The Ninja are back! Brandishing swords and fists, leaping and kicking, wielding blow darts and explosives, they know a thousand ways to kill. Martial arts legend Sho Kosugi delivers a heart-pounding display of strength, speed and lethal Ninja know-how in this action-packed thriller that "takes us back to the good old days of the kung fu extravaganza" (Screen International).
When a band of Ninja assassins slaughters the family of Cho Osaki (Kosugi), he flees to America in the hope of building a new life. A former Ninja himself, Osaki tries to escape his deadly past but soon discovers he has become the pawn of a ruthless drug trafficker - an American Ninja intent on killing anyone who crosses his path... including Osaki!
Any movie with the words “revenge” and “ninja,” and associated with the underachieving (and proud of it) Cannon Films invokes a feeling of genuine nostalgia followed by actual dread. The interest of course comes from re-visiting an era when the Reagan Revolution was in full force and the only real source of sedentary entertainment came from cable TV movies and straight-to-video productions. It was during those moments when Cannon productions, Andy Sidaris films, Troma titles and second-rate motion pictures were given a life of their own in-between endless reruns of a small handful of Hollywood blockbusters.
However, the warm feeling of visual comfort food also became cold and unappetizing once the novelty of those tacky but earnest movies wore off, and the viewer was faced with porno-level acting, meandering plots, juvenile humor and action scenes which could only be complimented with a “eh, they did what they could.” It was this predictable range of emotions which greeted me as I sat through ninety minutes of the often groan-inducing and visually tiresome ‘Revenge of the Ninja,’ a semi-cult classic where the entertainment value comes from ripping it apart with friends who can appreciate the cheap and the cheesy.
The movie apparently follows the continuing story of Cho, played by Sho Kosugi, as a retired ninja who lives a tranquil life in Japan with his family. Predictably, an all-out massacre by other ninjas force him retreat with his surviving infant son and his own mother to Southern California, where he and his American friend Branden (Arthur Roberts) are opening up a gallery consisting of import dolls. Later, he finds out that the little enterprise is a front for importing heroin (filled in the hollow and apparently very fragile bodies of the dolls themselves!). Branden finds himself at odds with the Italian-American mafia over money issues, and fearing a vague threat by the Japanese Yakuza (mentioned, but never seen), he dons a ninja outfit to attack the local gangster family. In the meantime, Cho finds out that his friend is just using him for his dirty business, and eventually goes after Branden following attacks on his mother, son (played by Kosugi’s real kid) and mutual friend Kathy (Ashley Ferrare).
‘Revenge of the Ninja is filled with fights and fights, and yet even more fights. Hand-to-hand combat takes place among almost every main character: Kathy versus Cho, little kid versus Branden, Kathy versus the little kid, grandmother versus Branden, Branden versus Kathy, and of course Cho versus Branden. I doubt ‘Mortal Combat’ or ‘ Street Fighter’ ever explored such exciting combinations. And yet, swords, fists and kicks often miss their mark with puzzling regularity. With the exception of two or three scenes, bloodshed is kept to a PG-13 minimum, despite the R-rating which was probably given due to a few F-bombs and a sex scene involving some female nudity.
My most pleasing moment came from the use of some sort of flame thrower displayed on the boxcover though used ineffectively in the film. But even this bit of truth-in-advertising couldn’t make up for all the individual travesties. A jaw-dropping confrontation between the bad ninja and the hero’s mother (dressed up in a kimono, which must have unfairly hindered her butt-kicking ability) ends up being the most ridiculous scene in a movie full of them.
I could go on with all my whining and moaning, so I will. Continuity errors include a fight scene which begins on a park bench, then suddenly jumps to a nearby playground. Blood is magically cleaned up from one shot-to-another, and surrounding structural damage is repaired in record time. Also, for a movie which is supposed to take place in Los Angeles, snow-capped mountains show up in the background of a suburban neighborhood and license plate proudly brandishing their Utah origins appear in plain sight.
Colorful characters (that is, in terms of physical appearance) appear and disappear rather abruptly. The role of lead Mafioso Chifano is played by the late Mario Gallo, who does an old Joe Pesci imitation (years before 'GoodFellas' and 'Casino,' though the two actors did work together in Raging Bull) worthy of a standing ovation. Aside from Mr. Gallo, only Ashley Ferrare (a former fashion model who does pretty well at displaying some basic martial arts skills) as the unwitting villainess seems to make a genuine effort at real acting. If her performance seems a bit too overwrought in some places, it’s only because the movie is filled with nothing but flat line deliveries and a consistent monotone from the two main characters. Also, kudos to kid Kosugi for maintaining eye contact with Ms. Ferrare during a scene where she looks particularly fetching, even after narrowly surviving a death trap involving Jacuzzi jets.
