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Ninja 3: The Domination: Cannon Films
Rating: USA: R
Back in the 1980s, Cannon Films became almost synonymous with the phrase ‘B-movie’. Invariably, almost every cheesy action flick, ninja movie, or martial arts film involving Chuck Norris would bear the logo of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’ small, but profitable production company. Cannon made money making marginally good films (Delta Force for example) and made stars out of actors like Michael Dudikoff and Sho Kosugi in the process.
Perhaps their most infamous cinematic legacy is the ninja film, which became an insanely popular subgenre in the martial arts film category in the early and mid ‘80s. The official ‘ninja trilogy’ began in 1981, with Enter the Ninja, a film that Golan directed personally. Enter the Ninja isn’t much of a film, partially because lead actor and good ninja Franco Nero isn’t convincing in the role. Nero, who’s been a veteran of the Italian exploitation scene for decades, looks uncomfortable here. However, the film’s one saving grace is that it introduces audiences to Sho Kosugi. Kosugi, who played an evil ninja in this film, was comfortable in the role. The enigmatic easterner captivated fans with both his skills and his strong, but relatively silent, performance.
Golan wasn’t a dumb man, and realized that fans had identified more with Kosugi than a western actor playing a ninja. So, by the time the second installment in the series hit (1983’s Revenge of the Ninja), Kosugi had been elevated to star and hero (and, in an interesting twist, it was a western ninja played by Arthur Roberts who took over the main villain duties). Kosugi did what the role called for—mainly kicked some serious butt in some fairly decent (at least by western standards) action sequences, and didn’t embarrass himself too badly when a scene called for him to act. Revenge of the Ninja was easily the high water mark of the trilogy and the most successful as well.
Keeping with the Cannon philosophy of churning out sequels as fast as possible, 1984 saw the release of the third and final installment in the series, the ludicrously silly Ninja 3: The Domination--a film that fails on almost every level, but should get a few points for at least trying to be different.
This time out, the film opens with a mysterious black ninja (it’s sort of funny that they call him this since he runs around in a gray ninja suit) arming himself in his cavernous hideout while some cheesy synthesized Japanese music plays in the background (it should be noted that this music is lifted wholesale from Revenge of the Ninja--nothing like recycling, eh?). Armed to the teeth, our black ninja (David Chung) sets out to assassinate some schmoe who’s golfing nearby. Chung gets the job done (in one laugh out loud funny sequence, he uses a blow gun dart to jam a gun, causing it to backfire in a bodyguard’s face), but not before the police arrive.
Soon, hundreds of cops are chasing the assassin through the nearby desert (and amazingly enough, a ninja, who’s supposed to be the master of stealth and hiding can’t elude these guys for five minutes) and eventually fill him with enough lead to add at least thirty pounds to his body weight. Of course, Chung takes out about 300 or so cops as well, including several in a helicopter.
With the last of his strength, our ninja slinks off into the desert, where he encounters line technician Christie (Lucinda Dickey, who appeared in both Breakin’ movies, including the wonderfully titled Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo). With his last breath, he somehow manages to give Christy the sword—and possess her with his spirit. Thus, Christy becomes his puppet for revenge, and sets out to kill each of the cops responsible for killing him.
Along the way, she’ll run into good ninja Yamada (Sho Kosugi, in a fairly diminished role this time out) who will save her from the evil black ninja’s spirit and attempt to kill the evil once and for all (because, as Yamada points out, ‘only a ninja can kill a ninja’…yeah, sure.)
That’s a lot of plot synopsis for a B flick, but hey, it was the only way I could point out all of the corny key elements that make this film so watchable. Every critic in the universe has already mentioned that Ninja 3 is a cross between Flashdance and The Exorcist with some ninjas thrown in for good measure, but I feel the need to jump on that bandwagon, too.
And while the film is completely inane, I can’t help but like it on that guilty pleasure level. I mean, how can you not derive some amusement out of the notion that a female phone technician who teaches aerobics becomes possessed by a modern day ninja and starts killing off cops? We’ve got a bit of everything here—scantily clad women, a chavunistic cop who’s really a good guy, Sho Kosugi kicking ninja butt, a sword floating in the air (with cheesy disco strobe lighting and visible strings, no less), a corny score, a Japanese exorcism, and ninja earthquake magic, even. About the only thing we don’t have is nudity, which is sorely missing from the film.
Director Sam Firstenberg (who also helmed Revenge of the Ninja) does a solid job behind the camera. Let’s face it, Firstenberg wasn’t working with a hundred million dollar budget, nor an Academy Award winning script, so that this film is even watchable is something of a moral victory. The direction is workmanlike—clearly designed to showcase the martial arts choreography of Kosugi and the T&A elements of Lucinda Dickey all while coming in both on schedule and perhaps even under budget. You won’t see any flashy direction—no weird camera angles, no interesting transitions, nothing except solid, straightforward B action moviemaking.
Yet, while the direction is solid, the performances really aren’t. Lucinda Dickey really isn’t much of an actress, a fact that’s highlighted here time and again. Dickey sort of sleepwalks her way through the role here—like perhaps someone drugged her on the set before each take or something. The cops in the films are perhaps the most cliché assortment of men with badges I’ve ever seen. We’ve got lots of gruff tough guys who really aren’t so tough once they run into our female assassin. Even love interest Secord is essentially a walking cliché, not that it really matters.
The film’s one saving grace acting-wise is Kosugi—who still can’t carry a dramatic scene, but cheeses it up whenever possible (and almost certainly unintentionally). Kosugi plays everything so serious that it’s hard to believe that he’s not pulling our leg…but he’s not. Now, that’s hardly grounds for calling a performance good, but the scenes he’s in certainly play better than almost everything else in the film. Couple this with the fact that his action sequences are pretty decent (both in choreography and execution), and Kosugi becomes the shining star of Ninja 3--even if it is almost by default.
Speaking of action sequences, the ones here are fairly decent. I still prefer the ones in Revenge of the Ninja, but there are some excellent sequences here. The most impressive might be the opening one, which runs roughly fifteen minutes, features our black ninja dealing out death in a multitude of ways (sword, blow gun, throwing stars, etc.) and has an insanely high body count.
The runner up would have to be the climactic battle, which doesn’t feature nearly as many deaths as the beginning, but does feature Sho Kosugi doing what he does (or did, since he seems to have retired from acting) best—kicking the snot out of another ninja. The final showdown is a nicely choreographed sequence that allows Kosugi to shine, and displays the various toys of the ninja trade. It ain’t gonna replace the martial arts mayhem of scenes like the final battle in Drunken Master 2, but it’s not too shabby, either.
I suppose this is as good a place as any to wrap this one up. All in all, Ninja 3: the Domination falls into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category of films, but just barely. Give points to Golan and Globus (as well as screenwriter James Silke) for trying to come up with something different (despite the fact that it’s an outlandishly stupid idea) instead of just rehashing Revenge of the Ninja. Give credit to director Sam Firstenberg for making the most of a limited budget, a clueless cast, and a weird script. Give credit to Sho Kosgui for bringing cheesy ninja flicks into vogue (well, deduct points for inspiring the American Ninja series) and give credit to Cannon films for funding such lowbrow but fun garbage cinema. Ninja 3: The Domination gets 2 stars from me. See it if you like ninja flicks, bad 80’s B action movies, or if you want to see what Lucinda Dickey did after the Breakin’ films.
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