In cinematic terms, the Ninja offers a great excuse for plenty of action, adventure, stunt doubling, esoteric and elaborate weapons, along with sometimes supernatural skills while clad in black pyjamas! The ‘Ninja’ craze of the mid 80’s launched a whole cinematic sub genre, the ‘Ninja Movie’ and recently the Ninja Warrior has begun to appear onscreen again, in such projects as the big budget Ninja Assassin, Michael Bay’s recently announced live action reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with Megan Fox, and smaller movies including Isaac Florentine’s Ninja, the sequel of which just wrapped in Thailand, and the cut and paste fun of Ninja the Mission Force which returns for a second season this month and more…
Force’s of Geek’s Great White Ninja himself, Big Mike Leeder takes a look at some essential slices of Ninja action from the big and small screens of both Asia & America.
NINJAS on the Screen
忍者You Only Live Twice
Most peoples first introduction to the world of the ‘Ninja’ came through the classic Japan set James Bond adventure 1967’s You Only Live Twice, with Bond teaming up with the Ninja clan led by Tiger Tanaka, to thwart the plans of a certain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who is hijacking Russian & American spaceships to play the two super powers off against each other. It’s a classic slice of Sean Connery era Bond, and along with such highlights as the ‘Little Nellie’ autogyro scene, and the sheer genius of Sean Connery going undercover as a Japanese fisherman! The film does feature a nice first introduction to the world of Ninja’s & Ninjitsu, with a sequence filmed at the real Ninja Castle in Japan showing the Ninjas training and the finale where the entire Ninja force storms Blofeld’s volcano lair.
While the Japanese set scenes featured a wide variety of real life Japanese martial artists, for the finale shot at Pinewood studios, various British stunt performers including Vic Armstrong fill out the Ninja ranks. It’s still one of the best Bond movies, with Lewis Gilbert’s version of the film being far removed from the original novel by Ian Fleming, and Gilbert later borrowing several elements from the film for two of his later James Bond movies with Roger Moore, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, with nuclear submarines and Space Shuttles replacing the hijacked spaceships.
Shaolin Challenges Ninja (also known as Heroes of the East)
Imagine Kramer vs. Kramer with added Kung Fu, Karate & Ninjitsu and you get an idea of what Director Lau was trying to deliver.
A hirsute Gordon Liu battles all manner of opponents from both the empty hand and weapons based schools before a final face off with a Ninja master played by the great Yasauki Kurata.
Five Element Ninja
The legendary Shaw Brothers’ director Chang Cheh pits several of his favourite action actors against the Ninja in this 1982 classic, also known as Chinese Super Ninjas.
The film tells a violent tale of vengeance, betrayal and ambition interwoven with impressive Ninja skills thanks to supreme Ninja Cheng Yun and his Five Element Ninjas (Gold, Wood, Water, Fire & Earth). Lo Meng & Chan Wai-man are amongst the Shaw Brothers' heroes who must use their ingenuity and martial skills against these seemingly supernaturally power shadow warriors.
Ninja In The Dragon's Den
Directed and choreographed to the max by Corey Yuen (Yuen Kwai) and introducing the man who could have been King, Conan Lee (Roy Hutchinson) as the Chinese hero drawn into battle against a vengeance seeking Ninja (Hiriyuki Sanada from The Last Samurai, Twilight Samurai and Roaring Fire!), only to uncover the motivation behind his foe's mission. After one hell of a face off they join forces to defeat the real villains including Korean superkicker Hwang Jan-lee, who ends up bested by the power of boobies! (Hey watch the movie, we’re not making this up!)
Norris plays a man haunted by his past, he received intensive training as a Ninja but while he chose one path, his martial arts brother chose the dark path and has become a master of evil, running a Ninja assassination squad and training school for terrorists to be schooled in the way of the Shadow warrior.
Norris is forced to face his personal demons and his brother within the confines of The Octagon.
Of the first big three Chuck Norris movies that really started making his name alongside Good Guys Wear Black and Forces of One, this film really stands up as Norris lets loose with a wide variety of techniques including impressive handwork, slick kicks, takedowns and grappling long before anyone had even heard of MMA and plenty of weapons work.
