Going into this film, it’s important to note that this is a Ninja film released in the early-to-mid 1980s (depending on how you look at it), from Cannon films, and starring Sho Kosugi. That, out of the gate, implies a certain level of camp to the film. That said, Cannon films operates at a couple different levels – fun dumb, and then just dumb. So, the question then becomes which kind of dumb is this film?
The premise of Ninja III is that the mysterious “Black Ninja” (played by David Chung) murders a business tycoon, who is probably up to some shady dealings, and then is gunned down with an almost Robocop-esque level of overkill by a bunch of police officers while attempting to make his escape. This shooting is somewhat witnessed by Telephone line person and Christie (played by Lucinda Dickey – star of other Cannon films like Breakin’ and Breakin’ II), who also comes across the sword of the dead ninja, and brings it home.
However, that sword is now possessed by the spirit of the Black Ninja, and whenever she sees one of the cops who killed him, the ninja takes control of Christie, and using the ninja arts, she goes and kills the relevant cops. Meanwhile, Christie’s police officer boyfriend, Billy, played by Jordan Bennett, has noticed that his girlfriend has started developing mysterious bruises that she can’t explain, and is worried about her. Finally, there is Yamada, played by Sho Kosugi, a ninja who has come from Japan to put the Black Ninja’s spirit to rest.
So, the film is a martial arts slasher horror film, which is already unique by being a martial arts slasher film, and it ads another interesting step to the mix by having the killer be female (which is also incredibly rare, with the few examples that I’m aware of being the Sleepaway Camp films and the first Friday the 13th film).
The film takes things up a notch by being very overt that Christie is being possessed, through very vivid dream-sequences whenever the ninja takes control of her. The sword floats throughout the room, the environment of the room changes. It’s a very impressively done bunch of images, considering the notoriously low budgets that Cannon Films directors ended up running into. In general, these scenes reminds me of some of the ninja OVAs that came out in the late ’80s, to such a degree that I get the impression that these would work better animated than in live-action – again, especially considering Golan-Globus’ notoriously low budgets. In live action they’re interesting, but still, in spite of the best efforts of everyone involved, unintentionally comical.
This leads to the film’s cast. I’d say that Dickey is playing against type, but with her relatively short career, I’d say she never really developed a type. Still, considering her background as a dancer, and her previous role in Breakin’ was as a dancer, it’s important to note that a significant part of this role does not involve any dance at all. While Christie’s character is predominantly a take on the lead from Flashdance, she spends the majority of the film doing ninja stuff. Further, no female stunt performers are credited in the film, and while she’s in ninja garb, the build appears to match her, so it appears that she did her own stunts, which is very impressive.
On the other hand, Sho Kosugi is much more of a supporting player in the film. While his role is significant (and as “Only a ninja can kill a ninja”, he gets the finishing blow on the villain), he only shows up in the film’s second half, feeling like Kosugi’s growing popularity meant that they could only afford him for half the film, or that he wasn’t available due to his shooting schedule for the TV series The Master, which was edited into the Master Ninja series of films.
To the credit of writer James R. Silke and director Sam Firstenberg, I feel like they try to give Kosugi some good material, but he doesn’t have enough room to work. Kosugi is generally not a great actor, but good material can do a great job to address an actor’s shortcomings, and when those points come up in this film, it works well.
The film is not without some very pronounced flaws. The effects in the film can get pretty dopey. The ADR’d “Japanese” dialog sounds like white people being told to do an impression of a Japanese person, with the words spoken being jibberish. The film also runs into a classic Hollywood casting issue of assuming all Asian people are the same and casting Chinese actor James Hong to play a Japanese Shinto priest. Don’t get me wrong – Hong is an excellent actor and does a great job in the role, but I still had to shake my head when that came up.
And finally, there’s Jordan Bennett as Billy, the film’s Final Boy. Bennett has previously had a recurring role on The Waltons in the series final year, and had also previously played Jean Valjean in the original LA run of Le Miz, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at – Le Miz had already won some awards by that time, and the role of Valjean has some significant dramatic and acting weight to it. However, I don’t know if this is a lack of direction, poor writing for the character, a short shooting schedule not allowing for rehearsals and retakes, or Bennett not caring about the part, but his performance is bland.
To put it in perspective – Bennett’s character, Billy, is a cop who took part in the shooting that kicks off the film, but not to the degree to the other cops were, firing only a single shot, while everyone else just keeps blasting. He’s an honest cop with integrity, who cares about his girlfriend, and who is very worried about her mysterious injuries that she’s developing. Yet he doesn’t act on his worries. With the final girl in most slasher films, the writers take steps to make us care about them for reasons other than “because slasher audiences are predominantly male (and the studio assumes are hetrosexual because we’re not surveying for that) and the actress is pretty).” Billy and Christie’s relationship doesn’t have enough time, Billy doesn’t get much time on his own as a character to develop (it’s there, but there isn’t much of it), and outside of a few topics he doesn’t get much of an opportunity to emote.
I still enjoyed the film, but it was more in the context of the novelty of the work than it’s strengths in the genres that the film itself is a part of.
Ninja III: The Domination is available from Amazon.com.