ENTER THE NINJA (1981): White Guy Karate: Origins

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Kino Lorber Releases a Quintessential Cannon Film on Blu

White guy karate had to start somewhere, and Enter The Ninja is that somewhere.

Who can be certain exactly why we became so particularly obsessed with ninjas in the 1980s, but I have at least one theory: Ninjas are fucking rad. And Cannon Films co-lead (and director of this title) Menahem Golan was nothing if not hungry for the next fad to make a movie about. The kids are breakdancing? Let’s make a movie about it. People are pissed about Vietnam? Let’s make movies where we kick ass in Vietnam. The youths are into ancient Japanese assassins? Let’s go all in on ninjas! And that’s just what Golan did. 

With Enter The Ninja being the first foray into this space, perhaps Golan and Cannon weren’t sure that this would hit. But they went on to do something of a “ninja trilogy” here with Enter’s villain Sho Kosugi taking over lead roles in both Revenge Of The Ninja and Ninja III: Domination. They would also double down on the ninja business with the American Ninja franchise as well. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about how Italian super star Franco Nero starred in a silly and highly enjoyable ninja movie in 1981. 

Simply one of the greatest title treatments in cinema history.

Enter The Ninja starts out immediately with a bunch of sick ninja-on-ninja violence in the jungle. You’ve got all the classic ninja tricks, rolling heads, and even different colored ninja suits to help us clearly identify different ninja factions. It turns out all of this action is a final test for Nero’s Cole to become a full ninja. Fellow pupil Hasegawa (Kosugi) is incensed that this westerner has been allowed to join the ranks of ninja and storms off. He’ll be back. Soon Cole pays a visit to his old war buddy Frank (Alex Courtney) and his wife Mary Ann (Susan George). It’s a really weird arrangement but Frank and Mary Ann own a ranch in the Philippines and they’re being squeezed by a corrupt businessman to sell their land. Villains like Christopher George’s Venarius used to twirl mustaches in the old days, but Venarius has an indoor poolside office set up and almost exclusively wears muumuu-like robes. He’s frankly incredible. 

Venarius wants the land and he just keeps sending larger and meaner groups of hired thugs to get the land, but each wave of villains is handily dispatched by Cole and his ninja skills. Meanwhile Frank is falling apart and kind of constantly talking about his drunken impotence. It’s a little weird. It’s only a matter of time before Venarius hires his own ninja. And who better than the Cole-hating Hasegawa for the job?! After all, only a ninja can kill a ninja. 

So after Cole sleeps with Mary Ann and Frank ends up dead at the hands of the maniacal Hasegawa (“Gee, Cole, thanks for all the help with my ranch”), a final showdown in an empty Phillipine cock fighting arena is all that is left. Venarius has gotten every last one of his men killed, but he wants his Black Ninja, and he wants him now. So Sho Kosugi and Franco Nero’s stunt double battle it out. 

The whole thing is pretty messy, but it sure is endearing. Franco Nero is about as handsome a man as has ever existed, and with endless charisma to boot. But I guess Golan didn’t trust Nero’s accent would work and Cole is dubbed throughout the entire movie. It stretches the “white guy ninja” suspension of disbelief to entirely new heights. Watching Nero attempt to wield nunchucks whilst shirtless doesn’t help matters. And the whole dynamic between Cole, Mary Ann, and Frank is quite odd. But I guess Cannon Films decided that Sho Kosugi really had the goods and got into business with him from that point on. And I’m so grateful they did.

Enter The Ninja just is not a great movie. But I personally owe it so much. As a child of the 1980s who adored all things ninja, I’m just not sure the world would be a place I would want to live in if Cannon Films hadn’t capitalized on the ninja craze the way they did and spark off the white guy karate trend that would absolutely become my cinematic bread and butter. Kino has also recently released The Challenge, a film that exceeds the quality of Enter The Ninja in almost every regard. But damn it, where The Challenge is legitimately one of my favorite “new to me movies” in ages and features direction by John Frankenheimer… Menahem Golan gives us Franco Nero winking at the camera in a final freeze frame on the way out of the theater. So I probably owe more to Enter The Ninja and Menahem Golan and their impact on my life. 

So much Golan. So much Globus.

The Package

Film historians Mike Leeder and Arne Venema provide a rollicking commentary track here and they’re having a knowledgeable blast. Neither of them perceive Enter The Ninja to be Shakespeare, but with their limitless knowledge of the world of action cinema, they provide informed and energetic commentary that’s really worth a listen. And that’s all you’re really going to get in terms of bonus features here, beyond a theatrical trailer. The movie does look pretty awesome in high definition, but honestly nothing featuring Franco Nero’s baby blue eyes could ever look all that bad. 

Enter The Ninja is neither the best ninja movie, or the most fun, or even the most badass. But it is a first of its kind, the one that started it all. And as it winks at us on the way out of the theater, I smile back at it, salute, and reiterate that I want my black ninja, and I want him now. 

And I’m Out. 

Enter The Ninja is available now on Blu-ray from Kino Studio Classics

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