There’s a pretty slick DVD release of the film out in the UK with plenty of extras including a making of documentary and more. (Norris revisited the world of the Ninja for an impressive dream sequence in Sidekicks alongside the late Jonathan Brandis)
Enter the Ninja
With the release of Enter the Ninja in 1981, Cannon Films not only kickstarted the whole 80’s Western ninja genre, but also launched the career of a man who would become the original Ninja star as far as most people were concerned, the great Sho Kosugi.
Directed by Menahem Golan himself, the film began life as a project named Dance of Death, with American Karate legend Mike Stone as both the lead actor and fight choreographer.
But ‘creative differences’ flared during the early stages of filming, and Golan stepped in to replace the director, and when filming recommenced it was journeyman actor Franco Nero (the original Django!) playing the Ninja lead (artfully doubled by Mike Stone who stayed on as fight choreographer/stunt double and consultant) alongside Susan George, Christopher George and a young Japanese martial artist whose name would soon become immediately identified with ‘Ninja’, Sho Kosugi who played the villainous Black Ninja.
The film opens with a great title sequence showcasing the skills and weapons of the Ninja before a blistering action scene that is revealed to be Franco Nero’s final test before achieving his Ninja status, sadly the film goes downhill somewhat after a strong opening as Nero heads to Manilla to visit an old friend and his new wife, who have fallen foul of a corrupt businessman and his strange retinue which includes an effete British butler/assistant/assassin and a hook handed Nazi! The film ends with Nero donning his white Ninja outfit one last time to battle Kosugi in the ring.
The film really kickstarted the whole Western Ninja genre which we count as a good thing, but also gave us one of the most worrying moments ever when Franco Nero demonstrates his ahem mastery of the Nunchuku....to this day we still ask why lord why?
"My friend, a ninja doesn't kill. He eliminates and only for defensive purposes. Although, there ARE exceptions (winks at camera)."
The film did very well, and Kosugi would return as Cannon’s Ninja of choice in the Salt Lake City lensed Revenge of the Ninja which also introduced his eldest son Kane Kosugi to audiences around the world. The film sees Kosugi as a former Ninja turned Japanese doll trader who is forced to return to his black clad ways when his business partner Arthur Roberts is revealed to be a Ninja druglord smuggling drugs into the country in Kosugi’s dolls.
The film which also features Keith Vitali from Wheels on Meals and No Retreat No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers as well as the lovely and deliciously named Ashley Ferrare features plenty of solid action sequences including a chase between Kosugi and a speeding van, and a finale which seems to feature every ninja weapon from the archive as the two ninja’s fight their way across the Salt Lake skyline.
"Only a Ninja can stop a Ninja!"
Kosugi’s final Ninja adventure for Cannon was Ninja 3: The Domination which combined elements of The Exorcist with Ninjas and Breakdance starlet Lucinda Dickey, as a telephone repair woman and funky aerobics/dance instructor who is possessed by an evil Ninja spirit and proceeds to wreak mayhem across Los Angeles until Kosugi intervenes. (Shout Factory will be giving the film the Blu-Ray treatment it deserves later this year, we’re hoping for ideally interviews and commentary featuring Director Sam Firstenberg and Cannon’s first lady of leotards dance fu and ninja fu, Lucinda Dickey!)
Now the less said about Kosugi’s 9 Deaths of the Ninja the better, but his final ninja hurrah for glory (until Ninja Assassin) would be his finest hour.
Pray for Death
In its uncut form, Pray for Death is one hell of an action movie.
When Kosugi’s family are brutally attacked, he is forced to dig into his wardrobe for his black outfit and tabi boots, along with a funky chainmail hood and plenty of bladed weapons to take the battle to Booth and his associates.
Heavily edited for it's initial UK and American release, the uncut version makes compelling viewing while you’re often left confused especially in the harshly edited BBFC approved release from the late 80’s.
American Ninja Series
Originally developed and announced as a potential project for Chuck Norris and then briefly with Sho Kosugi attached, Sam Firstenberg took the helm for American Ninja or American Warrior as it was strangely called for its UK theatrical release. The movie made a B-movie hero out of both Michael Dudikoff who played the title character, and his partner in crime Jackson, played by the late great Steve James.
