SIMON SAYS: White Men Can't Ninja

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by Simon Abrams
June 1, 2012 9:29 AM
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In the ‘60s and ‘70s, ninjas proliferated in Japanese movies. Movies like The Daimyo Spy (1964) and Castle of Owls (1964) helped to establish ninjas as the sneaky but honorable warriors that we now know them as. In 1981, an Israeli filmmaker with too much money and not enough talent started a wave of ninja-sploitation films. Producer-cum-director Menahem Golan was supposed to direct Charles Bronson in Death Wish 2. But, as the apocryphal story goes, Bronson didn't want Golan at the helm. So Golan directed Enter the Ninja—a movie which, oddly enough, has remote ties to the spaghetti western genre.

Enter the Ninja is the first film in a trilogy of schizoid films that Carlson, my amiably ornery Bad Idea Podcast co-host, has wisely characterized as "copy-and-paste cinema." Like spaghetti westerns and Manchurian action films before them, ninja-splotation films depend on cinematic revisionism. But instead of post-dubbed Italians shooting each other in Monument Valley, ninja cheapies like Enter the Ninja feature non-Italian Europeans throwing ninja stars and colored smoke bombs at Asian guys (plenty of whom were not even Japanese-American) in colorful outfits.

Ironically enough, Franco Nero, the star of Sergio Corbucci's blood-soaked spaghetti Western classic Django (1966), also starred in Enter the Ninja. Nero's face changed in the 15 years between the two films: the formerly glass-jawed B-grade star is notably puffier and has a different mustache in the later film. But the jowly, bleary-eyed, Chevron-mustache-clad look Nero perfected here would influence a couple of other ninja-splotation heroes, including Richard Harrison, star of such films as Ninja Terminator (1985) and Project Ninja Daredevils (1986). Harrison may have started his film career auspiciously in the 50s, as the co-pilot in the film version of South Pacific (1958), but after starring in such spaghetti westerns as Rojo (1967) and $100,000 for Ringo (1966), Harrison went even farther West: to Japan. 

The connection between spaghetti westerns and the '80s cycle of white-washed ninja films doesn’t run very deep. The narrative coherence found in spaghetti westerns can’t be found in ninja movies. For example, in Enter the Ninja, Golan arbitrarily transplants a western stock plot in the Philippines, presumably because it was famously very cheap to shoot there. But once we are in the Philippines, we see that nothing makes sense. Case in point: the film's villain is an evil, union-busting plantation owner with a bizarre love for synchronized swimming. He's hired a sadistic one-eyed German fellow as his head lackey. Similarly, the titular machine in Ninja Terminator is a small toy robot that delivers its irate masters' death threats for them. Regardless of budget constraints, these movies make no sense.

But ultimately, such a salient lack of sense is part of the appeal of the ninja-sploitation film. These blustery and nonsensical films follow murderous but chivalric white guys with lethal squints as they fight badly dubbed villains who laugh maniacally and use the telephone too much. What kind of ninja uses a phone? These are ninjas! They live by a code of honor, protect their women and beat each other up with exotic weapons. Who said anything about Ma Bell?!

In summation: no, I can't tell you why one film would include a toy robot, or another a sadistic, eye-patch-wearing gnome. But I'd have an equally hard time explaining why Nero's Django hid his signature Gatling gun in a coffin. The average ninja-splotation film makes its own rules, unwittingly going further than most spaghetti westerns did to feature as much exploitable ninja-related violence as possible on a tiny budget. Schlockmeisters like Golan and Godfrey Ho (Ninja Destroyer, Rage of Ninja), inept filmmakers though they were, carved out a surreally burgeoning niche for themselves.

***Enter the Ninja will be the first movie playing in a double bill that Steve Carlson and I will present next Saturday, 6/9 at 92YTribeca. That night, we will also be screening a 35mm print of Ninja III: The Domination.***

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