Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week we look at one of the most inexplicable movies of the 1980s (no small feat, that), Ninja III: The Domination.
That the Cannon Group, those cheerfully vulgar exploitation-eers led by Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, cranked out shoddy rip-offs of successful movies is no great insight; their output in the ‘80s, their golden era, included Xeroxes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (King Solomon’s Mines), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Allan Quatermain and the Lost Cities of Gold), First Blood (Missing in Action), Porky’s (The Last American Virgin), and Rocky (Over the Top). But among their large and mostly undistinguished filmography, few films boast as wide an array of, ahem, influences as their 1984 effort Ninja III: The Domination, a thin soup of ninja movies, slasher movies, The Exorcist, Poltergeist, and, um, Flashdance. It’s quite a thing, Ninja III, less a movie and more a Buzzfeed list of 23 Things Only ‘80s Kids Will Remember.
It was the third (and final) entry in the company’s loose trilogy of ninja titles, preceded by 1981’s Enter the Ninja and 1983’s Revenge of the Ninja. The three movies had nothing in common other than co-star Sho Kusugi (though his roles in each were unrelated) and the presence of ninjas in their titles and plots – but that last one went a long way, because there was a certain segment of young men who were really into ninjas in the early ‘80s. Kusugi plays a decidedly secondary role in Ninja III; the lead is one Lucinda Dickey, who appeared in both Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo that same year (yes, you read that right – in fact, they turned that sequel in about six months). Ms. Dickey was part of the company’s ill-advised attempt to build a stable of stars, sometimes successfully (Jean Claude Van Damme), mostly not so much (Michael Dudikoff).
Anyway, Ninja III. We begin with two startlingly incongruent scenarios, juxtaposed nonetheless: a ninja in a cave, digging out throwing stars, arrows, and swords, intercut with some dude going golfing. Their paths cross when our ninja shows up to crush a golf ball in his hand before murdering everyone on the green. It’s one of funniest action scenes you’ve ever seen (unintentionally, but still), with hilariously overdone Foley work and fight choreography so stiff it makes Elaine Benes look like Ginger Rogers. And it seems our ninja is an indestructible one, so the sequence goes on for a realllly long time, with one death blow after another making no difference, until he’s finally shot dead by several cops. OR IS HE?
His not-yet-dead body is discovered by Christie (Ms. Dickey), whom he takes the opportunity to, yes, possess. She works days repairing telephone lines and nights as an aerobics instructor, as one does (the scene in her class is like a Be Kind Rewind “swede” of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” video, including a would-be hit with lyrics like, “Ew-ew-ew/ What’s your body sayin’ to yoooooouuuuu”). So there’s your Flashdance influence, complete with lots of hubba-hubba working-out-in-her-high-waist-underwear shots. At any rate, when she reports this weird incident to the police, a skeezy cop decides this is a great chance to pick up a lady – but when she resists his advances repeatedly, he fights back, snapping, “I wanna tell you somethin’, MISS INDEPENDENCE!” His little tantrum turns her around immediately; within minutes she’s changing clothes in front of him, leaping on his lap, and… pouring V8 juice on herself. (I’ve racked my brain and can’t imagine a less erotic sexual aide.)
By the way, the spirit of the ninja has also possessed her apartment (these things just can’t respect boundaries), and the household objects within it: her fridge, her phone, even a stand-up arcade game, which spews fog and shoots laser lights at her. So in the afterglow of her vegetable juice-soaked tryst with Officer Sleazebag, a windstorm takes over her apartment. She goes to the closet, picks up his sword, and… well, if I told you they altered her eye make-up, would it surprise you?
Poor Christie keeps having goofy flashbacks to her ninja possessor’s near-death, which lead to her blacking out and avenging his murder. Most of the people he sends her after are those cops who filled him with bullets, which is a real unfortunate coincidence for her fella, since this means he’s constantly bringing his girlfriend around his buddies, whose faces trigger the blood lust of the spirit of the ninja who’s possessed her. But hey, every couple has shit to work through. Once he figures out what her deal is, he takes her to a wise Asian medicine man for an exorcism, but it doesn’t take: “Only a ninja can destroy a ninja,” he’s told. She does the best she can, at one point turning on the radio and trying dance the spirit away, but the sword emerges from the closet and smashes her stereo. (You would too if you heard that song, BUT I DIGRESS.)
Ninja III: The Domination is guided by the shaky hand of director Sam Firestenberg, who directed the earlier Return of the Ninja (and, later, Breakin’ 2, the first two Cyborg Cops, the first two American Ninjas, and the apparently unrelated American Samurai). First and foremost, it doesn’t even deliver the action goods – the fight scenes are poorly choreographed, shoddily photographed, and entirely unconvincing (and many of them feature that goofy ‘80s trope of the group brawl where the bad guys each respectfully wait their turn to go at the hero, rather than clobbering him or her all at once). The script is wood chippings, and the special effects are terrible even by Cannon standards.
But there’s more to it. Golan-Globus movies often fuck up the thing it never even occurs to other movies to not get right – like establishing shots, basic editing, and dialogue recording, all of which are weirdly inept. Like much of their work, Ninja III is permeated by a general feeling of This is how you make a movie, right?
And more than that, their schlock also shares a keen lack of self-awareness – a distinct feeling that no one, at any level, had any idea how badly they were failing. So in that exorcism scene, as Lucinda Dickey goes full-on Linda Blair, growling in Japanese, her shabbily-substituted dummy pulling full 360 flips, shouting “YOU CANNOT STOP ME, I AM A NINJA,” what’s most striking is that they really seemed to think they were terrifying us. They have no idea this is funny. But Ninja III has more laughs than the last four Farrelly Brothers movies combined, and maybe that’s not what they were aiming for, but that’s what they achieved. Who am I to begrudge them their success?