The movie introduced the concept of an Occidental Ninja, with Dudikoff playing a character raised by a mysterious Ninja master who's mundane military service is disrupted by the activities of Tadashi Yamashita and his Ninja warriors who are making mayhem in Manilla.
Dudikoff and James returned for the South African lensed sequel American Ninja 2: The Confrontation which saw Mike Stone returning to the fold to play the main Ninja nemesis, Dudikoff does well while the sight of Steve James unleashing double Butterfly swords always get a strong fan reaction in the finale.
The third film American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt was Dudikoff-less and introduced a new American Ninja in the shape of the high kicking David Bradley.
Steve James returned for his final Ninja outing and gets to wear the awesome Shalom y’all T-shirt in his introductory scene. The film has it's moments but doesn’t quite gel, and by the time a fourth film rolled around, Steve James had stepped away from the franchise and Bradley was joined by a returning Dudikoff, for an even more madcap martial arts and mayhem filled adventure which would have made a fitting finale.
But they decided to add the American Ninja 5 title to a very bizarre David Bradley/Pt Morita Ninja-ish adventure that was the final nail in the saga….
The Cannon American Ninja saga never seems sure if it’s trying to be deadly serious or poking fun at the idea of the ‘Ninja’, but the majority of the films in the series are great entertainment with some of the martial artistry and ideas still holding up nearly 25 years after the first chapter hit the screen!
Taiwanese Ninja: Alexander Lou
Meanwhile in Taiwan, former Shaw Brothers actor/action director Robert Tai was hard at work with his own Ninja Production line, churning out all manner of Ninja movie both traditional and modern day, many of which starred his protégé Alexander Lou (Lou Wei).
Taiwanese Ninja’s also frequently donned colourful Ninja suits and got to unleash mystical skills along with their martial artistry.
Mafia Vs Ninja German trailer:
Ninja the Final Duel:
The Master Ninja:
The Ninja craze even hit prime TV in the United States with the short lived series The Master/Master Ninja starring Lee Van Cleef, Timothy Van Patten and the one and only Sho Kosugi.
The series followed Van Cleef’s character, the first occidental Ninja as he turns his back on his Ninja brethren to return to America in search of his long lost daughter, helping him is Van Patten as his newest student, while Kosugi pops up each episode as Van Cleef’s former protégé charged with the job of unleashing Ninja justice upon his former master! (the show was originally pitched as a potential vehicle for James Coburn who was a former student of Bruce Lee, before Van Cleef took the role)
The show rightfully has a cult following and could best be described as a mix of Kung Fu meets The A-Team via way of The Fugitive, as Van Cleef and Van Patten drove their big black van from town to town, helping the helpless and fighting treacherous lawmen, terrorists, corrupt property developers and Ninjas! The series features cameo appearances by everyone from Demi Moore and Anthony Delongis, to former Bond George Lazenby and David McCallum from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. turning up as spies in one episode! The show offers plenty of action, with Van Cleef being doubled for the majority of his action by various bald cap wearing stuntmen, while Kosugi pops in and out of the show unleashing his stylish slices of swordplay and martial artistry. The shows music might also seem very familiar to anyone who listened to Bill Conti’s themes for a certain 007 in For Your Eyes Only, with the Master theme being a riff on his own work.
The show was great fun even if its sometimes for many of the wrong reasons, and fun to see how the network tried marketing Van Patten as a teen heart-throb, he is of course now better known as an award winning director for Boardwalk Empire amongst other shows. The series was released on VHS arpund the world as The Master Ninja, but as yet no official DVD release although bootlegs are quite easily found.
The show should have been a bigger hit, and a few short years later with the most minor tweeks it became the basis for a very similar themed series The Raven, starring Jeffrey Meek and Lee Majors which managed to get a bit more life from the idea.
The more spiritual side of Ninjitsu was the theme for another proposed Ninja series, The Last Ninja, starring Michael Beck from The Warriors and perennial favourite Mako, with Mike Stone as technical and martial arts advisor. The pilot offered a Die Hard style hostage situation being resolved by Beck’s Ninja, but while production values and philosophical moments were great, the show could have done with some action!
The prolific but not very happy ninja: Richard Harrison
Probably the most prolific Ninja actor of all time, even if he might not have realised just how prolific he was when he was making the films, was former Spaghetti western actor Richard Harrison.
