Wrenage is at it again! Twice in one week. He’s back on familiar territory today with a blast from the past for another Retro Review. This time we go back to the 80s when Japan was making something even more amazing than reliable family cars and portable cassette players – Ninja! This cinematic craze may have been short-lived, but it doesn’t mean it was any less awesome! Revenge Of The Ninja sits in the genre like a colossus, even before Lucinda Dickey turned up in a leotard in the next instalment. Prepare to worship at the temple of Sho Kosugi and let the good times roll…
Revenge Of The Ninja
Does your existence feel limp? Do you look in the mirror and measure what-is with what-could-have-been and come up short? Does a new day fill you with vague unease for your next failure?
You, my friend, lack Vitamin Awesome. Get your dose today with Revenge of the Ninja (1983). This movie is existential Viagra. When you look in the mirror, you will need welding goggles to protect your eyes from the glow of heck-yeah! At the start of each new day, you will seek a dragon to slay, find it, tear its throat out with your teeth, bathe in its flaming blood and sing Rock You Like A Hurricane while a Greek Chorus shouts:
How did Revenge of the Ninja achieve this kind of power? It incorporated the most essential ingredient needed for a great ninja movie – a Jewish director making his first action film. If anyone knows how to film a ninja movie, it’s a Jew with male-pattern baldness.
Sam Firstenberg is truth when it comes to putting pyjama-clad martial artists on screen. Not only did Firstenberg helm Revenge of the Ninja, he also showed us ninjas can possess aerobics instructors (Ninja III: The Domination) and that Americans can culturally appropriate ninjas (the American Ninja series).
I don’t want to talk Firstenberg up too much and create unrealistic expectations. Suffice it to say, Firstenberg could simultaneously satisfy Raquel Welch and Caroline Munroe emotionally, intellectually and spiritually while mocking Avatar until James Cameron cried, and beating Dolph Lundgren in an arm-wrestling contest with both arms tied behind his back.
The magic of Revenge of the Ninja goes beyond Firstenberg, however. First, it’s a Cannon film. Cannon films and ninjas go together like my wife and emasculation. Second, Revenge of the Ninja was filmed in Salt Lake City. This gives the movie a sense of ultra-realism, as we know Utah is where ninjas frolic in their natural habitat…
Joining Firstenberg in realizing this dream is Sho Kosugi. Kosugi brought ninjas into the mainstream in the 1980s. Yes, ninjas showed up in You Only Live Twice, Chuck Norris battled them in The Octagon, and Sam Peckinpah used them in The Killer Elite, but Kosugi put the word ninja in the mouths of ten-year-old boys everywhere (and then G.I. Joe and TMNT kept it there).
Kosugi got the Revenge of the Ninja gig because he was the bad guy in Franco Nero’s Enter the Ninja. Menahem Golan liked what he saw and thought Kosugi should have his own movie. Maybe Golan was impressed with Kosugi’s luxurious helmet hair. Granted, Kosugi’s helmet hair is not as great as 1980s John Ankerberg helmet hair, but no one can top that.
Revenge of the Ninja starts out with a flock of ninjas massacring a family. Kusogi takes affront to this, as it is his family. He then massacres the ninjas. Highlights include catching an arrow between his teeth and my personal favorite – one ninja performs a human flag manoeuvre on a bamboo stalk for what appears to be no other reason than to make it easier for Kusogi to sword him good.
From there, the movie moves on to a fight between kids. Kusogi’s real-life son, Kane, ninja-slaps a gaggle of bullies. Only a director at the level of Firstenberg would take up the challenge of filming a fight scene between children. Kids that age aren’t even capable of taking sufficient direction to prevent snot from perpetually leaking out of their noses.
At that point, you want to say:
“Whoa, time out, movie! I can’t assimilate this much awesome.”
To which the movie replies:
“Shut up and take it all, you milksop little welp!”
Next up is a dojo fight between Kusogi and a woman who forgot to wear pants. Said woman is played by Ashley Farrare, who is a lovely blend of Kate Capshaw and Naomi Watts.
Farrare is known for Revenge of the Ninja and…pretty much Revenge of the Ninja. She should have been in more movies, however. Her line reading of, “Oh, Joe, you’re so strong,” is particularly nuanced.
But the movie doesn’t stop there. Have you ever wanted to see elderly men massage each other? You can in Revenge of the Ninja! This scene awakened something within me. (Not that kind of something, you pervert). It awoke admiration for Mario Gallo. His willingness to go shirtless displayed a total lack of self-consciousness that I wish I possessed. Gallo should basically never go shirtless, ever. Not even when he is alone in the shower. His body looks like it was designed by Rob Bottin.
