Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are both connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Jim Vorel: Ken, there’s a certain excitement a man feels when he sees the Cannon Films logo come up at the beginning of an ’80s B movie, is there not? Everything within the opening moments of Ninja 3: The Domination tells us that we’re in for a good-bad time. Generic Asian font? Check. Golan-Globus production? Check. Directed by Sam Firstenberg, who also directed Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo IN THE SAME YEAR? How could this be anything but amazing?
Kenneth Lowe: I did tell you, when you pitched this to me, that “You had me at the Cannon Films logo.” And I was surely not disappointed. This is indeed “amazing” after a fashion, and not just because my brother, mere hours before I watched it, in a totally unrelated context, joked that directors must ask character actor James Hong to just look at the camera and be Asian. And indeed, he then appeared in this movie doing exactly that. Such was one of the many unexpected and mysterious delights this movie presented me.
JV: This film of course comes along at a special time in the history of American bad movies, during the home video/VHS boom of the mid ’80s, when ninjas suddenly and inexplicably became the coolest possible antagonists to feature in cheap American action movies. It’s the sequel to two previous Cannon ninja movies (Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja), but if you were wondering whether seeing those movies would have provided more context as to the events of this one, that’s a big no. Neither of them were at all related to this mess.
KL: Thank you for preempting my first question, which is what if any context the previous two films might have lent the daring—one might even say STUPID—broad daylight assassination that opens this movie. Knowing they add nothing actually makes me respect the balls on this film even more. We join a sinister-looking guy who, I guess somewhere in the desert of the American West, retrieves some stashed ninja gear from a cave. I guess this was during that time Tokugawa Ieyasu sent ninja to spy on Native American tribes. In any event, he apparently needs these ancient throwing stars and swords and dart guns to carry out a hit on a pair of rich yuppies. He makes the bold tactical choice to off them during a golf game in a public place while they are accompanied by several armed guards. Unless I completely missed it, I don’t think we’re ever told why these two people needed to go, are we? Anyway, this 13-minute intro sees him utterly massacring like, 20 cops before he falls in a hail of gunfire. But he’s not dead! He lives long enough to pass his cursed sword on to our heroine, Christie, who has the opportunity to run away but just, like, sits there and listens to the ninja’s chanting while he dies.
JV: What an opening sequence it truly is, Ken. Darts shooting down gun barrels, which explode into the faces of the men firing them. Throwing stars picking cops off motorcycles. A rented helicopter that they obviously aren’t allowed to crash, so they just gingerly fly it behind a hill and then set off an explosion, which is clearly just as good. Like you, I was extremely confused as to why the nameless ninja wanted to conduct a daylight golf course massacre, but I did catch a throwaway line of dialog in the police station later where they said “a very important scientist” had been killed. So there you go. Ninjas hate scientists? It’s clear that the only reason any of this happened was to have a crazy action scene and then pass on his sword (and essence) to our heroine. Tell us all about Christie, an empowered ’80s woman.
KL: I found the chintziness of that opening charming in a way, like they really were giving it their best shot. As for Christie, I have to hand the makers of this mess one thing: The actress who portrays her, Lucinda Dickey, may not have the greatest acting chops in the world, but she convincingly looks like, were she to be possessed by the malevolent spirit of a ninja assassin, she would be physically capable of pulling off feats of strength and acrobatics. It is perfectly plausible to think a person of her statuesque body type would choose a career as a utilities line worker. Bravo, casting! And she even seems to respond to piggish behavior on the part of men with independence and clear rejection! Our oily male lead, Officer Billy Secord, aggressively hits on her as she tries to leave the station after police question her and fails to pick up both her complete lack of interest and the faraway look in her eyes she gets whenever she has flashbacks of the police who killed the ninja. Because this is The Most ’80s Movie Ever, Christie has big floofy hair, moonlights as an aerobics instructor, and has a freaking Patrick Nagel painting in her room. I was totally, unironically sold on her until, after Billy creeps on her by harassing her with phone calls and tailing her to her apartment, then pretending to arrest her for breaking up a fight—all while she loudly tells him to get bent—she finally just caves and lets him into her apartment for a very racy scene involving some strategically placed V8 juice. This all happens before the ninja starts hijacking her body, which, Jim, I would love to hear your take on.
JV: We will of course talk about the ninja that possesses Christie’s body—it’s almost as if that has something to do with the film title—but first I must bring up her insane apartment. What the hell is going on in there? It’s entirely made of concrete, for one, and filled with a well-curated selection of kitschy shit. She’s got arcade games, lockers that look stolen right out of a high school, and an Olmec stone head, all right next to each other. Surely this is an ideal place to bring a freakishly hairy police officer you’ve just been having an argument with, and then bang him. Officer Billy, my god. He looks like a slightly younger George “The Animal” Steele.