And then there’s the main character, Cho played by Sho Kosugi who is as stoic as he is stilted in his portrayal of a reformed Ninja turned doll gallery owner. He is so doggedly passionless that he barely sheds a tear after witnessing his family in Japan slaughtered by Ninjas, stares glumly when brazenly seduced by a sexy blonde (Ferrare) wearing a robe which shows off all her leggy qualities (albeit in waist pantyhose), and barely reacts after he finds his lifeless mother harpooned by a sword. When it comes to acting, Kristen Stewart at her worst is more emotive than this guy at his best.
There are at least two distinct moments of so-called “surprise” during the climactic battle which are comparable to the hang-gliding climax from 'Ator The Invincible 2'/'The Blademaster'/'Cave Dwellers' when it comes to absurdity and ridicule (fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will know what I’m talking about). To reveal them would be to deprive first-time viewers of the painful groans and bursts of laughter which are sure to follow. In any event, this choreographed finale goes on far too long that it just becomes stupid and dull. But if viewers are interested in seeing thighs being sliced up on a regular basis, this scene delivers.
The Blu-ray Disc: Vital Stats
‘Revenge of the Ninja’ is presented on a single platter Blu-ray disc in a standard Blu keepcase. The movie itself is an MPEG-4 AVC encoded, 1080p high definition picture with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 which should fill all widescreen TVs. The front cover adapts the original one-sheet artwork without the credits or advertising blurb. As static menu appears immediately after the disc loads with the option to play with or without Director Firstenberg’s introduction, as well as direct access to all the chapters and bonus materials.
For such a low-budget movie, the picture is surprisingly clean and clear. Images are generally soft and lack fine detail, but neither are there any obvious digital artifacts which might be produced by sloppy mastering. Some evidence of print damage show up from time to time (a thin black vertical line briefly makes a brief appearance halfway into the picture), and outdoor scenes take on a dull, murky look. Brightly lit indoor scenes appear colorful, however particularly during those awe-inspiring fight scenes among every other character combination.
Encoded as a DTS-HD Master Audio track, the stereo sound is a bit of a sonic struggle. Fidelity and dynamic range are limited when it comes to the synthesized music, clanging of metal, and swooshing of swords. When combined with the sound effects, voices often come across muffled or lost in the mix. When dialogue is heard alone, the lines come across a lot better. Occasionally, I would listen to the soundtrack in synthesized surround sound using Dolby Pro-Logic II, before permanently switching back to two-channel listening simply because it made the dialogue more intelligible. The audio commentary is clear and distinct and dominates much of the second soundtrack.
Trailer (HD 1:42) is included as part of the bonus material, and contains several quick scenes which do not appear in the final cut. The trailer also makes all the stunt work look far more impressive than in the final product, mainly because they don’t aren’t stretched on and on to the point of monotony.
Commentary by Director Sam Firstenberg and Stunt Coordinator Steven Lambert - Little tidbits of information such as how the main character was a villain in the “prequel” and changed into a hero for this movie may enlighten those who have a yearning to see ‘Enter The Ninja’ (or even the last part of this trilogy, ‘Ninja III: The Domination’). Their ongoing patter is generally entertaining and sincere, though Mr. Lambert’s use of the word “wonderful” to describe every cast and crew member can be a little much. Still, I have to admit that watching the movie with the commentary made me more charitable to the overall product, though it doesn’t change my final opinions.
The director admits that at least 30 minutes of footage were removed, which probably explains a lot of the continuity problems and disjointed storyline. It’s really too bad that the edited scenes (assuming they still exist) weren’t included as part of the supplementary materials. The movie also features an introduction by Director Firstenberg who admits that this was his first attempt at an action movie, but is genuinely pleased with the results. Finally, the Behind The Scenes Photo Gallery, advertised on the packaging as a Special Feature, is nowhere to be found.
I fully understand that a critical analysis of junk like ‘Revenge of the Ninja’ is not only a useless endeavor, but more than misses the point of its very existence, which is to package a few mindless action scenes for casual consumption. Yet, I would argue that even a movie with such shlocky antecedents must meet a minimum standard of creativity and competence, unless its sole intention is to be the subject of ridicule like one of those tiresome Asylum films. For those who demand more from their entertainment than sheer nostalgia, ‘Revenge of the Ninja’ is a definite pass.