body, the old man tells them that “Only a Ninja can kill a Ninja.” This ups the ante from Revenge of the Ninja where “Only a Ninja can stop a Ninja.” Luckily, there just so happens to be one heading their way who has a score to settle with this particular evil Ninja.

When Yamada (Sho Kosugi) reaches these shores, he follows the trail of dead bodies, eventually confronting Christie, who he believes to be the evil Ninja. The two battle, but her true identity is revealed when Yamada removes her mask. When he learns Christie's story, Yamada vows to help her and proceeds to steal the evil Ninja's remarkably well preserved and mysteriously not yet cremated body from the morgue. He then takes it to a mountain temple... in Los Angles, California. There, Yamada manages to coax the evil Ninja's spirit out of Christie and back into its own body. Whole again, the evil Ninja and Yamada square off while Christie and Billy look on. Finally, while the evil Ninja is distracted, Christie retrieves his discarded sword and stabs him with it. Totally ignoring the fact that the old man said that “Only a Ninja can kill a Ninja,” the evil Ninja dies.

Ninja III: The Dissertation

The films that make up the “Ninja trilogy” are really nothing more than violent, R-rated comic book movies where the titular characters are mythologized and held up as something akin to modern demigods. Viewed in that context, it makes it easier to swallow the total absurdity of something like the evil Ninja getting shot fifty times at point blank range and shaking it off like they're mosquito bites. In particular, since Domination outright introduces a supernatural element from the start, anything goes as far as I'm concerned. That doesn't keep it from all being a bit silly, but it never insults our intelligence, because it flat out tells us early on that this isn't supposed to be realistic.

The supernatural aspect isn't the only thing that sets Domination apart from its predecessors. While the action in Enter the Ninja mostly took place in a remote village in the Philippines, and the tone of Revenge of the Ninja was often as stoic as its hero, Domination is really a Ninja movie for the MTV generation, with a pop culture sensibility largely absent from the first two films. This, if you'll pardon the pun, is a double-edged sword, because while the production values take a noticeable uptick here, this movie is very, very 80s. Not that that's a bad thing, it's just that every few minutes, some pop culture artifact pulls you out of the moment and reminds you that you're watching a movie. It's funny how easy it is for me to suspend disbelief and accept something as outlandish as Ninja possession, only to have the illusion shattered by the sight of an arcade game.

The other big difference is focus. In Enter, our hero is an American Ninja traveling the world in search of a purpose. In Revenge, he's a Japanese man who leaves his home to escape the violence of his past only to find that violence is a universal problem. Here, the hero is actually a heroine. Christie is a normal L.A. Girl - tough and capable, no bimbo or damsel in distress - pulled into a deadly and frightening situation beyond her experience and out of her control. She sort of reminds me of Sarah Conner in the first Terminator film. Dickey is no Meryl Streep, but she manages to come across as tough and vulnerable, a difficult trick for even the best actresses to pull off convincingly. English is also her first language, a first for the protagonists in this series.

Like the previous two films, Domination opens with a bloody and exciting action set piece. The 1 Ninja vs. 50 cops opener is about as good a whiz-bang bit of exploitation entertainment as I've ever seen. The middle portion of the film takes on a horror movie vibe as the possessed Christie carries out a series of gruesome assassinations against the various cops who killed the evil Ninja. It's not until about the half way mark, when the criminally under-used Sho Kosugi shows up, that we get our first true Ninja on Ninja action. The finale throws in everything but the kitchen sink as the evil Ninja somehow turns the temple's monks into an army of Kung-Fu zombies. It's fun, but it still can't touch the sheer awesomeness of Revenge's more straightforward showdown.

The bottom line

Look, I realize this film isn't art. It's not particularly well made, nor especially well acted, and it's certainly not well written. This is unapologetic, grindhouse-style entertainment for the home video/pay cable generation. I loved every blood-soaked minute of it.

A few Ninja notes

Ninja III: The Domination recycles parts of the score for Revenge of the Ninja, particularly during the final fight scenes and the end credits.

