Enter the Ninja(1981) Review

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Enter the Ninja was directed by Menahem Golan (Final Combat, The Apple), written by Golan, Dick Desmond, and Stephen K. Hayes, and stars Franco Nero (Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Massacre Time), Susan George (Pajama Tops, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry), Alex Courtney (Death House, Fatal Pulse), Christopher George (The Rat Patrol, Dixie Dynamite), Will Hare (Grim Prairie Tales, Black Oak Conspiracy), Zachi Noy (Maftir, Lemon Popsicle), and Sho Kosugi (Black Eagle, Nine Deaths of the Ninja). It’s about a western ninjutsu practitioner getting wrapped up in a corporate plot hatched to steal land from his friend.

The Plot: Keeping the story simple was a gamble for Cannon; sometimes there was too little to hold the films together and – on rare occasions – too much to sift through. Enter the Ninja is of the former category and it’s stupid too, even within its own silly continuity.

Having recently passed every test and earned the title of “ninja” at the cost of fellow fighter Hasegawa’s (Kosugi) ire, Cole (Nero) goes on a trip to the Philippines to visit longtime friend Frank (Courtney) and his wife Mary Ann (the female George) and discuss old times. Not long after his arrival, Cole comes to realize that his friend is the target of businessman Venarius (the male George) and his goons, led by “the Hook” (Noy). It’s an enticing idea that’s let down by a lack of direction as Golan, Desmond, and Hayes refuse to offer a reason why the conflict can’t be immediately resolved.

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Soon it comes to light that Venarius wants to buy the land currently owned by Frank and Mary Ann, but Cole isn’t going to let that happen, instead utilizing his skills to deny the kingpin’s advances. Logical escalation of the stakes never truly occurs, with Enter the Ninja staying small in a scheme that’s supposedly a grand takeover of citizens’ assets, though some of the property is burned down and Cole makes a cohort out of store owner Dollars (Hare). Hasegawa is contacted by Venarius in order to put down the resistance (why not just hire more gunmen?) and pave way for his plan, and the same scenes repeat from then on until the showdown occurs.

Ostensibly a serious matter, the script treats its plot with the utmost importance while ignoring its own story. Without much connective tissue or greater development, it’s better left forgotten.

The Characters: It’s all about the background and attire in Golan’s feature. Enter the Ninja’s key parties aren’t given much attention either as playful archetypes or intense subjects of study.

Cole is far from a traditional protagonist, as the script endeavours to make something of a drifting cowboy out of the man while failing to provide any traits that endear him as said sort of hero. He’s a veteran of the Angolan bush war and turned to the way of the ninja for some reason. That’s about as far as his background goes, and the present man isn’t much better, as he’s eager to sleep with Frank’s wife despite bonding with the man during his service; and Cole’s actions only serve to make the couple’s situation with Venarius worse. Maybe keep drifting, pal.

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Venarius is an entertainingly campy villain that aspires only to be rich and powerful to reap the expected benefits, as seen by the way he dresses, where he’s based out of, and how picky he is with just about everything. And to top it off, he has a team of synchronized swimmers in his headquarters. An absolute menace. Hasegawa, on the other hand, doesn’t land at all. His resentment of Cole for not being a legitimate ninja means nothing when it’s revealed that Hasegawa himself is descended from a samurai lineage, not a ninja. Some throwaway dialogue indicates he may just be upset that he can’t use his skills practically, but who really cares?

Rather than humanizing Frank and Mary Ann, Enter the Ninja allows only enough time to establish Frank as a poor husband thanks to a newfound alcohol addiction, which makes room for Cole’s relationship with Mary Ann which itself is only founded on sex appeal. They’re somehow hollower than the hero and his counterpart.

The Action: Known for their ability to kill creatively and make things go boom, Golan and Cannon serves up banal action in this outing. Frequency remains and there are a few solid moments, but it lacks what it says on the tin: ninjutsu.

Probably sensing that the movie’s plot doesn’t follow up on its core conflict in any way, the film starts out with Cole’s final test of ability, and it’s not great. An attempt at a gauntlet is made with red-clad ninjas blocking his journey to the dojo he practices at, but the foes are taken out too quickly and clumsily for any of the trainees’ skills to be showcased. Add in the fact that the whole thing was an exercise, and now it just doesn’t make sense. The red ninjas may be part of the training, but the wounds they sustain (like a shuriken to the head and a slit of a throat) are somehow faked in the heat of the moment. This section is a gauntlet, all right.

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Although he’s a master, Cole’s ninjutsu is average at best. The first major action setpiece after his graduation (for lack of a better word) is too flat for its own good. During the final peaceful meeting between the veterans and Venarius – who’s got a small handful of henchmen surrounding Frank – Cole just snaps their necks without using the tricks of the trade. Granted, it’s an art built around stealth, but this is a Cannon film and that term just doesn’t belong. All the fights between here and the end are competent but stiff, hardly the work of a superior.

Delivering a sliver of what was insinuated, the finale of Enter the Ninja boasts one of the very few exciting fights in the film. Since the businessman’s men have been dealt with by this point, the only foe left to face is Hasegawa, the only legitimate threat. Thankfully, this fight lasts a while and utilizes a slew of melee weapons like staffs, stars, swords, and gymnastics. It’s ended off with a typical request of honour, but it fits with the theme, something that the rest of the film’s action couldn’t manage.

The Technics: Cutting corners was commonplace for features like this, but Golan and the team behind Enter the Ninja did far more of that than acceptable. Though the film has its high points, it’s mostly a bland exercise in low-budget technique.

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Philippine locations often lend themselves to the cinema, and that remains true here as the production gets quite a few stunning vistas and exotic shooting spaces. Venarius’s skyscraper headquarters boasts a towering view of an otherwise short city, and it’s complete with an indoor pool, exterior elevator, and impressive lighting; and Frank’s house is more of a country estate than a single-family home. On the flip side, the audio end is a mess. Every actor is dubbed and their speech is noticeably out of sync, and the sound design is all over the place.

Pacing is an issue too, even with Mark Goldblatt (Death Wish, Commando), one of the best editors to grace cinema, Enter the Ninja has more than its fair share of filler scenes. The scenes in which the movie recognizes its own goofiness take the load off, but most moments involving the stone-faced protagonists are leaden and dull. This is as much a problem with the script’s tone as it is with the pacing, but they don’t pair well.

Boasting the reputation of being the kickstarter to the 80s ninja craze can only take a film as sloppy as Enter the Ninja so far. It has a campiness that keeps it tolerable, but it’s sorely lacking in coherence, clarity, and most importantly: good ninja action.

Enter the Ninja is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital platforms from MGM.

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