Enter the Ninja (1981) Enter the Moustache
When you think about ninjas there are a few things that come to mind, black outfits, stealth, throwing stars, and swords just to name a few. Our hero today is a ninja apart from other ninjas. Other than wearing a white ninja suit, he also comes equipped with something that I've never thought to be standard issue ninja gear, a giant, bristly, blond moustache. Of course, I'm talking about Franco Nero in the 1981 cult classic Enter the Ninja because when you think of ninjas, you also think of Italian film stars. This film has long been a favorite of mine, and I recall watching it on Showtime over and over again when I was a lad. Cornball in portions, over the top all around, and decidedly off the wall, if it had been made after the bevy of pseudo-sequels and imitators that followed it, then it would be easy to believe that it was parodying those same films. Enter the Ninja may have been a childhood delight, but I worried if it would hold up to adult eyes. So read on to find out if this flick is as mighty as Nero’s ‘stache promises or if it’s as plain as the area under Sho Kosugi’s nose.
After a 10 minute long opening sequence which turns out to be a final exam at ninja school, Cole (Nero) has finally passed his last test and officially had become the white suited ninja, like Storm Shadow by way of 70’s porno. All his red ninja suited pals are ecstatic for him, but stick in the mud black suit ninja Hasegawa (Kosugi), is firm in his belief that Cole will never be a true ninja. After graduation, Cole travels to see his pal Frank (Alex Courtney), who looks like someone sucked all the life out of James Caan, and his wife Mary Ann (Susan George), who looks really hot. Frank and Mary Ann’s tropical plantation is being threatened by The Hook (Zachi Noy), the weasely, little fat henchman of Mr. Venarious (Christopher George). Cole, naturally, cannot let this aggression stand, and he takes the fight to the bad guys by repeatedly beating their asses while rocking a white leisure suit. Inevitably, Frank is killed and Mary Ann is kidnapped, Venarious makes a final stand backed by his own ninja, you guessed it, party pooper Hasegawa who Cole must square off with in the film’s climax.
After the first ten martial arts-tastic minutes finish and the plot begins to unroll, it is easy to determine every beat of the story without much thought. Luckily, Enter the ninja is so wacky and over the top that it really doesn't matter if you know what’s coming next plot wise because there’s no telling what else might happen along the way. I mean seriously, the henchman is a little fat dude who looks like Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Captain Hook had a baby, a bad guy gets his ass kicked and runs off to the ‘waaa-waaa-waaaaaaa” sound of a trumpet, and, to top it all off, Franco Nero is a freakin’ ninja. I have to admit that’s the hardest thing to get your mind around in this film. While Franco comes off like a real tough mother, as he always does in his Italian action titles, I had a hard time thinking the flying round kicks were coming from him. Naturally, they were not. Nero was doubled by Mike Stone, Black Belt Hall of Fame inductee and writer of Enter the Ninja’s story (adapted by one time screen scribe Dick Desmond for the film). Stone, who also did stunts for the cult classic Circle of Iron, seemingly wanted to invoke visions of Enter the Dragon using a title like Enter the Ninja, but instead created a series of zany moments, strange characters, and overwrought drama.
I can’t wait another minute without talking about the many Georges of this film, Susan and Christopher, no relation, though Chris is Vanna White’s uncle. Susan is probably best known from her role in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, her racy turn in Mandingo, or her racing turn in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and here she provides a good match for Nero. Strong willed from her introduction, Many Ann might be married to the middle point between James Caan and Luigi Pistilli, but she’s not afraid to fight back and, in a sadly PG rated cutaway, beds the mustachioed ninja. Alex Courtney’s Frank, let's call him James Can't, suspects they've been doing the horizontal katas, and in my favorite moment of the movie exclaims at his wife, “What have I got to do? Grow a moustache?” The answer to that, however unspoken, had to have been yes.
One person who didn’t need a moustache to be delightful is Christopher George. Not only does he have the absolute best expression in his death scene that has ever been put on film. George got his start on the TV show Rat Patrol before moving on to co-starring with John Wayne in Chisum, go up against a giant bear in Grizzly, and the forces of hell in Fulci's City of the Living Dead. Combine those credits with Enter the Ninja, and in just those few roles, he had a one of a kind career. He puts on a real show throughout and, apart from Nero, was the most entertaining character in the film, narrowly edging out Will Hare's local huckster Dollars and George's own sidekick, the polite Mr. Parker played by Constantine Gregory. No matter if Mr. George was choreographing ladies in a pool for his human mobile or standing in the open calling out, “Ninjaaaaaa. Ninjaaaaa. Come out, ninjaaaaaa.”, he took the already broadly written role into the broadest and most entertaining of strokes.
I wish I had more to say about actual martial arts legend Sho Kosugi in Enter the Ninja, but there’s not much to say about him. His few scenes are entertaining, but he belongs to the beginning and end of the film while the middle leverages Christopher George as the baddie. The segments with he faces Nero, or should I say Mike Stone, are the most fluid and effective as far as the choreography goes. Many of the other fights come off so jobbed that they look and feel too staged. Menahem Golan is a great producer with an incredible track record, but as a director, he’s been more miss than hit. However, for one reason or another, several of his films are essential pieces of cult cinema. Enter the Ninja forms a better trilogy, not with its own sequels, but Golan’s later films The Delta Force and Over the Top. The Enter Delta Over trilogy constantly ramps up the far out factor as we go from Franco Nero ninja to Norris and Marvin leading a cast of epic genre proportions only to end up with Stallone arm wrestling while tangling with Robert Loggia over the love of a kid. If that’s not a trilogy, then I don't know what is.
I don't think it’s spoiling anything to say that at the end of Enter the Ninja, the ‘stache reigns supreme. Never mind the fact that Sho Kosugi was back in the sequels while Nero was not, from the first moment of the film, this was never the kind of flick where the brush lipped hero was going to lose. It is, however, the kind of campy fun that is perfect for personal viewing or watching with friends. (There is a wee bit too much cockfighting for my tastes, which is no cockfighting, and that does always put a damper on EtN's fun times.) It has a kind of looseness to it that makes the whole thing fun to watch. That’s why I wanted to kick off this Movember with Enter the Ninja because I’m looking to have a whole lot of fun watching hairy lipped legends emote all this month. Before I sign off for the day, I will remind you that the LBL is collecting donations for Movember which will go to help research and awareness of men’s health issues, especially prostate and testicular cancers. So, if you can pitch in a buck or two or even just spread the word, it would be most appreciated. I'll be back every other day this month with another ‘stache-tastic review, and until then savor the flavor of Enter the Ninja!