Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Revenge of the Ninja (1983) review


Sho Kosugi (Cho Osaki), Arthur Roberts (Braden), Keith Vitali (Dave Hatcher), Ashley Ferrare (Cathy), Kane Kosugi (Kane Osaki), Virgil Frye (Lt. Dime), Mario Gallo (Caifano), Grace Oshita (Grandmother), Professor Toru Tanaka (Sumo servant)

Directed by Sam Firstenberg

The Short Version: The best US made movie about those black-clad stealth assassins is this lean, mean ninja machine starring Sho Kosugi. The plot is in the title, and the dialog is little more than a device to move from one fight to the next which is literally every few minutes. The action is often bloody, and always varied. A popular, profitable film in its day, REVENGE OF THE NINJA -- the second, and best of an unrelated ninja trilogy holds up extremely well as a macho martial arts classic.

After a decades long feud leaves his family murdered by ninja assassins, Cho Osaki, at the urging of an American friend, takes his son and mother to the United States to set up a doll gallery and start a new life. Unbeknownst to him, Cho's friend uses the gallery as a front for heroin shipments in association with a Yakuza syndicate from Japan, and a local mob cartel. Upon discovering this betrayal, Cho realizes no matter where he may go, there's no escaping his ninja past. 

Martial arts films were a dime a dozen back in the day. There were some good ones, and a whole lot of bad ones. This was especially true for ninja movies -- a style of martial arts actioner that has been predominantly poorly served on celluloid. Like Sonny Chiba before him, Sho Kosugi was integral in carving the ninja terminology into the American iconography in the 80s. For a good half dozen Nippon influenced actioners, Sho Kosugi enjoyed a brief tenure as an action star in Hollywood.

Then newcomer, Polish born Sam Firstenberg was one of the reliable members of Cannon's stable when it came to making escapist action pictures. He helmed some of the company's best remembered pictures from their 80s heyday. REVENGE OF THE NINJA is one such movie. This high-octane, violent martial arts spectacle was one of Firstenberg's most successful movies, and likely the most successful of its star, Sho Kosugi. Aside from PRAY FOR DEATH (1986), this is possibly Sho's most fantastic showcase.

Cannon's celluloid mishap ENTER THE NINJA (1981) formally introduced the world to Sho Kosugi, albeit as a villain. That pictures biggest claim to fame was being instrumental in stirring up ninja mania all around the world for a brief time, and was a decent enough success to gamble on a follow up feature. REVENGE isn't a direct sequel, but the second entry in an unrelated trilogy. In ENTER, Sho was the main fighting villain with a serious beef against an 'out of his element' Franco Nero pretending to be a warrior of the night (while wearing white ninja gear). Nero did a really lousy job of it, too. For REVENGE and NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984), Sho is the lead protagonist. 

REVENGE OF THE NINJA is easily the best of the American made Shinobi movies from the 1980s. Heavily laced with action, it unfolds like a video game. Every five minutes there's a fight sequence, and very few of the bad guys look alike. Many of them have their own unique look (an Indian, a guy dressed like a cowboy, etc). Furthermore, the picture faithfully follows the Hong Kong kung fu template wherein any and every setting means someone will be just around the corner ready to kick your ass. 

For instance, one scene has Cho and Dave (played by real martial artist Keith Vitali) seeking information about his missing son and vandalized doll gallery from a gang hanging out in a park. Just prior to this, Dave says, "There are some ex-cons I know who might have some information about your dolls." Just that sentence alone lets the viewer know the only info that will be passed around are digits of the fist and foot variety; and as expected, the gang, looking like the thug version of the Village People, show more interest in fighting. Nothing is learned to propel the story; the sequence is simply designed to showcase a fight, and virtually every other fight -- all elaborately, and brutally choreographed, mind you -- operates in the same fashion. Even when there's no actual fighting, something involving martial arts is onscreen. 