A few years later Harrison found himself in Hong Kong again, initially headlining such movies as Challenge of the Tiger with Bruce Le, when he was reacquainted with Ho and asked to star in a couple of movies for Hong Kong’s own version of Roger Corman, Joseph Lai and IFD Films & Arts.
Harrison starred in such classics as Majestic Thunderbolt, before being asked to don the Ninja hood and frequently a headband that said ‘Ninja’ on it for a seemingly endless series of Ninja cut and paste movies including Ninja Terminator, Ninja Hunt, The Ninja Squad, Ninja Operation: Licensed to Terminate and many more!
Harrison might feel that he was exploited with regards to just how many films he was making, and his thoughts on the films are chronicled in Gods of Spandex, but at the same time he claims to have written the scripts for the majority of the films he did in Asia, while at the same time lamenting how bad the scripts were, adding Nude tennis scenes to movies for fun, discussing how every female he encountered seemed to want to have sexual congress with him, passing judgement on most of the co-stars and crew in ways that doesn’t really make him very sympathetic. But anyway Richard, enough about you and yes, while often the plots of these cut and paste ninja movies are hard to follow, they are great fun!
As newly shot Ninja action choreographed by everyone from Phillip Ko to Ridley Tsui and featuring Harrison along with IFD’s Gwailo repertory company which included Mike Abbot, Bruce Baron, Stuart Smith, Louis Roth, Pierre Tremblay & Bruce Stallion! (Actually Paulo Tocha from Bloodsport) as various Ninja assassins doubled by some of Hong Kong’s best stuntmen, intercut with mad action scenes from Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and more featuring everyone from Hwang Jan-lee in a fetching Blonde Wig to Wong Tao, to roller-skating Ninjas and beyond!
The films may not be high art by any ranking, but they are still fun if somewhat mad to say the least with plots, ninjas, actors, bad dubbing and more inter-connecting in ways understood only by Joseph Lai and company. This riff on a scene from Ninja Terminator sums it up;
Ninja The Mission Force
Recently the spirit of IFD’s Ninja maniacs has been recreated with an affectionate approach from Ed Glaser and the team behind the incredible Ninja the Mission Force, the series which debuted to great response online and just hit official DVD release, features newly created scenes of Ninja madness that rival anything that Joseph Lai and co. could have dreamed of, and newly dubbed scenes featuring everyone from Orson Welles, Brandon Lee & Ernest Borgnine! The saga continues with added Sho Kosugi as Ninja the Mission Force Season 2 hits the screen in late March 2013.
But by the early 90’s the Ninja seemed to have lost his cinematic appeal and stepped back into the shadows, with only occasional appearances in film and TV. But 2009 saw Ninjas starting their comeback in a big way, Stephen Sommers' GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra had rival ninja’s Storm Shadow & Snake Eyes battling with style
Both characters return for the upcoming sequel which also promises more Ninja action and features dayglo Ninjas on bungee chords battling on a mountainside…and that moment has us buying a ticket just for that!
While Korean pop sensation Rain made his full blooded action debut in Warner Brother’s big budget Ninja Assassin, playing a Ninja trying to turn his back on the life he was trained for, but having to face his entire Ninja clan and their nefarious Ninja Master, played by the one and only Sho Kosugi!
While British action hero Scott Adkins (Undisputed 2 & 3, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) dons the Ninja cowl for Director Isaac Florentine in two projects, Ninja and its sequel Ninja 2 which just wrapped in Thailand and features Kane Kosugi, son of Sho playing the nemesis to Adkins character.
Two very different takes on the Ninja movie shot through European eyes are Matt Helge’s infamous The Ninja Mission, an ultra violent Ninja tale which has the Ninja in the employ of the CIA, unleashing ahurikens, katanas, machine guns and chemical weapons to battle the Russians!
While the true story of WWII shadowclad action against the Nazi’s is chronicled in Thomas Cappelen Malling’s Norwegian Ninja! an action comedy of how Commander Anrne Treholt and his Ninja force saved Norway
Now before anyone can say what about all the Japanese Ninja movies?
There are so many cool Japanese Ninja movies and TV shows to look at, that a subsequent article will be focusing purely on the Japanese vision of Ninjitsu for the big and small screen….