In the 1970’s, the beautifully violent Bruce Lee films began the revolution and evolution of American martial arts cinema. Yet the 1980s was a bi-pronged, surprising combination of devolution and aberration that no one saw coming: the wacky infusion of English-dubbed kung-fu movies seen on late night TV and their bootlegged, pan-and-scan tapes lining independent video store shelves reaching American pop culture status; and the schlock and role, illogically ridiculous and ridiculously coherent Americanized ninja films.
I first saw a ninja in a movie in England during the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) and was intrigued. The hook sank deeper six years later in America after Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) fought one ninja in The Assassinepisode of Kung Fu (1973) followed by the appearance of a handful of ninjas in The Killer Elite (1975). Yet at a screening of Japan’s Sword of Doom (1966) at Cornell in 1977, where my Japanese roommate pointed out what real ninjas were supposed to be like, that made me study kendo and research ninjitsu. Then after studying the fights of ninja-like characters in Chinese kung fu films in Taiwan (1979-1981), I understood the weaponry and how to use them in fight choreography.
Note: The Ninja-like characters dressed in black in Chinese wuxia films were Forest Devils, martial arts assassins of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that spread into Korea and became known as Sulsa. They’re the probable progenitors of the Japanese ninja that appeared in feudal Japan during the 1400s.
When I returned stateside, Chuck Norris was fighting ninja in The Octagon (1980) while holding and swinging a katana like a baseball bat…and baseball is as American as apple pie. Yet when I first saw Revenge of the Ninja (1983; RON), I was dumbstruck. How and why?
RON made me giggle, cackle, and guffaw because it reminded of my teen obsession of watching low budget schlocky horror flicks of yesteryear that featured iffy acting, overly sensational plots, simpleton audacious monster makeup and awkward costumes, low-tech special effects (imagine flying saucers attached to strings that you can see) and lots of screaming. Yet at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. The films didn’t hide it and they were taking themselves as seriously as the seriousness of the film allowed it; and I loved them.
As ninja family man Cho Osaki (Sho Kosugi) sails in turbulent waters to protect his son Kane (Kane Kosugi), he wants to ensure that the tide doesn’t turn against them due to one adverse performance of resisting a ninja attack in Japan led by a mysterious villain. After their maiden voyage escape from Japan to LA, what tsunami dangers await them as Cho opens an art gallery funded by the Will Ferrell lookalike Braden?
What makes RON a schlocky martial arts rollicking movie to watch? The opening fight at an extravagant Japanese-gardened home in Japan shows you everything you to need to know. In broad daylight, ninjas (some are non-Asian stuntmen) dressed in stereotypic black ninja-garb donned with bright red head and waist bands as camouflage, which should make it tough for the family they’re about to slaughter, not see them…not! Swish, swash, swoosh, their mission is interrupted… Enter the family’s head ninja warrior Cho with his trusty art-dealer Caucasian friend Braden but they’re too late.
Hiding in plain sight and amidst arm gestures, the ninjas hide, run off, then attack the samurai sword wielding Cho. Braden has a handgun, and he shoots ninjas that rather than remaining hidden, they slowly stand up and reveal their whereabouts as he picks them off like targets at a shooting gallery. Groups of ninjas non-sneakily besiege Cho in a bamboo forest one at a time then with an organized robotic attack formation, like fairy gazelles leaping over invisible 9-inch-high fences, Cho swats them out of the air with heavy-handed grunting sword choreography that looks akin to pre-arranged sequences practiced at a dojo before a weekend demonstration. It’s hokey, contrived and the actors looked like they’re focusing on being careful not to hurt each other.
Yet it works. It was like watching Rocky and Bullwinkle battling Boris Badanov; bumbling and nimble with a hoot and hiccup flow. It’s a grand coincidence that the first American martial arts movie to feature a kid character fighting in a ninja film was also named Kane (compared to Caine in the Kung Fu TV series), who happened to be Kosugi’s 9-year-old son Kane Kosugi. Kane made a real nuisance of himself with his child mischievousness keeping the evil doers at bay and using a nunchaku to rescue a buxom damsel in distress being tortured by a smarmy freak, which BTW, schlock horror films commonly featured this sort of bawdiness.
RON was made at time period when American martial are films featured the complimentary dojo fight scene born out of Yakusoku kumite-like drills and bred to use rudimentary gymnastic moves where after a flip, one might expect a score of 10 from the judges for their efforts. Though on paper, RON had 10 fights, there were only three main bouts of any consequence: the opening fight; a mid-movie melee; and the consummate finale.
What’s noteworthy with RON is itscast diversity, it was way ahead of its time, as it featured fighters who were Asian, Asian American, African American, Native American (Dan Shanks: Cherokee/Illinwek) and other bi-cultural stuntmen. The Liberty Park brawl is the film’s best choreographed fight that pits Cho and his policeman pal (Keith Vitali) vs. a makeshift gang of four that looked like remnants of the Village People disco group lead by a Teddy Boy cowboy. As the stunt folks and martial actors get used to each other’s timing and fight rhythm, there’s a noticeable improvement in fight smoothness, speed, the use of space and camera work.
The finale between the vengeful minded Cho and the acrimonious disrespect of the evil, silver-masked villain toward Cho takes more of a measured, off balanced approach to the action rather than making it a virtuoso of finely tuned creative choreography and the expected uber skill weaponry abilities. The real star was the high rooftop volleyball court set, a grandiose wide-open expanse that quickly breaks down into a handful of areas as claustrophobic as a greyhound bus toilet, doing 80 mph down a rocky mountain.
There’s a lot of exaggerated jumping, flippy follies and other obvious surprises.
Rather than keeping the identity of the masked marauder a secret, the cat was out of the bag early on because everybody and their pet cat could probably have figured it out who it was during the film’s opening five minutes. This and many other events within the film makes RON a cryptic bauble amid a veiled trip to Enigma.