The following appreciation of Ninja III: The Domination (1984) represents MovieFanFare’s contribution to the 1984-a-Thon hosted by Forgotten Films. Not an exploration of Orwellian fare as you might initially think, this particular blog-a-thon is instead devoted to celebrating the many flavorful films from the year 1984. Click here to check out the master list of contributions & enjoy the memories!
With all due respect to the genius of Milos Forman and his lavish, richly-textured, Best Picture Oscar-winning screen biography of Mozart, if you want to know what 1984 was like—if you want a pure distillation of that time, the gaudy lunacy of an era, the pure joy to be found by indulging in cinematic nostalgia—then you don’t watch Amadeus…you watch the Cannon Group’s Ninja III: The Domination.
Yes, this is a “Golan-Globus” film, and the recent passing of Israeli B-movie maestro Menahem Golan makes this the perfect moment to revisit (or see for the very first time, in my case) this three-ring circus of 1980s genre staples. I had some pretty low expectations for the film going in, but am here to report that the objectionable trend of abusing the so-bad-it’s-good label—by applying it to poorly-reviewed films that remain just plain unworthy of rehabilitation—simply does not apply here.
This movie is worthy of your dime, and worthy of your time. It is a howl, it is a hoot, it is every minute a pleasure; for the way it tosses a cinematic salad of everything fashionable at the time, including a dizzying collection of “homages” to other popular films; for the whiplash it gives your brain as it juxtaposes scenes that are politically incorrect in the extreme with scenes that seem almost calculated to frustrate your baser desires; and, finally, for the way it actually informs us about just how much times have changed with respect to what’s thought of as “B-movie” material in the movies versus what’s considered “A” material.
You don’t have to wait very long for the fun to start in Ninja III: The Domination, because there aren’t so very many gestures that scream 1980s vintage like affixing a cute little ninja to your title as if it were the Lacoste crocodile on a polo shirt!
This third in a trilogy of ninja-themed films has nothing to do with the second (Revenge of the Ninja), which had nothing to do with the first (Enter the Ninja)—apart from all three pictures offering a showcase role for then-popular martial arts star Sho Kosugi. He is not technically the “star” of Ninja III, but it is his name (and his fight choreography) that provides the clear marquee value that no doubt gave this flick the greenlight.
No, in Ninja III, it’s Breakin’ star Lucinda Dickey who takes on the main role of Christie—the most gorgeous telephone repairperson you’ve ever seen, who also moonlights as an aerobics instructor. She just happens to be working on a pole nearby to the golf course where our first explosive action set-piece unfolds. You read that right: a golf course.
Producing the film in Arizona afforded director Sam Firstenberg and cinematographer Hanania Baer the opportunity to shoot the action against some impressive landscapes, but our first theater of exotic ninja thrills is, to say the least, unexpected—when a masked warrior we meet at the outset invades the green to carry out a mysterious assassination. This “black ninja” (so credited even though he is not a black man…nor is he wearing black) then takes down perhaps two dozen bodyguards and cops, survives a fusillade of bullets before making his escape and, “dying,” passes his apparently-magical weapon on to Christie. There’s a neat piece of foreshadowing as we volley back and forth between close-ups of the slowly expiring ninja and Christie.
Hint: You’re meant to register who has the thicker eyeliner.
Christie doesn’t tell the cops who interrogate her later that she has kept the sword for herself. She sarcastically rebuffs the riotously unprofessional romantic overtures of Billy Secord (Jordan Bennett), an officer who then stalks Christie by enrolling in the aerobics class she teaches. Yes kids, we’ve got the leg warmers, the headbands, and oh my God, the hair.
Officer Billy has class, though, you have to give him that; not only does he miss the subtle signals of being told “no” multiple times, he later stands idly by in a crowd when Christie is assaulted by leering goons ready to re-enact the Death Wish rape scene. Using another unconventional flirting technique, Billy threatens to arrest her for assault right after she single-handedly kicks their butts.
Christie’s no dim-witted pushover, though; she doesn’t decide to bed this low-rent Andy Garcia until he throws a tantrum and tries to throw her out of his car for being unresponsive to his sweet offer to put her behind bars. That’s the gesture that softens her up and turns her on.
#Yesallwomen behave this way—didn’t you know? Especially in the ‘80s.
The trouble is, Christie hasn’t come by her ninja-like skills of self-defense from hours of sweatin’ in her spandex to the power pop of Melissa Manchester and Linda Ronstadt; accepting the gift of the sword from the dying ninja has allowed his soul to invade hers, blacking her out for long stretches of time so that through her, he can pursue his bloody vendetta against the cops who tried to destroy him. The scene where she becomes fully enslaved to the whims of the vengeful ninja not-too-subtly recalls Poltergeist, with her closet door opening to bathe her in shimmering pools of light.
