The Great Cannon Film Watch-Through: Enter the Ninja

220px-EnterTheNinja

Hai!

Details:

Directed by Menahem Golan

Featuring Franco Nero, Susan George, Sho Kosugi, Christopher George, Alex Courtney, and Zachi Noy

Released 10/2/1981

IMDB Synopsis (via Michael Pilkington) “After just completing his training at a ninja school, an army vet travels to the Philippines and finds himself battling a land grabber who wants his war-buddy’s property. He must also fight his rival.”

Minutes of Interest:

00:28- Beautiful Sho Kosugi stunts. What purpose do they have in the opening credits? What do they establish? Hell if I know but they look fantastic. I think Cannon was lucky to find this guy, knew it, and wanted to show him off as much as possible.

00:41- Another beautiful image: Menahem Golan’s name in classical Japanese typeset.

02:09- Once more: “Yoram Globus” in Japanese typeset: Fantastic.

02:27- First action scene? While the credits are still playing? Clearly the black ninja, who has been entertaining us throughout the entire introduction is a chump. He gets dispatched by the white ninja by a flying right kick that (on film) clearly doesn’t connect. Still, a nice transition from credits to our first scene.

03:20- This opening is ostensibly exciting and adequately directed despite the overly long establishing shots of a bay. Manila? San Francisco? I’m not quite sure if this is Japan (where the narrative says we are) or the Philippines (where, surely, the film was shot for artistic *cough*tax*cough* reasons). What fails moving forward is the editing. Just watch the relationship between the various shots and character actions. The continuity is all cattywampus.

03:37- Perfect example. There’s a black ninja and a white ninja and they’re facing off here. Yet, either these scenes were shot on different days or there wasn’t enough material to fill in the gaps because the black ninja appears to be in a field overlooking a cliff miles away from the white ninja, who strangely backs away as if he walked into the wrong party and farted.

03:39- Now the white ninja is running through a jungle, one filmed clearly on a different day. No color correction or anything. Wow, editor.

03:45- Oh no! Red ninjas! And a smoke machine.

04:11- Back to cloudy bay shot…

04:47- Now it’s sunny again. Also, the direction between actors is vague. It’s almost like the DP is breaking that axis rule.

04:59- Red ninja starts a fire? For some reason?

05:38- The way the white ninja leaves that used tissue on the ground, I don’t know, it’s crumbled in an almost post-coital, clean-up way. Eww…

05:45- At first I thought the spider crawling was stock footage but it’s actually shot next to Sho. Wonderful shot.

06:23- Yeah! nunchucks!

06:40- Catching an arrow in flight, black ninja? I think that’s the definition of bad-ass.

07:25- Ha! That red ninja with the star to the brain died like he was hit by a freeze ray.

07:34- “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents.”

07:52- Where are they now?

08:45- Ahhh!!!

09:06- Me tooo!!!

10:00- So, what are the stakes here? I ask this only as white ninja approaches an elderly sensei. This opening scene has been great (aside from the editing) but what exactly are we following? Is narration cut out? A monologue? A title crawl?

10:22- “The shadows betray you because they serve me!”

10:33- “Surrender or die.” Why didn’t the white ninja ask that of everyone?

10:45- Head’s up!

11:24- Prance.

11:38- How does that mask hide that mustache?

12:49- So, this is ninja school. Did white ninja kill a dozen of his classmates for a test? Or is it all simulated, since a clearly injured red ninja pulls out a cutting board from under his robes, not unlike a martial arts version of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars dropping the cast iron stove door? I imagine it’s all simulated because the sensei brings in his own severed head (which drops with the sound of a brick) but seems made of wax. A test?

13:38-“Please review for me the nine levels of power.” Looks more like ninja gang signs.

14:12- “…mastery of time and space.” Um, is this 2001?

14:31- Oh, white (people) ninja….

14:51- Wait, wait, wait, wait: “master of ninjatude”? Are you fucking with me, movie?

15:27- Kampai!

15:38- “He is no ninja!” You said it, actual real life ninja, Sho.

16:28- This shot is nicely composed. Reeds, Banzai trees. Water. Bridge. It captures the feel of the school, has some nods to Bruce Lee, and works mainly because the editors haven’t gotten their hands on it. However, it’s not a closed set. People are walking in the background.

17:44- Try knocking, asshole.

18:06- I’m not a gun guy but I can understand the wife coming out with a shotgun after a strange man scrabbled over the fence in front of my house. And, he has a mustache. Can’t trust those.

