Thursday, June 20, 2013

Culture Shock 06.20.13: Enter the ninja — in leg warmers

When you think about it, the 1980s were all about two things: dancing and ninjas.

The decade was defined by dance movies, from "Flashdance" to "Footloose" to "Dirty Dancing." And despite their reputation for stealth, you couldn't turn anywhere without glimpsing a ninja. Italian tough guy Franco Nero ("Django") portrayed one in "Enter the Ninja," and American tough guy Lee Van Cleef ("The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly") played one in the forgotten TV series "The Master." G.I. Joe faced off against toy ninjas, and comic book auteur Frank Miller ("Sin City") pitted Daredevil against a magical ninja army called The Hand.

If you could somehow combine dancing and ninjas, you'd have the most '80s movie ever.

As it happens, someone already did, and it's called "Ninja III: The Domination," now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.

To find a more bonkers movie, you'd have to go to '80s or '90s Hong Kong, and even then the madness of Hong Kong's most insane films is largely a matter of cultural differences and dodgy subtitles. "Ninja III: The Domination," however, even with its partly Japanese cast and Israeli producers — the infamous Cannon Films duo of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — is possessed of a uniquely American madness, which makes it a fine way to spend a late night with friends and whatever intoxicants are legal in your jurisdiction. (You crazy kids in Colorado and Washington have fun.)

The action starts when a ninja (David Chung) kills a yuppie businessman on a sunny, Arizona golf course, because that's what assassins known for their stealth do. The murder attracts the police who, being police officers of the '80s, are just itching to shoot someone, which they do — repeatedly — after a prolonged chase, during which the ninja performs such feats as stabbing a cop through the roof of his squad car.

The ninja, filled with more lead than ancient Roman pottery, collapses near where a young technician named Christie is repairing telephone lines. The next thing you know, his soul had jumped into her body, where it awaits the right moment to strike.

Christie, played by Lucinda Dickey, star of "Breakin'" and its punch line of a sequel, "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo," is the dance-movie part of the equation. When she's not working for the phone company, Christie is dancercising at the local gym. With her blue-collar, stereotypically male job and her fondness for spandex and leg warmers, she's the reincarnation of Jennifer Beals' Alex in "Flashdance."

The ninja asserts himself slowly, and at first it just seems like Christie has become more aggressive, along with picking up some mad skills. But when she embarrasses some local street toughs, she catches the interest of the cops, one of whom — unfortunately for us — is determined to become the movie's love interest. Before long, the ninja is taking Christie's body out for a test drive, using it to assassinate random guys playing pool in their underwear.

To illustrate just how perfectly '80s "Ninja III" is, you could probably duplicate all of its special effects with one trip to the nearest mall's Spencer Gifts. To recreate a ninja possessing someone, all you need are a strobe light, dry ice, smoke machine and miniature laser show.

Shô Kosugi ("Enter the Ninja," "The Master") co-stars as the "good ninja" and choreographs the fights, which are more like Capt. Kirk vs. the Gorn than what you'd see in contemporaneous martial arts flicks from China and Japan.

Apart from an intentionally funny scene where a mystic played by the reliable James Hong ("Big Trouble in Little China") tries to exorcise the ninja, nothing in "Ninja III" quite works. But most of it at least fails in the spectacularly entertaining fashion for which the 1980s were known.

If you're going to fail, fail big. Go full savings and loan.

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