Concerned about the inexplicable bruises that now appear on Christie’s body (the result of her somnambulistic vigilantism, not their dating, as might be reasonably expected given her new boyfriend’s boorish personality), the skeptical-but-panicky Billy consults a contact he obtains from the, uh, “Asiatic division,” and he then brings her to meet Miyashima (James Hong), an enigmatic local sorcerer whose examination of the patient limply stops short of a proper exorcism—perhaps the film’s looniest shift in tone, mixing erotic bondage with steam vomit and shrieking-in-multitrack-tongues. Oh yeah, this movie has it all!
Except, it must be said, for a lot of blood…or the least bit of gratuitous nudity. For a film released in the midst of a lively and sordid exploitation era, Ninja III: The Domination is curiously chaste about its content. Compared to what we see on cable (or even broadcast) TV today, its R rating is something of a joke; there’s a lot of fighting, but folks’ injuries are limited to bruises, pinpricks, strangulations, bloodless sword-slashings, or just plain nasty scratches. As for skin—at a time when the Moral Majority was actually beginning to lose its influence, the film is fascinatingly out of step with its refusal to even go for supporting characters getting naked to fulfill grindhouse expectations. There’s no better (or funnier) scene to illustrate this than the one where Christie, again sleepwalking her way towards revenge, approaches one of her targets in a Jacuzzi and seductively drops her towel. Her intended victim’s eyes pop wide with shock, and the camera reverse-angles onto Christie’s feet and slowly begins to tilt up…revealing…a really conservative one-piece.
Seldom have I laughed harder at being denied a nude scene turn-on.
Just when it looks like Christie will be lost to the demonic influence of the “black ninja” and cursed to forever undertake homicidal missions in the un-sexiest, most figure-unflattering of ninja costumes, Sho Kosugi (rocking a stylish eyepatch) shows up to explain all—revealing that “only a ninja can kill a ninja,” and that in order for Christie’s body to be freed, he must confront her/him in an ancient temple where it is hoped the villainous warrior’s spirit will flow back into his corpse (which Kosugi has handily stolen from the morgue), at which point Kosugi will get even for that rather conspicuous injury he sustained in a previous fight.
At this point I’ve only barely scratched the surface, but I wouldn’t dream of giving away every single nugget to be savored within this film. You’ve no idea how much I’ve left out! From the joys of the budget-conscious practical stunts that recall the feel of television’s The A-Team, to the electronic music (explicitly labeled, to impress us I suppose, as a “synthesizer score” in the credits), to the way the script wrenches the main characters hilariously to the sidelines in the film’s climactic moments, I’d say Ninja III: The Domination is the perfect definition of a “guilty pleasure,” except that I feel no guilt whatsoever insisting you watch it right away. The film is not just an unusually rewarding time-capsule experience, but also an indirect study of how the industry has completely reversed its ideas about what kind of films justify big budgets versus what kind of movies deserve smaller budgets.
How easy it is, while you’re watching it, to picture this film being remade today—and what kind of serious money would be thrown at it. Today, we might see this rather primitive gumbo of martial arts, gunplay, car chases, and the supernatural given the $25-to-40-million-dollar treatment, with far more eroticism applied to the action scenes. We’d get the slow-motion, bullet-timed, Michael Bay-ed orgy of fast cuts and ear-splitting BOOM-BOOM on the soundtrack, and we’d get it on 3,000-plus screens on Memorial Day weekend, and we’d get all this nuttery in 3D, because Ninja III: The Domination in fact contains most if not all the ingredients we have now come to expect in our highest-priced summer blockbusters.
(The nudity, sad to say, would probably still be missing. If you’re a 21st-century blockbuster B-movie, you’re PG-13 or you’re screwed.)
The other day, I had an interesting back-and-forth online with a friend bemoaning the abuse of the term “classic” and what he felt was its gratuitous application to less “respectable” movies that never claimed any ambitions beyond serving as passing entertainment. Now, he wasn’t being snooty at all, but the word “classic” as he referred to it there is saddled with a lot of uppity assumptions, including our old, old, old friend “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To!”—which, like smoking, is something that should really be recognized by folks in my generation and younger now as an unwise habit to take up, the saying being nothing more or less than an ever-repeating subjective impulse—and with that in mind, I can’t help but be overly reticent about tagging this movie with that label, given how the typical reader interprets the word.
To avoid charges of the overzealous rehabilitation of genre fare, then, I will not close out my appreciation of Ninja III: The Domination by carelessly invoking the C-word…I will close instead with some others: It is cheap, it is cheese, it is chock-full of head-shaking, eye-rolling, face-slapping surprises. It’s a Cannon picture, and as such is a perfect representation of what often made lower-budgeted ‘80s films so goofy and glorious. Coming as it does from the Year of Orwell, it also seems eminently appropriate to cheer: It’s doubleplusgood!