18:33- “Find anything interesting?” Oooo, is this foreshadowing? Or just sexism?

18:42- “You old sonabitch, how the hell are you?” Oh, you mean after your wife pulled a gun on me? I ninjaed her, grappled her boobs, and tossed her to the ground.

18: 46- “Bastard!”

19:05- “Do you have to have a drink? You just got out.” So ninjas and alcoholism? Yay!

19:07- “I don’t have to. I just choose to.”

1943- “I don’t drink alcohol” is this film co-financed by AA?

19:46- “A cold glass of orange?” Um, what?

20:39- Is Frank drunk in the film or in real life?

21:25- Franco Nero, who is being dubbed over by Marc Smith, is still a great actor. He probably had no idea what’s happening but can still act and react to those around him. Man, I’d love this movie more if they kept Nero’s original audio.

21:52- Where are we?

22:01- “Do you want me to start a cock fight for your friend?”

22:33- I feel there’s supposed to be some sort of thematic element with the cock fight and how much Cole disdains them, but I can’t quite sort it out. Some sort of anti-violence angle? Exploitation? Is this foreshadowing the memorable closing line: “a ninja never kills, he eliminates, and only for defensive purposes.”

22:35- Ninja aerobics!

22:43- “Morning!”

22:53- So hairy, so puzzled. The following scene has music that’s vaguely porno-ish.

23:25- Wife drops Cole off like he’s a teenager at the mall.

23:45- Oh, Siegfried “The Hook” Shultz, the best villain of the film (after Sho).

24:06- Is this a societal commentary with the porno dealer who also sells crosses and crucifixes?

24:46- “It looks like the problem has been solved.” Oh, ok.

25:32- Flying kick! This whole action scene is pretty well done. The editing actually works here. Except for the guy who who gets killed by a park bench or something.

26:52- Man, Franco Nero can pull off a cowboy hat.

28:04- Fast forward? Now Cole and Frank are going for a jog?

29:07- “Lemonade? That stuff will kill you, Cole.”

29:31- The Hook is actually a bit menacing with the glass clinking. Then he turns into comic relief.

30:14- “Why don’t you do your drinking somewhere else?” Is that a threat?

30:47- Oh, no, the bad editing is back. The intercutting between Cole and the reactions of Frank and wife are just off. It seems they’re cut in a few frames too early so the actual impact of Cole’s attacks don’t fully land.

31:23- “Hang around, I’ll be back.” One-liner attempt?

31:55- So here’s the major villain, Mr. Venarius. He wears pajamas? And he’s so important he can’t be addressed directly? Only through Mr. Parker? I think this is a miscast. The villain should have been older or more mysterious or regal, not a vaguely Italian gangster.

33:36- He also sounds like a whiny baby, not a menacing majordomo.

34:19- Ha! “We need ten good men.” All the Filipino workers nod enthusiastically like they’re about to get a free pizza.

34:51- Preacher looks like another Italian actor passing as Filipino.

35:07- “Murder him!”

36:01- Mass fight!

36:25- Another editing problem: how much later is this polo scene?

37:17- This flashback seems more of a Vietnam thing than a “what about Africa” thing. Were they mercenaries? Or did they fight in Angola?

38:26- Another cockfight?

39:34- Oh, no! Pee-Wee!

39:41- Where were Cole and Mary-Ann? Just riding horses?

40:40- “You’re breaking my arm!”

40:51- Really! The sad horn? Is this Vaudeville?

41:08- “What do you think of my work of art?” I see women in single pieces awkwardly swimming. Also, how did Siegfried get his hook back? Continuity error?

41:41- “I need to rest.” He’s still wearing his pajamas from the day before. This also seems edited out of order.

44:01- “I’ll give you exactly three seconds to tell me where the meeting is or I break your neck.” This is actually done a bit well because Cole does follow through on his threat, noting it took five seconds.

45:58- Visible cut.

46:34- Doof!

47:45- Mr. Parker seems like a pretty great sub-boss. Great line delivery. Menacing.

48:17- This feels like a comedy, however, with the assistant running off and everyone’s confused about the number of standing henchmen. Tone issues.

48:44- Don’t give them back their automatic weapons, Cole!

49:22- And you put down your gun too when you have the upper hand, Porno Dealer?

50:07- Good stunt.

50:47- “She’s a very sexy lady, she wants it all the time. But the problem is I can’t get it up for a lady.” Are you trying to tell me something, Frank?

