The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Ninja III: The Domination (dir by Sam Firstenberg)


This 1984 film is brilliant.

Basically, it tells the story of Christie Ryder (Lucinda Dickey), who appears to have everything that someone could want out of life.  Not only does she have a really nice place to live but she also repairs phone lines for a living!  (That might not sound glamorous but she lives in California, which means that there’s always a nice view when she’s working.)  She also teaches an aerobics class because this film is from 1984 and, in 1984, everyone taught their own aerobics class.  At least, that’s the impression that I’ve gotten from watching movies of the era.

Christie only has one problem.  She’s been possessed.  She hasn’t been possessed by any ordinary old demon, either.  Instead, she’s been possessed by a dead ninja.  Hanjuro (David Chung) came to America because there were some people on a golf course who needed to be killed.  Unfortunately, no sooner had he killed everyone on the back 9 then he found himself surrounded by cops.  It took a lot of bullets to take down Hanjuro but down he went.  However, his spirit went up and entered Christie’s body.

Now, Christie spends her time teaching aerobics, working on phone lines, and murdering everyone who Hanjuro feels has wrong him.  Hanjuro wants to kill all of the cops who shot him.  Unfortunately, one of those cops, Billy Secord (Jordan Bennett), is now dating Christie.  Once Billy finally figures out why Christie is acting so strangely, he takes her to an exorcist (James Hong) who explains that it’s going to take more than just an ordinary exorcism to defeat the ninja lurking within Christie.  It’s going to require the help of another ninja, the noble Goro Yamada (Sho Kosugi).  It’s time to go to Japan!

I may not be a huge ninja movie fan (unless, of course, they feature Franco Nero) but I have to say that I absolutely loved Ninja III.  That really shouldn’t come as a surprise.  This film is such an utterly weird mishmash of tones and genres that there’s no way that I couldn’t love it.  It starts out as a typical kung fu film, just to suddenly turn into The Exorcist before then becoming Flashdance before returning to being The Exorcist.  Finally, for the last few minutes of the film, it transforms back into a kung fu film.  As I watched the film, I found myself thinking about all of the other films throughout history that could have been livened up by a demonic or spiritual possession subplot.  For that matter, think about how much more crazy The Exorcist would have been if Father Karras and Father Merrin had been Ninja Karras and NInja Merrin.

Anyway, in all seriousness, Ninja III is exactly what an exploitation film should be.  It’s unapologetically strange and over-the-top and it makes absolutely no apologies for being what it is.  It’s a film that says, “I’m here to tell a story about a woman possessed by a dead ninja and if that’s not good enough for you, you need to figure out what’s wrong with your heart.”  Ninja III is brilliant, wonderful, and definitely a film that you must watch this October.  It’s on Prime so go watch it.  Do it now.

Avenging Force (1986, directed by Sam Firstenberg)


If you think this year’s elections are messed up, just watch Avenging Force and see what happens when two martial artists run against each other for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Steve James plays Larry Richards, a former military commando who is now running for the Senate in Louisiana.  His opponent is Wade Delaney (Bill Wallace), who is described as being “the South’s youngest senator” and who is also secretly one of the world’s greatest martial artists.  Wade is a member of Pentangle, a Neo-Nazi cult that is made up of wealthy businessmen and other politicians.  When Larry and his family are invited to ride a float in the most sedate Mardi Gras parade of all time, the Pentangle attempts to assassinate him.  While Larry escapes injury, his oldest son does not.

Larry’s best friend, Col. Matt Hunter (Michael Dudikoff), is also in town and Hunter just happens to be another one of the world’s greatest martial artists.  (This film leave you wondering if there’s anyone in Louisiana who isn’t secretly a ninja.)  Matt tries to protect Larry and the remaining members of his family from Pentangle.  Matt fails miserably.  With Larry and the entire Richards family now dead, Matt goes deep into the Louisiana bayou, seeking both to rescue his sister (who has been kidnapped and is set to be sold at some sort of Cajun-run sex auction) and avenge Larry’s death.

As you probably already guessed, Avenging Force is a Cannon Film and it’s crazy even by that company’s fabled standards.  It’s not often that you come across a movie about a U.S. Senator who is also a neo-Nazi ninja who spends his spare time stalking people through the bayous.  What makes this plot point even more memorable is that no one in Avenging Force seems to be shocked by it.  Matt isn’t surprised in the least when an elected official suddenly lunges out of the fog and attempts to drown him in swamp water.  Of course, Senator Delaney isn’t the only villain in the film.  In fact, he’s not even the main bad guy.  That honor goes to Prof. Elliott Glastenbury (John P. Ryan), who lives in a huge mansion and who sees himself as a real-life version of The Most Dangerous Game‘s General Zaroff.  He not only wants to secretly rule the world but he also wants to hunt human prey in the bayou.  When Matt shows up at Glastenbury’s mansion, he is greeted by a butler who complains that Matt hasn’t bothered to wipe the blood off his shirt before showing up.

