Just to sort of set the stage here, be aware that 'ninja fever' was truly a big thing for me in early high school. Some of my friends and I had a lotta love for G.I. Joe and thought Stormshadow was a badass. I recall many a sketchy catalog of deadly weaponry (throwing stars being the most popular) being confiscated by school officials from my unsuspecting classmates. Ninja stuff was everywhere, and there were lots of ninja movies to appease us. Our good friends at Cannon Films have brought us tons of great stuff. Their contributions of awesomeness to cinema are innumerable. I was aware of them without really knowing who they were and connecting all of their action films together. I must have seen that fantastic Cannon Logo slam together before dozens upon dozens of movies before it started to register. It wasn't until much later in my movie watching that I started to look back and see how much fun stuff they had brought into the world. They brought us ENTER THE NINJA in 1981(one of their first productions) and the superior REVENGE OF THE NINJA in 1983. They had found a way to make ninjas into unstoppable (and often gruesomely so) killing machines. To me, it was a way to take the dying slasher genre and spin it off into a different, more action-y direction. Martial arts, exotic bladed weapons and blood were the currency of this filmic universe and myself and guys my age totally went for it. I even recall writing a story about ninjas and halloween for one of my classes in middle school. These mysterious, highly skilled killers were just the coolest thing to ever exist when I was a kid. I had a similar fascination with Navy SEALs later on. Ninjas were something else though. They were seemingly trained in secret and their tradition went back a centuries. It was like one step beyond the straight martial arts I was so fond of from guys like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris (and even Steven Seagal). These ninjas were not only great martial artists, but they were also big on using all kinds of weaponry to dispatch their victims. That just had these great appeal to me as a youngster. Weapons and wanting to know more about them kind of went hand in hand with getting my kicks watching violent movies. It seems pretty immature now, but back then it was a huge deal to me.
When I first saw ENTER THE NINJA on my local video store shelf, I had no idea who Franco Nero or Sho Kosugi were. I may have seen them in passing in a few genre films, but they still weren't on my radar. I have little to no recollection of what my initial takeaway was after I watch the movie for the first time. I seem to recall it being pretty neat to see guys dressed in white and black ninja costumes though. I had gotten used to only seeing Stormshadow in animated form and so these real life interpretations of the ninja garb left an impression. I rewatched ENTER THE NINJA some four or 5 years ago on MGM HD and I must admit to being slightly let down by it. It had been hard to see for quite a while and I think had only just gotten an MOD DVD release around that time. I think it was a classic case of having built it up a bit too much in my head after so many years. In watching this new Kino Lorber Blu-ray, I found it more engaging and entertaining than that previous view, but it still is missing something. Maybe it has to do with the casting of Franco Nero. I love the guy and he and his persona are a great fit for Italian crime films and spaghetti westerns, but I think perhaps that martial arts isn't quite his genre. There are some script/structure and directorial problems too. Regardless, I think those that remember this one fondly will want to be picking up this disc. Oh and Susan George is easy on the eyes so that gives this one a little boost.
REVENGE OF THE NINJA does just was a sequel should do (though it doesn't really tie into ENTER THE NINJA directly). It amps up the violence and streamlines its story down to something pretty silly (which helps set up the opportunity for more kills and some good stunt work). They really bust out all the ninja toys here too. Throwing stars, blow darts, steel marbles, caltrops (floor spikes), smoke bombs, numerous edged weapons, and some kind of flamethrower thingy. There are even some creepy looking metal masks with hypnotic eyes (see above). Director Sam Firstenberg is a little better at handling this kind of thing than Menahem Golan and he would go on to helm AMERICAN NINJA (1 & 2), AVENGING FORCE and even NINJA III: THE DOMINATION and BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO. He's a Cannon Films workman director. Some pizazz in spots, but mostly just solidly handled action scenes and solid choreography (which of course he had some help with). This was his first action movie along theses lines, but thanks to the assistance of a lot of veteran crew members, things turned out quite well. Having the remarkable Sho Kosugi (in one of his breakout American movies) in your cast always helps. He's the best part of ENTER THE NINJA and clearly the best here too. Making him the center of this movie is absolutely a choice that makes it better. There's a great bit where Kosugi runs down an van full of goons, jumps on top of it and then swings down and kicks through the windshield and keeps on fighting the dudes until the fan crashes. It's a pretty entertaining scene and tops anything in ENTER THE NINJA I have to say. Reminds me of some Jackie Chan kinda stuff and it's great. Once the movie moves past this setpiece, the fight sequences keep coming and don't really stop until the end. The final showdown is good stuff. Never forget, "Only a ninja can stop a ninja".
While ENTER THE NINJA is pretty bare bones, REVENGE OF THE NINJA has a couple new extras. First up is a short and sweet introduction to the movie by Director Sam Firstenberg. It also includes an Audio Commentary with Firstenberg and Stunt Coordinator Steven Lambert.