51:42- I get a The Room vibe here. Cole is ostensibly Frank’s best friend but he easily cheats with Mary-Ann. Not even a moments hesitation.

52:17- Slow down, Frank. Did you pop some speed?

53:00- Does Frank know? “Didn’t you get enough sack time?”

53:24- “I made some notes.” The movie gets amazingly meta for a bit. Mr. Parker pulls out notes on ninjas. I imagine if this film was made today he’d be on Wikipedia.

54:07- “Well, I want a ninja,” said everyone, always.

54:30- Even more meta. Mr. Parker is essentially meeting with a casting director and settles on Sho, a real ninja, who is also a real actor. Is this Menahem Golan’s attempt at making a behind-the-scenes featurette? Mind blown.

55:18- “I want a ninja. A professional ninja.” Are there amateur ones?

55:56- It’s the opening credits again!

59:39- Nice composition.

01:00:26- “You fellas interested in art?” The Porno Dealer is back! In pre-Internet days it must have been really easy to distract armed guards with pornos when they couldn’t simply stream it on their phones.

01:02:14- “I used to be a safe cracker in the old days.” Which are? When? Where?

01:02:33- Just leave your plans out anywhere with your evil schemes written all across them, Mr. Venarius.

01:02:43- Another meta moment. Who is filming this ninja training sequence? “Looks like some kind of thriller.” Are these from earlier scenes turned into 8mm footage?

01:03:37- “Someone I went to school with in Japan.” So nonchalant. Sounds like how I talked about people from my grad program. Only, they’re not ninjas, sadly.

01:04:32- Ah!!! Ketchup on my face!

01:04:59- Sho killing the guards in the background as this domestic scene unfolds is quite well done. Ominous, spooky, and well choreographed.

01:06:58- I love that Frank can’t find his pistol so strolls out with a baseball bat.

01:07:34- “Hehehe.”

01:08:54- Miss!

01:08:57- Hit!

01:09:23- Horrible direction. Mary-Ann looks only vaguely troubled that Frank’s throat has been slit right in front of her.

01:10:02- The guards are now dressed again? After being stripped to their whitey tighties?

01:10:26- This might be the most amazing scene of the entire film. Sho is on the rampage and burning and murdering a whole town. It. Looks. Great. And it’s hilarious, mainly from the hard cut to him dancing madly with touches as dozens of people flee in terror.

01:12:34- Flashbacks to whatever war need to have some more substance. This also segues into a poor edit. Where are we and when? This looks like the same location from the intro.

01:12:58- Ninja gang signs! The lead up to a huge murder fest

01:14:28- Great death! Dart to the neck.

01:15:44- “Interesting outfit, who’s your tailor?” Mr. Parker gives no fucks about ninjas.

01:16:54- Never leave a ninja unattended in your car! That’s rule one of ninjatude.

01:17:47- “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents.”

01:18:31- Shoot! He has a pair of sais!

01:19:01- My face!

01:19:38- Sound dropped out on that smoke bomb.

01:20:38- “I want my black ninja and I want him now!” said everybody, always, also.

01:21:16- “I think I’ve been hurt, sir.” Oh, Mr. Parker.

01:22:34- Ha! Oh no! Amazing death, Mr. Venarius.

01:23:21- Showdown time! But, what’s with the POV?

01:24:58- Bow, motherfucker! No time for gang signs.

01:26:01- Hop, hop, hop.

01:26:17- Throwing sand seems like a bad ninja thing to do. Is this movie’s narrative backwards? Is Cole the actual evil ninja?

01:27:05- Actually, the definition of bad ass is catching a sword with your bare hands.

01:28:44- I feel the final fight does a fine job portraying the ceremonious aspects of ninjutsu. However, as the movie wraps up with Cole heading to the airport it becomes undermined by a bad tonal shift. The denouement seems effective with Cole signing off with Mary-Ann. Yet, he recites the code that “a ninja doesn’t kill, he eliminates, and only for defensive purposes.” That has never been made clear because Cole has killed dozens of guards just doing their jobs. Mr. Parker even comments to him that he didn’t have to kill all these henchmen before the confrontation with Mr. Venarius. Also, Siegfried is now a baggage handler at the Manila airport. Ha, I guess? When Cole sees him, he decides to make an exception, telegraphing to the audience that he’ll murder Siegfried (who poses no threat and works for no mobster) simply because. And, finally (finally!) Cole looks into the camera, winks, and the title credits pop up.

