What is it: The greatest movie of all time* that I somehow never managed to see until now? Possibly! I don’t know how I’ve missed it because I’m a sucker for gloriously cheesy ninja action, but 1983’s Revenge of the Ninja is quite possibly the platonic ideal of what a ninja movie should be – an over-the-top mash-up of very loose takes on Japanese culture with Hollywood gloss, sloppy violence and masked men running amok. Ninjas had popped up in movies for years, including some classic Shaw Brothers kung-fu flicks, but it was in the eighties where they truly were everywhere. The 1980s, in my mind, were all about ninjas – in Chuck Norris movies, in gloriously bad rock musicals, in movies that combined Flashdance-style aerobics with ninja action, and of course in teenage turtles who were also ninjas. How inescapable was the ninja? My brother had a pair of nunchucks at one point and both of us managed to severely injure ourselves with them.
Revenge of the Ninja is the middle part of what’s been dubbed the Ninja Trilogy by omnipresent ‘80s cheese film factory Cannon Films. I had seen its quasi-prequel and sequels, 1981’s Enter The Ninja (in which a white Italian spaghetti western star is cast as a master ninja) and 1985’s utterly amazingly kitschy Ninja III: The Domination years ago, but somehow I had never managed to see Revenge. (None of these movies actually have anything in common other than the same insane aesthetic and the casting of Japanese actor Sho Kosugi, who only really stars in Revenge of the Ninja.)
In Revenge, Sho is “Cho,” whose entire family except his infant son are killed about 30 seconds into the movie by ninjas. Foreswearing violence, Cho moves to America to start a new life by selling dolls (!). Unfortunately, he ends up unwittingly becoming partners with a heroin dealer (!!) who is also a master ninja (!!!). Things go downhill from there, but it ends with a kick-ass 10-minute ninja battle on top of a skyscraper, which, really, is all I’ve ever wanted out of cinema.
Why I never saw it: Sheer, blind ignorance to one of the shining lights of the cinema art form, I guess. To be fair, my peak ninja phase was in 1984 or so, and pre-internet, if you missed a movie and it wasn’t showing on cable TV, you might just never see it.
Does it measure up to its rep? Honestly, if I were 13 years old and seeing this for the first time, I’d tell you it was the greatest movie ever made. But in somewhat settled middle age, I’ll still tell you it features everything I ever wanted in a ninja movie.
Worth seeing? Man has created the pyramids, the Mona Lisa, the symphonies of Mozart. But there’s few cultural achievements that can equal a good ninja movie. Revenge of the Ninja features a small child getting a throwing star to the face in its first five minutes, to give you an idea what kind of movie we’re talking about. Revenge features constant bombastic martial arts battles – man versus ninjas, small child vs. ninjas, small child vs. woman, ninja vs. what appears to be a group of Village People cosplayers, ninja’s mother vs. ninja, ninja vs. ninja. It’s all given propulsive energy by director Sam Firstenberg, with just the right amount of overacting, preposterousness and violence. Ninjas throw smoke bombs, display inexplicable hypnotic powers, and unleash flamethrowers in mid-fight. What more does a man need out of life?
For 90 minutes, Revenge of the Ninja features copious revenge and ninjas. It does what it says on the can, and never pretends to be anything more. Frankly, this should replace Die Hard as everyone’s go-to Christmas movie. There aren’t any Christmas scenes, to be fair, but we all know Santa Claus probably uses ninjas instead of elves to get the job done, don’t we?
* Note: This review may contain a few mild exaggerations.