Aside from Sho Kosugi bearing the most intimidating visage this side of Sonny Chiba, Firstenberg's film contains one of the greatest movie chases of all time. What's special about this five minute chase is that the bad guys (again, another eclectic mix of characters) are in a van and Cho is on foot! He's leaping over walls, and on top of cars, and damned determined to get his dolls back. Cho catches up to them, and manages to spring onto the roof of the van. Accomplishing little from up there, Cho flips through the windshield where the battle continues. Eventually everybody spills out into the street till one bad guy remains and the chase is on again! At this point Cho is being dragged from the rear of the van, holding on for dear life to get those dolls back while the concrete acts as a sharpening stone against his legs. It's an incredible sequence, and if done today, it would have most likely been accentuated with computer technology.

The stunning final fight atop a skyscraper is the KING KONG of ninja battles. It took two weeks to shoot this elaborate duel. All that effort pays off as Sho and Braden battle it out all over the rooftops using every ninja trick in the book. The finale, as well as the entire movie, is spiced up with gory deaths and spraying blood that will recall imagery of Japan's LONE WOLF AND CUB (1972-1974) series, and the Shaw Brothers style of martial arts mayhem.

The acting is about what you'd expect, but serviceable. Some of it's good, and some of it veers into atrocious territory. Sho Kosugi's intensity carries the entire movie, but those condemned to bad acting purgatory include Arthur Roberts (see insert) and Keith Vitali. Roberts utters all his lines in the same tone. He's not convincing at all as a ninja, and it was a good idea for the main villain to wear a silver demon mask so as to hide Eddie Tse -- who was actually wearing the suit. Vitali is a superb martial artist, but he's even more robotic than Roberts when he speaks his lines. Still, a couple more scenes with him fighting alongside Sho would have been welcome. He's better served as a nemesis of Jackie Chan in WHEELS ON MEALS (1984).

Sho's more famous of his two sons, Kane Kosugi, is introduced in this movie. Shane is the child that takes a shuriken right to the brain at the beginning. Both boys featured together in some capacity in three other of their father's films -- 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA (1985), PRAY FOR DEATH (1986), and BLACK EAGLE (1988). Kane got the most exposure, and is currently enjoying a career of his own today. Some of his resume includes MUSCLE HEAT (2002), GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (2004), DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE (2006), and NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR (2013).

The attractive Ashley Ferrare replaced another actress virtually at the last minute. She was new to acting, and was quite beautiful with a very toned figure. Apparently some of her scenes (in addition to some scenes of violence) were either cut, or reshot. The trailer features a few shots of scenes not in the released version. Unfortunately, Ashley's career in show business seems to have been a short one. Her only other credits were an episode of THE MASTER (1984) and the Fred Olen Ray SciFi actioner, CYCLONE (1987).

The actual box office numbers sourced for REVENGE OF THE NINJA vary between $10 million to a little over $13,000,000. Released in 432 theaters, then 504 by the time it finished its run, Kosugi's movie performed comparably, if not surpassing films starring bigger names like Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson. Their films released that year -- LONE WOLF MCQUADE and 10 TO MIDNIGHT -- were released in more theaters.

With the success of Firstenberg's film, he was asked to do a sequel. NINJA III: THE DOMINATION followed in 1984. It was vastly different from the previous two pictures. 1985 brought one of the decades most popular action movies with Firstenberg's AMERICAN NINJA (1985). AVENGING FORCE (1986), a sort-of sequel to INVASION USA (1985) and AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION (1987) rounded out the directors theatrical action output. The 90s saw Firstenberg helm some films that were released straight to video such as AMERICAN SAMURAI (1992) -- a film that was heavily edited on tape, but was shown in all its gory glory on cable. CYBORG COP 1 and 2 from 1993 and 1994 respectively continued the directors penchant for action.

If you've never seen a Sho Kosugi movie, this is a great start. If you're already familiar with the man, a rewatch doesn't sound like such a bad idea, either. This second entry is such a tightly woven, gory action thrill ride, it's debatable what impact REVENGE would have had on the genre in America had it come first instead of the inferior ENTER. With a finely toned script from James R. Silke and a memorably catchy, stinging score from Rob Walsh, REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983) is about as good of a Drive-in style martial arts actioner as you're going to get for one made in America.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD.

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