KL: My theory is that they decided to cut production costs by just shooting in the actual prop department. Whether or not they knew how dated that would make the movie seem within a few years is anybody’s guess, though. In addition to being a hairy creep, I also want to point out that Officer Billy, who just machine-gunned a ninja to death, doesn’t seem at all concerned about the woman he’s sleeping with having a sword that looks an awful lot like the one that same ninja was just using, a woman whom he knows saw this ninja. Like, no thoughts on the sword maybe being evidence, Billy?
JV: I also found this equal parts hilarious and infuriating. He knows that the man who killed half his police station was a “Japanese assassin,” and he doesn’t think it’s at all odd that he finds his new girlfriend cradling a ninja sword the morning after they hook up for the first time. If only he had been awake a little earlier, he could have seen that sword floating around the room on a string, infiltrating Christie’s mind! This begins her path to messy vengeance against all the surviving police officers responsible for the ninja’s death.
KL: This is the perfect segue into the hilarious special effects that always signal to us that another ninja possession is beginning to start. Strobe lights! Fog machines! Hovering objects with one end conveniently out of frame! Jiggly laser light thingies! And that ever-present gibberish that some committed actors were spouting in voice-over.
JV: That sequence where the arcade machine is casting strobing light effects onto Christie’s face is like, the “most ’80s”-looking sequence in film history. It imbues her with ninjitsu blackouts, where she leaves the apartment to assassinate police officers, but then returns with no memory of the carnage. Tell me: At this point of the film, did you expect Officer Billy to be the eventual hero who would set everything right? It certainly seems that way, does it not?
KL: Oh, I lived in fear of that being the eventual ending, but fortunately for me, the writers and director decided to ordain that “only a ninja can kill another ninja,” and bring in the mysterious ninja Yamada (played by Sho Kosugi) for that duty. We see him get off a plane, greeted by some Asian dudes who never show up again. He’s wearing a tsuba—that would be the guard from a katana—as an eye-patch. His scenes have NOTHING. TO DO. WITH THE OTHER CHARACTERS!! But I took heart in his presence, because it just meant I could hold out hope that Officer Date Rape wouldn’t get the kill shot. This might be a time to mention, just off-handedly, that while this movie could have been MORE racist, it certainly isn’t NOT racist.
Halfway through, we finally meet the actual hero of the film.
JV: You’re right, although as far as American ninja movies go, it’s … not that bad, in the racism department? Sho Kosugi was basically THE ninja in ’80s American action movies, by the way. He’s apparently the yang to Evil Ninja’s yin, although their relationship is patently unclear. I think Evil Ninja killed his father? He definitely is responsible for his eye-patch, I can tell you that.
KL: Oh, the ninja parts are no more offensive than Japanese films themselves have been to ninja. I just am 75% sure that whatever police department this is supposedly set in does not have, as Billy put it, an Asiatic Division. And about 85% sure the weird fortune-telling mysticism shop this Asiatic Division sends Billy and Christie to in the hopes of an exorcism has a receptionist who is a white lady with dire eye makeup.
JV: James Hong likes them young and fashionable, Ken.
KL: Evidently. But that aside, Jim, what did you think of the various ninja hits performed by possessed Christie? It’s a good chunk of the movie.
JV: The actual action and stunts of Ninja 3: The Possession are fairly competent most of the time, I thought. I often found myself wondering if it was actually Christie’s actress under the mask, or whether they brought in a stunt double, but each sequence where she bumps off one of the cops is pretty entertaining. There’s the slob who she kills in his home, slicing through his pool cue with her sword. And the ladies man who’s soaking in a hot tub at the spa with a woman on each arm, like he’s Ric Flair. But the third of those sequences was my favorite, because it’s another one of those well-planned daylight executions, DURING A PUBLIC FUNERAL FOR A POLICE OFFICER, I might add. Did you notice, by the way, that the rifles the cops were using for their 21-gun salute were for some reason loaded with live rounds? That has got to be some kind of safety violation.
KL: I am ashamed to admit this detail slipped past me. Maybe it was one of those elaborate honey-trap gambits to lure her out? Like you, I agree that the stunts here are fairly competent. And I did actually enjoy that she used seduction and poison in that sleazy spa murder scene. I was actually impressed that it was a plausible-ish plan to kill a person. Of course, with these hapless cops out of the way, we get a bit closer to the end of the movie, where things really go off the rails. Perhaps you can describe it better than I can.