The arcade game Christie has in her loft is called Bouncer. I did a little research and it turns out that, due to high costs, Bouncer was never mass produced and thus never released to the public. For all the Bouncer information you'll ever need, please visit this page.


It's pretty common for movie series to go downhill as they progress, and even more common for the last in a series to be a stinker. That's usually how it ends up being last - no one wants to spend money continuing a franchise that has ruined itself. But this "franchise" is barely one at all. I'm actually surprised they put the "III" in the title, because, once again, we have absolutely no connection here to the previous entries. Though I suppose, stylistically, this one does have some things in common with the previous entry.

Besides the appearance of Kosugi (who is really just a supporting character in this one), the movie also contains some of those laughably bad moments that happened frequently in the previous entry. I once again found myself laughing at the unintentional goofiness that occurs during the opening fight sequence. I laughed even harder once the cheesy 80s soundtrack kicked in, which seemed to contain songs written specifically for the film. A Pat Benatar wannabe sings as we are introduced to Christie for the first time. For whatever reason, when she turned off her ultra-large boombox that the song was supposedly playing from, I guffawed. Yes, this is certainly a silly, silly movie.

Unfortunately, the further the film went on, I found myself less amused and a little more bored. Like hearing a series of puns relentlessly, the cheesiness of the film goes from funny to just tedious. It doesn't help that Officer Fuzzball is rewarded for his stalking by Christie suddenly deciding that he isn't creepy, she really does like him. The V8 seduction is a real head scratcher. This is, of course, another prime 80s stamp, a woman who is such a health nut that she won't drink coffee or soda, she only drinks V8. But to use the drink, wouldn't they have to gain permission? And if so, who approved the use of it as a seduction tool? I tend to be grossed out by the combination of food and sex in general, but this is particularly messed up as it almost looks like blood that he's licking off her body. Yuck.

The underlying story of the film is one that could have been interesting and entertaining if it had been handled well. A supernatural evil spirit taking over the body of someone else to get revenge is a good concept. Since the ninja first saw Christie as she was scaling a telephone pole for work, using almost the same exact move he had just used to scale a tree earlier, she was an obvious choice. But the execution just doesn't work. Christie sees one of the cops who attacked the ninja, she gets possessed, she kills the cop in some gruesome way, she comes home and doesn't remember what happened. Rinse and repeat. And her attempts to deal with what is happening to her mostly seem to be to come home and dance it out of her system.

The exorcist inspired scene comes off particularly bad, with her pale white makeup and the way she spins around and around inside the restraints they're holding her in. Once again, in the right framework, this could be creepy, but here it just comes off silly. The same can be said for the moment in her apartment when the spirits start whispering at her - they sound more like the goblins from Labyrinth than anything truly spooky.

Even when Kosugi finally gets to be part of the action, it's not that thrilling. It seemed to me like the choreography of the fights in this film are pretty lacking, not really giving him much of a chance to show off his strengths. Whether he was fighting the possessed Christie, the zombie monks, or finally the evil ninja at the end, it all just feels uninspired to me. I can see why they chose to have Christie deliver the final blow to the evil ninja, as it is a proper way to finish her story arc, but it does make Kosugi's character seem mostly useless. And apparently, Christie and Billy certainly think of him that way, because they don't bother to help him out of the sinkhole he's fallen into or tell him thanks in anyway. They just leave off into the sunset together.

So while I found something of value in the other two entries in this series, despite their faults, I simply can't recommend this one. The bad outnumbers the good too much for me. If you're a lover of 80s cheese, you may be able to get more out of it, but for anyone else, I think you're better off just passing this one by. Check out the earlier films for something a little more fun.


And here's where I surprise no one everyone by saying I quite enjoy this film.

