Enter the Ninja (1981) starring Franco Nero and Susan George
What’s it about?
Franco Nero plays Cole, an American who passes the final test at a secret Ninja training school in Japan. While his mentor Komori (Dale Ishimoto) gladly proclaims him a true Ninja, another school member named Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), a descendant from the age of Samurai, storms out of his celebration ceremony in objection of his lack of heritage.
Straight after finishing his training Cole heads off to Manila to catch up with his old army buddy Frank Landers (Alex Courtney), who lives with his wife Mary Ann (Susan George). The night of his arrival, Frank tells him about some land grabbers who are applying more than a little pressure for them to sell the plantation they own. The next day Cole catches some men in the employ of local heavy “Hook” (Zachi Noy) roughing up some of their workers, so he helps out the only way he can - by whipping their asses.
However, Hook’s employer Venarius (Christopher George) isn’t about to take the presence of this white knight lying down - after all, there is a fortune in oil deposits below the plantation. So, he sends some increasingly tough opposition the way of Cole and the Landers.
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Why is it significant?
Along with the Chuck Norris vehicle The Octagon, Enter The Ninja was the movie that kickstarted the Western world’s 1980s Ninja craze. Having made a decent profit on its smallish ($1.5 million) budget, it also kickstarted a formula for success for production company Cannon Pictures (when it was run by Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus): shoot an action movie cheaply with slumming name actors attached and cannily market it to a 1980s Reaganite audience.
Martial artist Mike Stone (who wrote the story) was the original choice to play Cole but director-producer Golan eventually decided that he wanted a more familiar and experienced actor to portray the part, with Stone acting as his stunt double. He ultimately cast Franco Nero, a popular Italian western and thriller star who also had also gained some fame in English-language territories due to his roles in films such as The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966) and Force 10 from Navarone (1978), as well as his longtime relationship with actress Vanessa Redgrave.
The film spawned two pseudo-sequels: Revenge of the Ninja (1983) and Ninja III: The Domination (1984). The plots of the three movies are completely unrelated, the only real connection between them being the Ninja theme as well as the recurring presence of Enter The Ninja’s other major martial arts actor, Sho Kosugi from Japan, who plays a different role in each film.
How does it hold up?
Watching Enter The Ninja nowadays it is clear that it’s a pretty ropey affair, albeit moderately entertaining in its own cheesy way.
Here is one of the main problems: Franco Nero, while a talented and charismatic actor, had no martial arts training. This really makes the fight scenes look awkward as he lacks the grace or accuracy to convince that he has had the many years of rigorous training his character was written as possessing. Early on in the movie, when Hasegawa proclaims “he is no Ninja”, one can agree with him only too readily. During long shots the fights feature Stone standing in for Nero. The latter was clearly an accomplished martial artist, but the fact that he is far superior in this department to the star he’s portraying means that it’s pretty obvious which of the two you are watching in any given shot. The result is that the fights feel lumpy and disjointed.
It doesn’t help that Menahem Golan (rest his soul) wasn’t the best director in the world either. Come to think of it, at times here you might believe that he wasn’t directing at all. For example, a particular flashback scene involving Cole and Frank in a war zone is shot from just one angle. Shot setups in general are largely static and by-the-numbers.
Entertaining but uneasy in tone
He couldn’t decide what tone to go for either. The violence is brutal and gruesome with numerous slashed throats and throwing stars embedded in faces - yet the film often veers into goofy comedy with bumbling villainous henchmen (Zachi Noy plays a hook-handed Teutonic stereotype who is constantly humiliated, while Constantin De Goguel plays a stiff upper lip English gent who “hilariously” maintains his composure even when shot with an arrow), along with silly musical cues and breaks of the fourth wall. There are also some soap-opera-style marriage troubles between Frank and Mary Ann thrown in for good measure.
Mind you, the film isn’t boring. There’s never a long wait for another action sequence to arrive. While admittedly the staging isn’t always convincing, there is a rousing musical score by W. Michael Lewis and Laurin Rinder to keep the proceedings feeling feeling lively. The finale, featuring both Stone and Kosugi in Ninja garb, is actually quite impressive. The principal cast makes the most of the material; Susan George - as per usual - adds a touch of class to the trashiest of endeavours, while Christopher George (no relation) seems to be having the time of his life hamming it up as the slimy villain of the piece. The locations (Japan and The Philippines) are also quite colourfully-captured.
It’s worth remembering that this was more or less a starting point for Ninjas to enter the public conscience in Western Europe and North America. Menahem Golan clearly wasn’t quite sure how to sell the idea to audiences in these territories, and as a result the film stumbles. Still, they lapped it up anyway.
Runtime: 99 mins
Dir: Menahem Golan
Script: Dick Desmond, Mike Stone
Starring: Franco Nero, Susan George, Sho Kosugi, Christopher George, Alex Courtney, Will Hare, Zachi Noy, Constantin De Goguel, Dale Ishimoto