When you see the logo for Cannon Films at the beginning of your ’80s movie, you know you’re in for a certain level of quality: in the ’80s, Cannon were trying to be the biggest action movie studio in the world, making money on some real exploitation gems with slightly higher budgets than you’d normally get. They were masters of seeing trends and capitalizing on them, and in 1984, ninja movies were all the rage. But so too, off of the success of Flashdance in 1983, were sexy movies about dancing. What on Earth was Cannon to do but put the two together? But how? If you guessed “add The Exorcist to it,” then you are right, and what you’d get is Ninja III: The Domination.
Given the title, you might be tempted to think Ninja III: The Domination is the third film in trilogy. Not so; Ninja III was merely the third unrelated ninja movie Cannon made, all featuring martial arts master turned movie icon, Sho Kosugi. He began by playing the bad guy in 1981’s Enter the Ninja, in which he starred opposite Italian action movie icon Franco Nero, who infamously couldn’t do any ninja stuff and was dubbed hilariously by an American actor. This was followed by 1983’s Revenge of the Ninja, in which Kosugi got the hero role. This movie is actually a pretty dope ninja flick, and was directed by Sam Firstenberg, the director of Ninja III, as well as the amazingly titled Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Ninjas are real evil, I guess. Or at least this one is. The movie opens with one of the greatest first scenes in the history of cinema. A ninja adorned in grey appears in broad daylight on an Arizona golf course in order to perform a hit, in the process slaughtering everyone in sight associated with that target, and then anyone who just happens to see him, and then police officers by the truckload, in and out of helicopters, before finally getting shot repeatedly. So, he’s dead, right? Nope, he gets up and kills two more cops before getting put down, only to disappear under the Earth…somehow.
And that’s when the movie really begins, although how it can possibly live up to the grandeur of that opening sequence is beyond me. We meet Christie, played by Lucinda Dickey, an aerobics instructor and dancer who works as a telephone company linesperson. Clearly this was the Flashdance influence: a beautiful dancer doing a day job traditionally held by burly dudes. While out in the desert to fix a downed line, she sees the dying ninja who puts the hex on her and gives her his sword before dying. This sword holds the power of the ninja and his spirit, I guess. It comes flying out of her closet later on, just to ensure we know what evil magic looks like.
Dickey was a dancer who’d moved to Los Angeles from Kansas to be in movies. After playing a background dancer in Grease 2, she was hired to play the lead in Ninja III; however, due to various reshoots, the next movie she shot (Breakin’)was made and released first, becoming a massive success. And then she shot Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo as the Cannon brass were eager to capitalize. All told, all three of her Cannon Films starring movies came out in 1984.
So Christie is slowly being possessed by the spirit of the dead ninja in order for her to go and get revenge on the police officers who finally killed him. She uses her feminine wiles to get the better of the idiot, sexist cops and they die in a series of ridiculous ways. Christie’s new boyfriend, Det. Billy Secord (played by Jordan Bennett, the hairiest man ever to be shirtless for half a movie) knows something’s up with her but doesn’t know what to do. Luckily, a one-eyed man named Yamada (finally, it’s time for Sho Kosugi) has arrived to get revenge on the evil ninja, even if it’s just his ghost.
Ninja III: The Domination is so relentlessly silly it’s hard not to enjoy it. The action is exactly what you’d come to expect from Cannon. Its bosses, Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, were a perfect mixture of showman (Golan) and money man (Globus) and knew intrinsically what a movie needed to do to make money. At least for a while. This is right in the sweet spot of Cannon, and although it’s definitely scratching an itch nobody was asking for, its mere existence is worthy of note.
If I were being picky–and I am–I wish Dickey’s character and Kosugi’s character had much to do with each other. It’s almost like two different movies, and the ninja master sadly feels like a bit of an afterthought amid the rampant insanity of Japanese exorcism and aerobics ninjutsu. It’s also pretty evident the finale was pieced together with people not all together at one time. Kosugi ends up being the one to fight the physical manifestation of the evil ninja once he’s exorcised, which is cool because the two actors are terrific martial artists, but then it leaves Dickey almost totally uninvolved in the climax of the movie, when she’s been the main character throughout, albeit as a possessed bad ghost person.
Ninja III: The Domination is rightfully considered a schlocky cult classic, and nobody knows that more than Shout! Factory. The specialty Blu-ray company released the movie five years ago, but they realized it deserved more than the treatment it initially got. So now they’ve released a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, with a brand new 4K scan of the original film elements; the movie looks so good you’ll forget it’s a movie with a possessed aerobics instructor. It also has new interviews with actors Lucinda Dickey and Jordan Bennett, producer and stuntman Alan Amiel, and audio interviews with production designer Elliot Ellentuck and co-composer Misha Segal, along with the originally released commentary track and a Trailers from Hell episode about it.
This is easily one of the top 10 B-movie cult classics of all time, and it’s great to see it look so excellent on both your TV screen and your Blu-ray shelf.
Images: Cannon/Shout Factory
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