Linda Firstenberg, who I'd never seen before, make for a very compelling lead, and a fresh face for the Ninja "franchise". In fights, her moves have more the measured grace of a dancer than they do the force of a martial artist, but her physical athleticism can't be denied, especially every time you get a look at her magnificently developed arms and shoulders. There's an everyday vulnerability to go with the strength, a very Heather Langenkamp quality, but I like how the film makes sure to show us how well she can handle herself in everyday situations, so the threat is significantly stronger when she has to go up against forces quite far from the everyday. It's never clearly expressed if the poltergeist sequences in her apartment are actually happening or just in her head, but I love the moment when she decides not to give in, and starts fighting back the doors that are flying open and grounding objects sailing into the air. And in the best bit of the movie, she actually tries to combat the demonic forces with the power of 80s pop music and dancing. It's good stuff, and the awkward V8 sex scene (which mostly doesn't work because of the horrid actor in Billy's role) is more than made up for by sequences like the wild exorcism or the steely glint in her suddenly eye-linered eyes as she dons the ninja gear. My only major issue with her is that she's largely denied a climax. Instead of it being all about Christie struggling to hold onto herself while clashing swords with another ninja, she only gets a few swipes at Sho before the evil ninja is back in its own body and she's just watching on the sidelines while Sho steals the... wait for it... show. Sure, she gets a poke in with the sword, but that's not what killed the ninja. It kept fighting for another five minutes, only losing the day when Sho buried a knife in its skull.

Speaking of Sho, I was surprised he didn't show up until almost half way through the film, but I like the mystery of his role, that we don't know if he's a friend or foe until quite late into things as he's always lingering on the periphery, slowly putting the pieces together of how the ninja ended up possessing Christie. Sure, he completely hogs the spotlight in the climax, but at least he does so in grand fashion, as the battle between he and the ghost ninja is great. I especially love the moment when the monks in the temple are possessed and go after Sho, and he does everything he can to not hurt his friends before being forced to disarm them. It's a silly moment on paper, but very well played. And I like little moments of humor from Sho, like the bonking together of the nurses' heads, or the bit with the darts in the police car. Sho has really grown into a fine cinematic presence over the course of these three films, so I'm not surprised he left an impression on fans back in the day. My only issue is, if you want to give Sho an eyepatch, just give Sho an eyepatch. Don't over-think it by strapping that jar lid to his face.

I'd disagree that the narrative isn't straightforward, Tony. It's crazy as hell, and doesn't follow the more typical "hero's journey" structures of the first two, but it's still pretty easy to follow. A ninja assassin is gunned down by cops, passes into the body of a young woman, then hijacks her body at night to get revenge on those cops, even as the woman he's possessing starts falling in love with one. That's actually a great hook, and I quite enjoy it. My only problems with the story are two fold. First, they needed to play up the cops more as innocent victims being punished for just doing their jobs. For the first two kills, we get a shlub in a wife beater cussing at the ninja from across a pool table, and a dude sleazing into a hot tub with a pair of call girls. It's almost as though the producers wanted us to enjoy the sight of these guys being killed, but I think that robs the story of the horror it needs at what Christie is being forced to do. It's not until we get to the attack at the police funeral that they try to play her victims up as honorable folk, and by then, it's a bit too little, too late. The second problem, which I've already mentioned, is Jordan Bennett as Billy Secord. His "romantic" lead does cross the line into stalker territory as he keeps refusing to take no for an answer, and if that's the route you want to go, you need to play it very carefully, giving him a bumbling, hapless charm along the lines someone like Brian Benben can deliver. Jordan Bennett is no Brian Benben, and his attempts at charm comes off aggravating and unappealing, and that more than the pouring of V8 made the sudden sex scene so completely unbelievable. Also, dude, wow. That is some serious back hair.