Reflection:

Did Cannon Films make ninjas a thing? Electric Boogaloo makes that claim and it is quite possible that ninjas would not be as well known without Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus appropriating material from abroad. Either way, Enter the Ninja would be the first entry in Cannon’s unofficial “Ninja Trilogy” along with dabblings such as American Ninja and the the spiritual successors of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s kickboxing films. A big part of this company was built on taking something from abroad and repackaging it for a different audience.

For all of the dazzle and notoriety Cannon reaped with Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris, and the high profile flops of Over the Top, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, or Masters of the Universe, the bread and butter feeding the company were films like this. Enter the Ninja is a prime example but the same could be said of Golan remaking his Israeli sex romp Lemon Popsicle as the Porky’s-fied The Last American VirginBreakin’ acts in this capacity.

And that’s the big question constantly circling around Cannon: is this appropriation? And what exactly is that? Is there a value judgement here? And where is the line between representation and outright appropriation? Is appropriation exploitation or are the terms separate but linked?

I’ll touch on those questions and I likely don’t have an answer. It might actually become a running theme throughout this Watch-Through.

Regardless, Enter the Ninja was a delightfully symbolic Cannon film. All of the tropes and hallmarks of a Cannon production were on display. There’s the confused editing (the opening scene in particular), the odd direction (why so many scenes of cockfights?), the clear cash-ins (there’s no reason this film was deliberately set in The Philippines other than tax reasons), the strange linguistic and cultural translation errors (Pee-Wee?), the over-the-top action. It’s all there. It’s true. All of it.

What’s more important (and I think this is something Cannon gets some credit for, but not enough) is the risk of taking an unproven concept and going all out with it. Again, ninjas didn’t possess the cultural cache that they do today. They weren’t sure bets. That daring and boldness, that ability to sense a trend (Breakin’ is a perfect example of getting it right, Lambada not quite) speaks volumes to the eyes of Golan and Globus. They weren’t always right, often failing more than they succeeded. But, when they were on to something, they created a whole genre.

This daring gets summed up in perhaps my favorite scene of the film. It’s a beautifully meta scene. The ever reliable henchman, Mr. Parker, does some initial research on what ninjas are for his boss, Mr. Venarius. It scans almost like a behind the scenes “making-of” feature. Perhaps it is a bit winky and noddy and it’s narratively clumsy since the movie comes to a halt for a bunch of exposition, but it sums up what Cannon did in the 80s and what the company matters. Mr. Parker succinctly explains what ninjas are (though it seems quite clear what they are at that point in the film) and even sits down with a casting director/talent agent to hire his own ninja.

(Real quick, Sho Kosugi is fantastic as the black ninja. I’ll come back to him in a minute.)

That casting director/talent agent scene feels like something that either should have been at the very beginning of the film or was part of some unfinished documentary on ninjas for The History Channel or PBS. Indeed, Enter the Ninja could have been a documentary courtesy of some drastic editing. The title is even appropriate. Of course, the entire sequence with Mr. Parker could have been cut. It probably should have been. Again, it is narratively clumsy and explains to the audience something that’s already been conveyed visually for almost an hour. The film’s editor didn’t earn that paycheck, especially considering how disjointed the opening was.

Yet, something about Mr. Parker introducing Mr. Venarius (and the audience) to ninjas speaks to me. It is clearly a symbol of what Cannon became known for and it’s clumsiness is also indicative of an engaging dialectic (fancy words, I know) that fascinates me. And that’s my big point. Cannon green-lit ideas new to American audience.

But what to make of this? There is the scent of dollars signs over everything Cannon did. When it came to films like Enter the Ninja the stink is pretty egregious. Is this stealing and appropriating concepts and content from other cultures? Or is this broadening the horizons of American cinema, giving audiences entertainment while also widening their encounters with other cultures far away from the white bread 80s?

Very likely it’s a bit of both and that’s what makes Enter the Ninja such an important film in the grand scheme of Cannon.

Maybe the best way to explain what I mean is embodied in Franco Nero. He best encapsulates all the intriguing (and problematic) aspects of Cannon’s way of business. Nero, of course, is a famous Italian actor with a long pedigree. He’s not a marquee maker but he has appeared enough where most audiences would probably squint and say, “who’s that guy? I know that guy. He’s from something.” He’s had turns in good movies like Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) and not so good movies like Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2 (1990) and now he’s plopped in Menahem Golan’s Enter the Ninja.

