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Why in the world did I watch Ninja III: The Domination? (Review)

Making it through the final film in Cannon Film’s “ninja trilogy” required more than nostalgia.
Ninja III: The Domination - Sam Firstenberg

It’s late at night and my wife and kids are all in bed, sound asleep. Now would be the perfect time to get caught up on one of the classic titles available on Netflix or Hulu, like The African Queen, A Fistful of Dollars, or High Noon. I could even look abroad and finally finish Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin or brush up on my Dardennes with The Kid With a Bike. Or if I wanted to stick to genre titles, I could be watching an acclaimed title like Metropolis, The Road, Never Let Me Go, or The Thing.

My point is, there are so many “good” movies that I could be watching right now, and yet here I am, watching Ninja III: The Domination instead. It is, by no means, a good movie and yet I’m hard-pressed to think of anything I’d rather be watching right now.

Ninja III: The Domination is the final movie in Cannon Films’ “Ninja Trilogy,” preceded by 1981’s Enter the Ninja and 1983’s Revenge of the Ninja. But aside from featuring shadowy Japanese assassins and actor Sho Kosugi — not to mention threadbare plots, terrible dialog, and hammy acting — the three films have no real connection to each other. Even so, Ninja III: The Domination is definitely odd compared to the other two films due mainly to its supernatural aspects à la The Exorcist and Poltergeist.

After a mysterious ninja kills a bunch of people on a golf course — we later find out in passing that the ninja’s target was a famous scientist, but there’s no mention of who hired the ninja or why the scientist was targeted in the first place, so it’s largely useless context — he’s eventually brought down in a hail of gunfire by the police. Or so they think.

The film’s primary conceit is that only a ninja can really kill another ninja, so even a bajillion bullet wounds are more of an inconvenience than anything else. Using his lethal training (i.e., smoke bombs and the ability to dig really, really quickly), the wounded ninja evades the police long enough to transfer his soul into a comely young lass named Christie who happens to come across the scene.

(The only reason she’s there is because she’s a telephone lineworker and she sees him stumbling through the desert from her perch high up on a telephone pole. I’m not sure why, but I find it absurdly delightful that, out of all of the possible professions she could have had, the film made our protagonist a telephone lineworker. Oh, and also an aerobics teacher. But I digress…)

Of course, Christie has no idea what’s happened or why she’s suddenly so interested in Japanese culture, or keeping a ninja sword in her closet, or blacking out. But it’s all part of the dead-ish ninja’s fiendish plan. By using Christie’s body, he’s able to kill the police officers who filled him with lead. And so we’re treated to horror-ish scenes of Christie becoming possessed by the ninja’s spirit, which mainly involve lots of smoke pouring out of her closet doors, her apartment’s appliances going haywire, and the ninja’s sword glowing and floating all over the place, beckoning Christie to wield it and mete out evil ninja revenge.

It’s all rather silly, especially considering that the most horrific scene in the entire movie is when Christie seduces her boyfriend — a hapless and, as we soon see, very hirsute police officer named Billy — by pouring a can of V8 on her chest, after which he proceeds to get his eight vegetables for the day. But there’s also a certain charm to the film’s goofy attempts to be scary, which bring to mind the delirious wackiness found in kung fu horror flicks like Sammo Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind.

Eventually, Sho Kosugi arrives on the scene, having been summoned from Japan by some local Buddhist monks. Or maybe he was drawn by the evil ninja’s presence. The film’s not too clear on this point. In any case, he tells our unlucky gal that — repeat after me — only a ninja can really kill another ninja, which sets up the film’s rather underwhelming climax. (Honestly, if your film has the word “Domination” in the title, then you need to go big or go home.)

There are some flashbacks implying that Sho’s character has a past with the dead-ish ninja, but like the scientist killed in the opening scene, it’s useless context that remains unexplored. Which is sad because A) you get the sense that there’s a more interesting movie contained in those tossed off details, and B) to the extent that they’re actually used, the details get in the way of Christie’s possessed-by-an-evil-ninja hijinks.

So why did I watch this again? Any why I have already written 700+ words about a film titled Ninja III: The Domination when there are so many more deserving films out there?

Well, part of the reason is plain ol’ nostalgia. I saw the film’s artwork in our grocery store’s movie rental stand as a kid, back when VHS covers were an artform in and of themselves, and it seared itself into my grade school subconscious.

The film was also released in the midst of the “ninja fever” that swept America in the ’70s and ’80s, during which the Japanese assassins appeared in everything from children’s cartoons (e.g., G.I. Joe, Rambo: The Force of Freedom) to popular mainstream TV shows (e.g., Knight Rider, Magnum P.I., Simon & Simon). Anything ninja-related instantly became cool — I suspect this is the main reason why the “Ninja Trilogy” films gained any attention (or notoriety) whatsoever — and I had countless ninja-related conversations with my grade school friends. To this day, if you want to pique my curiosity about a film, just say it features ninjas, and I’ll come running. (Or at least check out the trailer.)

But there’s another reason. Earlier I mentioned that the film’s attempts at horror had a certain charm to them, and that actually applies to the rest of the film, too. Make no mistake: Ninja III: The Domination is not a good film. It’s barely even a “so bad it’s good” film. But as was the case when I’ve watched “B” movies ranging from Miami Connection to Invasion U.S.A. to The Wraith, I feel a begrudging respect for the people involved. Not necessarily for what their effort achieved, but for the effort itself.

I have to believe that at some point, director Sam Firstenberg (who would also go on to direct Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo and the first two American Ninja movies), writer James R. Silke, composers Udi Harpaz and Misha Segal, James Hong (who would eventually star in such classics as Big Trouble in Little China and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.), and even the taciturn Sho Kosugi knew they were making a craptacular film that would probably do nothing more than pay the bills.

And yet, they persevered through countless trials and tribulations — e.g., making a dead ninja’s sword float, getting an arcade cabinet to move around Christie’s apartment like it’s being controlled from beyond, making V8 poured down a blouse look sexy — and made a film with the title of Ninja III: The Domination.

And that’s not nothing.

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