By this point in Revenge of the Ninja, the bad guy’s plan is established, but all we need to know about him is shown to us by a close-up of his eyes. They’re as cold as the shooting in a WNBA game. The bad guy is played by Arthur Roberts who is, surprisingly, still quite active today. Granted, you probably have not heard of anything he’s done in the past ten years, but he still deserves kudos for his longevity.
The bad guy is also a ninja, and “only a ninja can stop a ninja.” Does that mean if I shoot a ninja, he won’t be stopped? Yes. Does that mean if I drop a battleship on a ninja from the moon, he won’t be stopped? Yes. Why does this rule confuse you? It’s simple. Only a ninja can stop a ninja. If you want to stop a ninja with a battleship dropped on him from the moon, you better find another ninja to do the dropping. Otherwise, it’s a no-go.
The bad-guy ninja wears a silver Japanese demon mask under his regular ninja mask. This double-masking would have made him especially safe during COVID. It also helps the audience tell who is who during the inevitable ninja showdown. Again, you’re dealing with Firstenberg, people. You think he is going to miss any storytelling tricks? Not hardly. This guy made Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
So, Bad-Guy Ninja starts killing elderly massage givers, which will not stand. The police get involved. They need to consult Kosugi because the murders they are dealing with are simply too awesome to be carried out by an ordinary man. They could have only been done by an evil ninja.
One of the police dudes is also a karate guy, played by Keith Vitali. I dare say Vitali’s moves are better than Kusogi’s. Vitali was the #1 karate fighter in the USA at one point. Cannon Films supposedly toyed with the idea of giving Vitali his own movie, but it never came to fruition. I’m not sure he possessed a leading man spark anyway. He’s a bit boyish and lacks the sort of stoicism displayed by someone like Chuck Norris, which can cover a lack of acting skills.
The police chief is played by Virgil Frye. I was dumbfounded to discover that Frye grew up in the same middle of nowhere I grew up in. His little town is only 40 miles away from my little town. Frye even returned to the area in retirement and passed away in a nursing home in 2012. If I had known he was nearby, I would have visited him and had him tell me Revenge of the Ninja stories. Frye did not have a huge career, but he was in two Jack Nicholson movies: The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Missouri Breaks, which also starred Marlon Brando.
We will stop spoiling Revenge of the Ninja now. I believe everyone is getting a bit too excited by the descriptions, and I haven’t even mentioned the van sequence, the Village People hooligans or a host of other things too wonderful to fully comprehend about Revenge of the Ninja. Much like my novels (DogSS of War, Shiny Things, Pretty Things, Dead Things, Sharp Things and Echoes of Rylia, which my mom said are very good tries for a moron), it’s as if the heavens opened up and genius floated down and bequeathed humanity’s brow with true art.
At this point, you may wonder, who wrote Revenge of the Ninja? That would be James Silke, who also penned the screenplay for The Barbarians (1987), which is about twin bodybuilders who battle Richard Lynch. Note: I have not seen The Barbarians, but if Richard Lynch is in it, I doubt he is playing a mentor figure. Silke also wrote the Richard Chamberlain/Sharon Stone vehicle King Solomon’s Mines (1985). The scene where a terrible-looking giant spider eats a guy scarred me.
In addition, the aforementioned Ninja III is the brainchild of Silke. Perhaps Silke’s greatest moment of prodigious imagination was when he wrote vegetable juice as erotic in Ninja III…or maybe that was an ad-lib of the actor and actress. Either way, making vegetable juice sexy is true paradigm-breaking…and vomit-inducing.
Silke also appears to be a Sam Peckinpah fan. He was a costume designer on The Wild Bunch and was involved with making a couple of Peckinpah documentaries. Can we find any Peckinpah influence in Revenge of the Ninja? One of the Village People hooligans is a cowboy. So yes.
Beyond being a shining beacon of brilliance, how does Revenge of the Ninja work as a movie?
Weeeeeeeeeelllllllll… Okay. Fine. I admit it. A couple rough spots exist.
The filming of the fight scenes is a bit clunky by today’s standards. Part of that is the style of the time. Revenge of the Ninja contains fight sequences, rather than snippets slickly edited together. Full-body shots of people jumping around abound. That makes it easy to spot awkwardness.
Nevertheless, the stunt sequences had spirit. Kosugi did a lot of the choreography. Steven Lambert was the stunt coordinator. Lambert went on to have what looks like a fun career in the industry. He got to work on a Schwarzenegger movie, a Stallone movie, an Indiana Jones movie and more. In Revenge of the Ninja, Lambert plays multiple parts: various ninjas, the cowboy hooligan and even the bad-guy ninja, as Arthur Roberts was not a proficient physical actor.