Avenging Force was originally planned as a sequel to Invasion U.S.A., with Chuck Norris reprising the role of Matt Hunter.  When Norris declined to appear in the film, the connection to Invasion U.S.A. was dropped and Michael Dudikoff of the American Ninja films was cast in the lead role.  (Of course, they didn’t bother to change anyone’s name in the script so the hero of Avenging Force is still named Matt Hunter, even if he’s not meant to be the same Matt Hunter from Invasion U.S.A.)  What Dudikoff lacked in screen presence, he made up for in athleticism and Avenging Force features some Cannon’s best fight scenes.  The plot may be full of holes but the idea of ninjas in the bayou is so inherently cool that it carries the film over any rough patches.

The critics may not have loved Avenging Force when it was first released but it holds up well as a fast-paced and weird action film.  It is perhaps the best Cajun ninja film ever made.

A Movie A Day #133: American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987, directed by Sam Firstenberg)


Duuuuuuuuude!  The American Ninja is back!

In this sequel to the first American Ninja, ninja Joe (Michael Dudikoff) and sidekick Jackson (Steve James) are now Army Rangers.  They have been assigned to provide security at an embassy on a small Caribbean island.  At first, it seems like an easy gig but then Joe discovers that a large number of Marines have recently vanished.  According to the only witness, they were abducted by men dressed in black.  Joe and Jackson know what that means!

The Marines are being set up by a traitor in their own ranks, Tommy Taylor (played by Miguel Ferrer look-alike Jonathan Pienaar).  Taylor is being blackmailed by a master criminal known as, I kid you not, Leo the Lion (Gary Conway, who also co-wrote the script).  Leo is brainwashing the Marines, shooting them up with all sorts of drugs and transforming them into zombie-style ninjas.

Doing away with any pretense towards reality, American Ninja 2 is pure comic book action.  A bad guy even says, “It’s the American Ninja!” when he sees Joe.  It’s a strange film.  On the one hand, it is full of goofy humor and it even has a streetwise kid sidekick, all things that would indicate that it was made to appeal to kids.  On the other hand, the first cut was reportedly so violent that it got a dreaded X-rating.  The final version still has enough impalings, decapitations, and throwing stars to the head to earn its R.

With its combination of nonstop action and Steve James one-liners, American Ninja 2 is both a worthy sequel and a worthy addition to the Cannon library.  Still, it bothers me that at least a few of the ninjans that Joe and Jackson killed were probably just brainwashed Marines.  That amounts to a lot of innocent victims being killed by our heroes.

The life of an American ninja is never an easy one.

A Movie A Day #132: American Ninja (1985, directed by Sam Firstenberg)


Hell yeah!

From Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, the duo who were responsible for producing the coolest films of the 1980s, comes American Ninja!

Private Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) is the newest arrival on an American army base in the Philippines.  A former member of a street gang, he has been forced to enlist in the army in order to keep himself out of jail.  Because he keeps to himself, the other soldiers do not like him.  Colonel Hickock (Guich Kook) is angry that his daughter, Patricia (Judie Aronson), likes Joe and conspires to have Joe court martialed.  Joe’s only friend is Corporal Jackson (Steve James), who starts out as an enemy but changes his ways after Joe shows off some sweet martial arts moves.  Because Joe is an amnesiac, he does not know where or why he learned how to fight.  He just knows that he can.

It’s good that he can because the local black marketer, Ortega (Don Stewart) has hired the legendary Black Star ninjas to help him steal supplies from the base.  Ortega has even allowed the ninjas to set up a training camp in his back yard.  When Joe prevents the ninjas from kidnapping Patricia, the ninjas swear revenge.

As if there could possibly be any doubt, American Ninja was made and distributed by Cannon Films.  It is about as pure an example of the Cannon aesthetic as anyone could hope to find.  Find a star — in this case, Michael Dudikoff — who was credible without being expensive.  Give him a love interest who was easy on the eyes and who could get held hostage during the film’s climax.  Toss in slow motion stunt work, big explosions, and Steve James.  Come up with a title that would appeal to both NASCAR-loving patriots and drive-in movie fans.  End result: American Ninja!

As a film, American Ninja get the job done and then some.  The fights are well-choreographed and the movie does not allow things like character development or subtext to get in the way of showcasing plenty of ninja action.  There are enough weird details, especially after Joe dons the black pajamas of the American Ninja, to keep the move interesting.  At one point, a ninja literally vanishes and what’s cool is that no one acts surprised when it happens.  Long before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, American Ninja showed that there’s nothing a ninja can’t do!

One final note: Keep an eye out for my favorite scene, in which a slow-moving jeep bumps into a tree and explodes with all the force of a planet that’s just been zapped by the Death Star.