JV: Lord, where to even begin? In the wake of the funeral assassination, Christie is tracked to an abandoned house by Sho Kosugi, and they have their first ninja duel, in which Kosugi sort of gets his ass handed to him by a girl. The valorous ninja then allows himself to get arrested so he can converse with Officer Billy, and instructs him to bring Christie to the magical Japanese temple that this southwestern town has for some reason. He THEN escapes and joins them there to commence with the FINAL SHOWDOWN, which gets truly batshit.
KL: Again, that temple MUST be a holdover from when the Shogun decided to colonize the American West. This final showdown involves Kosugi using ninja magic to exorcise the evil ninja and shove his soul back in his dead, three-days-along body. He leaps instantly to life! And I like that the monks in this temple, with its indoor high ropes course, are all standing off-camera in one scene and that the Evil Ninja can just use mind control to make them attack our heroes. That little trick might have come in handy before, right? When he was trying to assassinate those rich people in broad daylight and their armed guards were all surrounding them?
JV: We can only presume that it was a power unlocked after death, post-mortis. He’s a necro-ninja now, after all. Oh my god. Now that I’ve said this out loud, I demand that there be a film titled Necro-Ninja. I know what I’m googling in the next two minutes, Ken. Anyway, Sho Kosugi dispatches all of the monks realllly easily and then has a final swordfight with Evil Ninja, during which Officer Billy and a now-revived Christie look on with hilariously detached looks on their faces and don’t try to offer any assistance whatsoever until the very end.
KL: I’m telling you, what was keeping me on the edge of my seat wasn’t the Evil Ninja spinning so hard he drilled down into the earth and caused an earthquake or Kosugi’s death-defying struggle to keep from falling what looked like maybe 15 feet to the rocks below. No, it was my terror at the possibility Billy might get in that kill shot. I was NOT having any part of that chumbolone saving the day. Fortunately, Christie grabs the sword and does the deed herself. And then, because she can’t have any glory, Kosugi stabs the guy through the top of the head—the number one guaranteed boss kill method in an ’80s movie.
JV: See, I thought he was melting into the ground like the Wicked Witch of the West when that was happening, but it was apparently one last act of ninja treachery. This guy was ridiculously durable, both alive and dead. I fully expected him to rise yet again after getting a knife through the head, but instead he disapparates and becomes what I assume is the ninja equivalent of a Force ghost.
KL: This boss battle had a couple of false endings, Return Of The King-style. But at last, it was over. As far as any other stray observations go, I think the moment where I lost it the hardest was that aforementioned Nagel painting, when, during one of the ninja possessions, the lenses of the depicted person’s sunglasses began to light up. Somebody, some brave prop master, defiled a Nagel painting to install backlit sunglasses. Somebody remembers doing that.
JV: My favorite moment was the utter incredulity of Christie arguing with Officer Billy in his car, telling him to buzz off, getting yelled at by him, and then IMMEDIATELY taking him home to pour V8 juice over her naked body and allow him to ravish her and gain essential vitamins and nutrients at the same time. I can’t tell you how much I love it when the heroine of a film is turned on by hairy men behaving like an asshole toward her.
We are absolutely not exaggerating this V8 thing in any way.
KL: Remember, boys, when a lady says no, just keep hitting on her! Eventually, she’ll think it’s cute. Though, more unsettling is the generation of poor kids who got turned on by that V8 and had that fetish imprinted on them.
JV: I certainly hope that V8 paid a substantial sum for such erotic product placement in Ninja 3: The Domination.
KL: So what do you think, Jim? Are we poised for the inevitable soft reboot, Ninja IV: The Resurrection?
JV: I’m sort of amazed it hasn’t already happened, to be honest. Evil Ninja could come back as an animorph, turning into bats and scorpions and cobras and shit. Or … it could be an ecologically conscious film where he can turn into a killer tree to protest deforestation. Equally good.
KL: I’d pay to see that for sure. Until next time, Jim. Once again, you have introduced me to something I will never forget. No matter how hard I try.
JV: It’s why I was put on this Earth. Don’t worry, you get to choose next time. I want DEEP HURTING, as always. I’m just disappointed that it won’t be Necro-Ninja, as my research has determined that a film with this title somehow doesn’t exist. No Nekro-Ninja, either! These are potential goldmines, Ken, but I guess they’ll have to wait for another time.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and Kenneth Lowe is a regular Paste Movies contributor. You can follow Jim on Twitter, if that’s the sort of thing that seems like a good idea to you.