Next, the acting in Revenge of the Ninja is not of prestige quality. Many of the main players are channelling the just-try-not-to-look-stupid-when-the-camera-is-rolling acting method. Fortunately, since they are all on the same level, they establish a consistent tone performance-wise. No one makes anyone else look bad. The only real disappointment I had with the acting troupe is that Professor Tanaka is in Revenge of the Ninja and is completely wasted. You basically have time to excitedly point at the screen and say, “Hey, it’s Professor Tanaka!” and then he is unceremoniously dispatched.
Another rough spot is the plot. It’s as thin as thin can be. I’m not sure if that particularly matters in this case. Ninja movies had novelty at that time, and a lot of mileage could be gotten out of the iconic look of their yoroi, throwing stars and other gimmicks. Cannon rules may have also come into play here. The original cut of Revenge of the Ninja was two hours long. However, Cannon insisted on their movies coming in at 90 minutes, so a lot of scenes got cut. On the flip side, do we really want that much plot getting in the way of a movie like this?
Speaking of cutting, moments of clunky edits also rear their ugly head in Revenge of the Ninja. One that really stood out was the demise of Mario Gallo. I’m honestly not sure if I didn’t have a stroke during that part and missed something as my brain went on the fritz.
Regardless, it’s clear that Revenge of the Ninja is trying to entertain us. Firstenberg and company went to Salt Lake City for eight weeks, and they put all they had into the movie. Firstenberg said they had no studio interference, and he knew enough to stay out of the way of crewmembers who knew better than him when it came to action movies.
It worked. Revenge of the Ninja made $14 million on a $700,000 budget. Firstenberg considered Revenge of the Ninja a movie for boys. Not real, a fantasy and a world of its own. That’s exactly right. In the real world, a ninja would never wear that much eyeliner.
Sometimes I wonder if Revenge of the Ninja cribbed anything from a lost ninja project. The Ninja was a 1980 novel by Eric Van Lustbader, and it had a climax in a high-rise like Revenge of the Ninja, along with some other basic similarities.
Jaws duo Zanuck and Brown bought the film rights to The Ninja. Irvin Kershner, hot off the heels of The Empire Strikes Back, was hired to direct. Once Kershner left the project, John Carpenter got attached. He wrote another draft of the screenplay with Tommy Lee Wallace, but it went nowhere. Eventually, The Ninja went into turnaround, and that caused Zanuck and Brown to move to Warner Brothers.
That means The Ninja would have been in production when Revenge of the Ninja was in production. In that case, maybe Revenge of the Ninja helped kill The Ninja by winning the race to the screen?
All I can say is that Revenge of the Ninja won my heart. After seeing Revenge of the Ninja, you can bet your bottom dollar I was a ninja that Halloween. I made a sword out of wood with a cardboard hilt and constructed a scabbard out of paper bags. I even bought a book on ninjas and tried to do their stretching exercises daily. Did I also obtain a throwing star? You’re darn tootin’ I did! Ah, the glory days of martial arts mail-order forms in the backs of magazines…
Revenge of the Ninja is a product of its time, but it still works today. The movie delivers on its premise, and anything that doesn’t serve that premise is cheerfully thrown over the side. It’s certainly superior to modern, big-budget ninja movies like Ninja Assassin (2009) and Snake-Eyes: A G.I. Joe Origin, which was so bland it reminded me I should watch Revenge of the Ninja again.
One could even argue that Revenge of the Ninja works on a second level in this day and age: as a satire of the entire genre. In fact, that was probably a likely subtext from the beginning. If any director could be 40 years ahead of the game, it’s Firstenberg.
Let’s go out on some ninja jokes…
One day a warlord hired a ninja to assassinate a rival warlord. “Do you think you can do it?” the warlord asked. “Shuriken,” the ninja replied.
A ninja walked into a bar…but you’d never know it…
A blind man wandered into a ninja camp. He immediately found himself with five swords at his throat. “I’ll make a deal with you all,” the blind man said. “If I tell you a blond joke that makes you laugh, you have to let me go…”
In a threatening voice, the lead ninja says, “Before you tell that joke, you should know something. We are exchange ninjas from Sweden. Lars can kill a gnat from fifty yards with a throwing star. Mikael can cut a stone in two with his sword. Anders can chop a tree down with the edge of his hand. Johan can cave in a bear’s skull with his nunchakus. And myself, Erik, can kick a hole in the sky. All five of us are blond. Think about it, Rojin, do you still want to tell that blond joke?”
“Nah,” the blind man says, “not if I’m gonna have to explain it five times…”