Let’s look bluntly at the construction of this film and its premise: Enter the Ninja is made by an American based production company headed by two Israelis that features an Italian actor playing a Texan who once fought a war in Africa (I think?) and learned the ways of a legendary Japanese art. He then travels to a plantation in the Philippines, falls in love with the English wife of his best friend, and battles a German henchman with a hook for a hand, who works for an American crime lord that employs a British manservant.

It’s like the United Nations of movie making.

Like many Italian or Turkish actors that get imported to the English speaking world, Nero is dubbed over. Enter the Ninja is shockingly explicit in this and the dubbing has a strange quality to it. It bleeds over not only the diegetic sound but, almost, the extra diegetic as well. Nevertheless, Nero is David Bowie-like in his ability to shape shift. In one movie he plays a gunslinger. In another he’s a South American general. Here he wears a cowboy hat and knows ninjutsu. He’s able to act still even if he sounds like a doofus and that’s a credit to his talents.

Dubbing is done to spare the audience from subtitles or, like in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s early career, to compensate for a performer still mastering a language. It’s debatable if Schwarzenegger has mastered English yet but Jorge Luis Borges (if you don’t know who that is read a fucking book), way back in 1945, noted an issue with dubbing that fits in perfectly with the wider quirks of Cannon:

“Those who defend dubbing might argue (perhaps) that objections to it can also be raised against any kind of translation. This argument ignores, or avoids, the principal defect: the arbitrary implant of another voice and another language. The voice of Hepburn or Garbo is not accidental but, for the world, one of their defining features. Similarly, it is worth remembering that gestures are different in English and Spanish.”

In a footnote, Borges goes on to note that if dubbing voices is so acceptable, why not transpose faces as well. After all, if you’re going through the effort to remove an essential feature of a performer, why stop at only the auditory?

Nero’s dubbing is comical. So, why hire him? I think this gets at a key concern: is this film, much like dubbing Nero, appropriation? If Nero’s voice is so caustic or “un-American”, then hire another actor. He does have a thick Italian accent so making him American is likely stretching believably to the breaking point. So, hire an American actor. The title itself is also a dub, clearly aping Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.

This dances around the real question of representation and whether there should even be a ninja film with a white protagonist. Believing Franco Nero wears a cowboy hat, practices martial arts, and sounds like he’s from west Texas is about as convincing as a random white dude mastering the skills of ninjutsu. Not to enter #OscarsSoWhite territory but there is something a bit dodgy in Golan and Globus’s operation that they not only skip over casting an Asian protagonist but then doubly skip over by dubbing the non-American actor’s natural voice.

Is this a problem? I don’t know. Yes. Maybe. Probably.

It is and it also isn’t.

The converse is that without this film audiences couldn’t marvel at, as the movie puts it, “ninjatude.” Though it’s not perfect it is expressing a piece of cultural heritage to an outside group. Is it done for money? Yes. Is there some form of artistry behind it? Yes.

And, let’s not forget Sho Kosugi. If this is some form of gross appropriation, it would minimize non-white faces. However, Sho Kosugi is an actual ninja (arguably the star of the film) that would go on to be the defining feature of this “Ninja Trilogy.” He’s the only linkage between Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, and Ninja 3: The Domination. If this was straight out appropriation, he would be downplayed or replaced in each film, treated as a piece of the set rather than a performer with his own agency and appeal.

Perhaps instead of appropriation this is more exploitation, not unlike most of Cannon’s output. The difference is key. Instead of outright theft, it’s closer to a kid with tracing paper imprecisely recreating the Mona Lisa. It capitalizes on something memorable and worthwhile. Sho Kosugi, the true star of the film, is bringing his cultural background to the fore and being compensated, financially, culturally, and professionally, for it. Nero’s heritage is minimized and that could be a business decision to keep American audiences on board with a film centered on an ancient Japanese tradition. It’s not perfect.

None of this is a perfect explanation but I think, even if Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were imperfect in bringing this tradition from Asia to America, the attempt itself was worthwhile. Certainly it bankrolled the studio and revitalized a whole genre of cinema.

Did they steamroll over differences to make a product? That’s undeniable, a part of how they did business. These were hustlers, after all. But, as this film and later ones (Breakin’ especially) demonstrate, their attempt to introduce audiences to non-mainstream concepts did come with doses of authenticity. Because of this willingness to dare, to fall, and, occasionally, to take off, Enter the Ninja is a great moment in Cannon’s legacy, if not necessarily a great film on its own.

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