Enter the Ninja

Director: Menahem Golan
Screenplay: Dick Desmond (story by Mike Stone)
Stars: Franco Nero (Cole), Susan George (Mary Ann), Shô Kosugi (Hasegawa), Christopher George (Venarius), Alex Courtney (Frank), Will Hare (Dollars), Zachi Noy (The Hook), Constantine Gregory (Mr. Parker), Dale IshimotoDale Ishimoto (Komori), Joonee Gamboa (Mr. Mesuda)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1981
Country: U.S.
Enter the Ninja Blu-ray
Enter the Ninja

It should in no way be surprising that Enter the Ninja, the first Western film to center on the dark, mysterious world of stealthy Japanese assassins, should star an Italian actor best known for spaghetti westerns. Martial arts at the multiplex had exploded in popularity in the 1970s, with the kung fu films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan gradually giving way to ninja films in the late 1970s and the first half of the 1980s. While the figure of the ninja, a covert mercenary usually garbed in black and utilizing weapons such as swords, throwing stars, and chains, had existed since at least the 15th century in Asia, it was first popularized in the West via Ian Fleming’s 1964 James Bond novel You Only Live Twice, which was turned into a film in 1967 (as proof, the Oxford English Dictionary cites Fleming’s novel as one of the first Western works to use the term “ninja”). American thriller writer Eric Van Lustbader’s 1980s novel The Ninja was undoubtedly influential, as well, as it introduced the idea of a Western character (in this case, British-Chinese) inhabiting the world of ninjutsu.

The Cannon Group, which churned out dozens of profitable B-action movies under the direction of Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus from 1979 to 1994, was largely responsible for the omnipresence of these Japanese “shadow warriors” in American and European theaters and later on video and pay cable, having started and sustained the trend with their loose trilogy Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja (1983), and Ninja III: The Domination (1984). Enter the Ninja, which was written by Dick Desmond from a story by martial artist and stuntman Mike Stone (who was originally intended to play the lead role), is pure formula—a white hat/black hat Western showdown relocated to the Philippines with ninjas in the place of gunslingers. The protagonist, Cole (Franco Nero), is first introduced in Japan completing his ninja training and passing a lengthy test that involves his apparently killing dozens of other ninja. His ascension as a ninja is contested by Hasegawa (Shô Kosugi), who is incensed that Cole is a Westerner who does not descend from a family of ninjas as he does.

The action then shifts to the Philippines, where Coles goes to visit Frank (Alex Courtney), a friend and fellow war veteran who now owns a large piece of land with his wife, Mary Ann (Susan George). The problem is that the land has a huge oil deposit under it, which is why the local corrupt businessman Venarius (Christopher George) is eager to buy it. Frank and Mary Ann aren’t selling, so Venarius resorts to flexing his muscle through a goofy henchman known as The Hook (Zachi Noy), who leans on and terrorizes Frank’s local workers. Cole, of course, steps in and rights all wrongs with his fists and feet, not just taking down but abjectly humiliating the Hook and his goons with his martial arts prowess. When Venarius learns that Frank has a ninja working for and protecting him, he demands that he have his own ninja, which is how Hasegawa is brought back into the story, thus setting up a showdown between the two rivals.

The set-up does exactly what it is supposed to do, pitting the cruel villains against decent, hard workers, thus creating a scenario into which the hero can step in. Director Menahem Golan, fresh off the cult musical debacle The Apple (1980), stages the film in mostly prosaic terms, although he lavishes slow motion in a few choice moments and never shies away from exaggerated violence. Cinematographer David Gurfinkel, a Cannon perennial, is competent, but never inspired, as he and Golan frame the actors for maximum caricature. George’s Venarius, who lives in a high-rise building and conducts all his business around an indoor pool populated with bathing beauties, is a cartoonish depiction of greedy, self-aggrandizing villainy, just as Cole is a cartoonish depiction of upright virtuosity and restraint. The fact that Franco Nero had virtually no martial arts skills is mostly obscured through clever editing and stunt doubles, but there are a few moments when it is painfully evident, all the more so because it reminds us of how Asian martial artists like Bruce Lee were so long denied access to Hollywood stardom simply because they weren’t white. Nero has a brooding, taciturn heroism that works well enough for the part, even though he is undercut by bad dubbing at every turn. Shô Kosugi, on the other hand, despite having to play a thinly written character whose villainy is based primarily on shallow jealousy, demonstrates a genuine screen prowess that would be put to better use in subsequent ninja films.

Enter the Ninja Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by action film historians Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • DistributorKino Lorber
    Release DateOctober 31, 2023

    The high-definition transfer of Enter the Ninja on Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray looks quite good (of course, I haven’t seen the film since I received it off pay cable on a VHS tape back in the late 1980s). The transfer looks to be an accurate representation of the film’s visual quality, as there is a fairly heavy sheen of grain throughout that reflects the B-movie budget and source on 35mm film. The print used for the transfer was far from perfect, as there is some noticeable dirt, especially in the opening sequence, but it has good detail and color. The soundtrack is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 monaural mix that sounds quite good (despite the relatively bad dubbing of Franco Nero’s voice). The only supplement is a new audio commentary by stalwart action film historians Mike Leeder and Arne Venema, who have recorded together in the past, particularly on several of Kino’s Chuck Norris Blu-rays. They have a good time while also offering some nice back history to the film and the ninja genre in general.

    Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Kino Lorber

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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