Their profits might never have lived up to their hype but there is no denying that Cannon Films had the exploitation film market sewn up for most of the 1980’s. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were nothing if not prolific when it came to filling the genre market with product, especially in the action film arena, and their in-house productions developed a style that is fondly remembered by exploitation aficionados. Director Sam Firstenberg was their best aide in developing this style – and he created one of the most engagingly over-the-top and imaginative films to emerge from Cannon with Ninja III: The Domination.
The storyline, as assembled by Cannon regular James R. Silke, is an atypical crossbreed of action and horror elements. Telephone line repair worker Christie (Lucinda Dickey) is accosted on the job by a dying man (David Chung) who gives her a samurai sword. What she doesn’t know is that man was a supernaturally powerful ninja who uses his sword to possess her body – and he starts using her as his earthly vessel to enact revenge on the policemen who shot him down after he committed a crazed ninjitsu-fuelled massacre. She tries to figure out how to shake this possession before her cop-stalking ways lead her back to her new cop boyfriend Billy (Jordan Bennett) and she ultimately discovers her only hope lies in Yamada (Sho Kosugi), a powerful “good” ninja who is the only person capable of casting out the evil spirit.
If that plot sounds wild, rest assured that it plays out even wilder on the screen. Firstenberg and Silke know their audience is primed for action so they lay it on thick: the film begins, opens and closes with epic action/chase sequences that run for a full reel’s length. The opener in particular is one of the best and most jaw-dropping action sequences in any ’80s-era action film, with the evil ninja racking up a body count of at least two dozen people in a scene that incorporates swordplay, car stunts, gunplay, motorcycle stunts, high falls and even a helicopter stunt(!). The fact that all these stunts are done live in front of the camera with no visual effects cheating heightens the excitement.
That first scene is the kind of opener that is so good it could make the rest of the film look inadequate but thankfully that is not the case here. The film mixes several more action sequences, including great ones set in a graveyard and at a ninja temple, along with suspense sequences – there’s an effective one where Christie stalks a cop in the middle of a hot tub tryst – and some comic-book horror elements, like a scene where the evil ninja uses a video game as a method to possess Christie’s body and a wild attempted exorcism featuring James Hong as a sham spiritualist.
If all the genre-crossbreeding craziness isn’t enough, Ninja III: The Domination adds a third layer of sensory overload in the way it perfectly captures its 1984 vintage. Firstenberg and Silke throw in every of-the-moment element of its era that it can: ninjas, video games, the aerobics craze, a synth-heavy soundtrack, a hot tub scene, Dickey’s glam-rock shag haircut, a gym scene, you name it. The aggressive pileup of early 1980’s elements here will inspire a heady rush of nostalgia in those fond of that decade.
Finally, Ninja III: The Domination has a real professionalism to it that a lot other indie efforts from this era didn’t always have. Hanania Baer’s crisp photography makes the movie look more expensive than it is, Steve Lambert’s stunt choreography delivers a non-stop array of eye-defying excitement and Michael Duthie’s editing lends a structure and an appropriately kinetic verve to those oft-epic action scenes. Firstenberg weaves their contributions into an energetic style that makes the film perfect popcorn fare. Best of all, Dickey – remembered by ’80s kids as the heroine of Breakin’ – is an excellent action heroine and Kosugi delivers an appropriately physical, sometimes surprisingly witty performance as the mysterious good ninja.
Simply put, if you want to understand the appeal of Cannon Films this is a great place to start. At their best, Cannon delivered colorful, exciting thrills-on-a-budget – and Ninja III: The Domination captures this studio at the dizziest heights of their inspiration. It also makes a great case for Firstenberg as one of the unsung action auteurs from the ’80s.