In terms of filmmaking, I found this totally on par with Firstenberg's direction of the second film, mixing solid choreography and editing with the handheld television camera on a zoom lens cinematography. It's not my favorite type of filmmaking, but it's capably handled, and he does just as well with the wild poltergeist sequences (love the goofy voices snarling in Japanese on the soundtrack, and the laser and smoke effects from the arcade machine) as he does the ninja action. The highlight definitely is that opening sequence, where an assassination on a golf course turns into a bloody chase as this one ninja takes out half the police department before they empty hundreds of rounds into him... and then he keeps fighting! It does have its implausible moments, like when he lifts up the golf cart or wraps an iron around his wrist, but given the story that follows, I'm willing to let it slide. And when the ninja gets his body back in the climax, I love the execution of how it moves with a corpse-like stiffness and unnaturally spins around when it's hit. There's a lot of little details like that which impress me, and unlike Revenge of the Ninja, this film embraces its sillier moments and even goes for a few legitimate laughs.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this final chapter in the Ninja sequence. It's silly as hell, but played it just right and kept me engrossed and entertained from the bright blue polo shirt of scene one to the heroic shot of Kosugi atop a cliff as we enter the credits. A fun time was definitely had, and thanks again, Tony, for finally getting me to check out these three essential installments of 80s cinema.

A few extra thoughts:
  • It's always a delight when James Hong shows up in a film, and despite not being Japanese (which I blame the producers for, not him), he's a welcome presence as the "exorcist", and slips some good chuckles beneath the serious veneer of his performance.
  • Didn't realize until now that James R. Silke, who wrote both this and Revenge of the Ninja, is the pinup and comic book artist Jim Silke who was briefly big in the 90s. I read his scifi swashbuckler series Rascals in Paradise back in the day and remember it being a fun, if light and old-school cheesecake, book.


If 80s cartoons taught me anything - besides consumerism - it's that there's a lesson to be learned in everything we do. Well, kids, in today's episode, Tony learned that Ninjas aren't for everyone.

As popular as Ninjas became in the 80s, they never did graduate to the Hollywood A-list, and the likes of Sho Kosugi never got to walk the red carpet, unless that carpet was covered in fake blood. Like their “Chopsocky” Kung-Fu predecessors in the 70s, the cinematic Ninjas of the 80s were B-movie heroes. The principle differences between the two were format and venue. While Kung-Fu films thrived in the halcyon days of the grindhouse, the outbreak of Ninjamania coincided with the mainstreaming of home video and pay cable. This meant that you could enjoy your exploitation from the comfort of your living room, and didn't have to wonder if the guy three seats over was masturbating under his raincoat. Unless you lived in my house, where we referred that man as “Dad”. By the way, if you should ever find your self watching a movie at my Dad's house, here's a little tip: if he asks if you want butter on your popcorn, say “No”.

Angie, I really appreciate how open minded you've been throughout this so-called “Ninja Trilogy”. I know these types of films aren't exactly your thing, but you made an honest effort to find some pros hidden amongst the many cons. I can certainly understand why Domination was your least favorite of the three. I think its inclusion of pop culture was a bit like ordering extra cheese on a deluxe cheese pizza. Unless you have a great affinity for both Ninja exploitation and 80s pop culture, it would be a bit overwhelming. One area where we did find some common ground was with the fight choreography. I also felt it was a bit sloppy and uninspired here, lacking the skill and elan of Revenge of the Ninja. Another thing we agree on was that the horror element didn't quite work. Even though Ninja and horror make for an odd genre mash-up, I actually love the possession concept. The problem is that the execution was a bit lacking. What does it say when the scariest moment in the movie was the V8-infused sex scene between Christie and Officer Chia Pet?

Noel, I sort of had a feeling you would like this one. From the inclusion of a female protagonist to the horror elements, it seemed right in your wheelhouse. The comparison of Lucinda Dickey to Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street was spot on. Like Langenkamp, Dickey isn't a great actress, but she did balance strength with vulnerability in a way that was crucial for any successful “final girl” in a horror film. Great job picking up on the evil Ninja moving with a rigor mortis-stiffened gait in the finale, too. All these many viewings and I've never noticed that before. That's what makes you Noel.

And with that, we bring the curtain down on the “Ninja Trilogy”. In spite of our mixed reactions, I do hope our readers seek these films out. They may not be high art, but I believe that Ninjamania is a genuine bit of pop cultural history worth exploring.

We'll be back on the 1st of April with a pick from Angie: The Guyver 2: Dark Hero (1994)

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