This essay on the history of Cannon Films' Ninja cycle of action movies was written by Maureen Rogers, Teaching Assistant and Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Ninja III: The Domination will screen as part of our Cannon Fodder series on Monday, March 9, 7 p.m., at the Marquee Theater at Union South.
By Maureen Rogers
Ninja III: The Domination (1984) is the third and final installment of a rather loosely connected series of films starring Japanese martial arts star Sho Kosugi and released by the Cannon Group. Enter the Ninja (1981) inaugurated this mini-franchise, followed by Revenge of the Ninja (1983) and Ninja III one year later. Though some industry pundits complained of martial arts exhaustion at the time, Cannon followed the Ninja films with yet another martial arts series, the American Ninja franchise, made up of five films starring Michael Dudikoff and released from 1985-1993.
Cannon's commitment to the low-budget martial arts franchise fit with their overall emphasis on selling to the foreign market and on keeping production costs down. After purchasing the Cannon label in 1979, Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus began to build Cannon as an internationally-oriented company that produced or acquired films for under $5 million and released a large number of them each year. Golan and Globus became particularly known within Hollywood for outsized displays at film markets such as Cannes, AFM, and Mifed, where they often arrived with a dozen or so film titles to sell to international distributors. At Cannes, Golan and Globus often bragged about Cannon's appeal to international buyers. In one interview, Golan explained his emphasis on foreign sales: “The world wants American movies, but the American producers and distributors live like there is only America. There are hundreds of independent distributors who can't get good American movies. So me and my partner had the idea: make American-quality pictures... sell to distributors in Europe, Japan.” Over and over again, Golan framed Cannon's niche in Hollywood as selling low-budget Hollywood knock-offs to distributors outside of North America.
Martial arts franchising also helped Cannon to develop B-grade stars. By making films in the same series, Golan and Globus could create buzz around recurring martial arts heroes. This was more easily achieved with stars who had pre-existing name recognition, such as Charles Bronson. I would argue, though, that Cannon also tried to create some kind of star persona around Sho Kosugi in the Ninja series as well as around Michael Dudikoff in the American Ninja series. Star-powered low-budget action franchises had several advantages in a place like Cannes. International distributors had some idea of what they were getting, and if audiences had responded to Kosugi in the past, it was a good bet that they might in the future.
Action films in general also sold remarkably well to theatrical distributors and in ancillary markets. In 1987, Variety reported that the action genre were the best performing genre at international film markets. Several factors contributed to this including the fact that action films lacked the gory violence of the slasher film, a popular genre at the time. Second, the action film was thought to have unique cross cultural appeal. Conventions of the genre, like shoot outs and explosions, were easy for audiences to comprehend even if the film was poorly dubbed. One Texas based producer explained: “[Action films] translate well through all social, political and economic differences." Action titles also sold well on home video, which was another important component of Cannon's sales strategy.
This strategy mostly worked with the Ninja series. Enter the Ninja (1981), the first installment, was the most commercially successful of the three films. For one, Franco Nero and Susan George, both well-known actors, starred alongside Kosugi. The two subsequent Ninja films were never able to match the star power of this initial release. Enter the Ninja was also filmed in the Philippines, which added a kind of flair that the other two films (filmed in Salt Lake City and Arizona) never matched. Golan and Globus were able to secure a foreign distribution deal with MGM/UA, further offsetting prints and advertising costs. In addition, at Cannes in 1981, Golan and Globus made deals with Columbia Pictures International, Viacom, and HBO to release the film theatrically and on pay cable.
1983's Revenge of the Ninja arrived amid Cannon's massive expansion. Golan and Globus were in the midst of purchasing several theater chains and further increasing their position in Hollywood and beyond. Kosugi returned in Revenge of the Ninja, and Sam Firstenberg was hired to direct the film. While reviews for Enter the Ninja were rather mediocre, Revenge of the Ninja fared even worse. Variety complained of the bad acting, lack of star power, and weak script but praised the "solid action sequences spotlighting topliner Sho Kosugi."
An inspired example of genre hybridity, Ninja III is a wonderful amalgam of a martial arts film, Flashdance, and a possession horror film. Firstenberg returned to direct, and Kosugi continued to play his role as the virtuous Ninja. This time, however, Lucinda Dickey of Breakin' and Breakin' 2 fame joined the cast as an aerobics instructor who, as Variety describes her character, is "blessed with ESP and a morbid interest in Japanese culture." This aerobics premise helps to motivate some wonderfully odd scenes and costume choices, and it is worth the price of admission (free) to see how Firstenberg attempts to meld these generic elements into a plausible, unified story. Discussing the film's box office appeal, Variety ended its review of Ninja III with a sentiment that is also a fitting exhortation to any readers who are considering seeing Ninja III: "If the spirit is willing, the fun and a few thrills are there to be had."