The Canon of Cannon is a new feature where we take a wandering look at the backlog of world-renowned trash peddlers, Cannon Films, and the work they left behind. Kicking us off, it’s Ninja III: The Domination.
OF ALL THE STUDIOS in all the decades in all the Hollywoods, there has never been a more prolific purveyor of scabrous schlock as Cannon Films. For those who have been reading these Torments, you’ll already be familiar with them: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, The Apple, The Barbarians are all films that have previously featured on this feature, all of them gloriously awful in their own respect. Cannon, despite their reputation as low-budget action merchants shilling the likes of Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff, were actually incredibly varied with their output, including an adaptation of Verdi’s Otello by, of all people, Franco Zeffirelli.
Nothing better embodied this all-or-nothing ethos than Ninja III: The Domination, a film that may well have everything. A very loose sequel to Enter the Ninja and the hysterically bad Revenge of the Ninja, The Domination follows Christie (Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo star Lucinda Dickey), a telephone lineswoman / aerobics instructor who, in a shocking turn of events, becomes possessed by the vengeful spirit of a dark ninja master (David Chung). Yamada (prolific martial arts star Shô Kosugi), a maverick ninja detective, must find a way to exorcise the so-called Black Ninja from Christie’s body, before she can massacre more hapless cops.
Directed by Sam Firstenberg, perhaps the most beloved of all Cannon’s schlock directors – the man gave us Breakin’ 2, after all – The Domination is a terrible, terrible movie that transcends its lack of quality through the outlandish surprise of its premise. Can you name many films where an aerobics instructor fends off a malevolent ninja ghost by dancing to 80s synth-pop? I’ll wager this is the only one.
We open on a golf course in broad daylight, as you would expect for a film about ninjas. The Black Ninja – wearing green – appears and starts, with no preceding dialogue to establish anything, murdering dozens of people. On a golf course. It’s a ninja, traditionally known to hide in the shadows, massacring fools in the middle of the day, on a golf course in California.
When he’s finally taken down by the world’s worst cops, he transfers his ninja powers to Christie, who is filled with the ninja’s dying vow of blood vengeance against the survivors who finished him off. One of these is Billy Secord (Jordan Beckett), who blackmails Christie into having a coffee with him after he arrests her.
Billy is, ostensibly, the love interest, a man we are undoubtedly meant to find charming and likeable, but Secord plays him with a paedophile’s grin and a sex predator’s leer. Their exchanges are so stilted and uncomfortable that Christie pouring V8 vegetable juice on herself in a seductive manner almost seems like regular human behaviour by comparison. Beckett’s charmless sleaze would work wonders had he been playing a villain in a Chuck Norris caper, and he does occasionally show flashes of charisma, but it’s largely skin-crawling.
Dickey fares better, but not by much. Her physical presence and mighty perm are both impressive, given her background as a dancer, but her actual delivery of the lines is clunky and samey, forever lilting into Valley Girl territory. But, in all fairness, how do you deliver lines like, “I don’t believe in ghosts, demons, spirits, or any of that kind of stuff!” Another corker comes when a psychiatrist cheerily clears Christie of any mental abnormality, “Aside from your exceptional extrasensory perception and pre-occupation with Japanese culture – no harm in that!”
Shô Kosugi is the only player with gravitas in the entire picture, but then you’d have to be if you were a world-renowned expert in ninjitsu. Star of several ninja movies in the 80s – both of The Domination’s aforementioned predecessors among them – Kosugi is the real deal, bringing intense physicality and martial prowess to the role. Inevitably, his acting’s a bit shaky, but he could throw a shuriken into your face from 100 yards away, so we won’t be too hard on him.
But acting is for actors. This is not a film made for actors; it’s made to capitalise on a vast array of 80s crazes and to transport us from barmy fight scene to crazy set-piece. The connecting threads of the narrative and little things like dialogue and character-building are not what we’re here for. Beyond ninjas, there’s an entire sequence dedicated to aerobics, legwarmers and all, and then there’s the peerless exorcism scene.
Yes, an exorcism scene, in a ninja movie. The Exorcist is nothing on this; there’s the usual room-shaking and object-moving, with Christie cackling and howling with the Black Ninja’s ghost-voice, before she starts wildly spinning vertically on what can only be described as horizontal bunjee cords, complete with accompanying whooshes. James Hong of Blade Runner and Big Trouble in Little China fame even makes a bug-eyed cameo here as the hapless exorcist!
It has to be seen to be believed, as does the moment an arcade machine in Christie’s house shoots laser beams into her eyeballs as part of the Poltergeist-apeing possession(s). Later, she tries to fend off the spirit by turning her music up loud and spin-dancing while the room explodes in a whirlwind around her. Nothing I can say will adequately convey the joy of watching a woman aerobicise to 80s cheese-pop as a ninja ghost tries taking over her body. It is absolute nonsense in the best possible sense.
Production values are, as traditional with Cannon, lower than low. Kosugi’s eyepatch looks like a beermat held across his face with a cable tie; when the ninja sword floats toward Christie in the possession sequences, its flappy movements are accentuated by the visible string at the top, and the sets look like they’re about to collapse in on themselves. The foley is all over the place, the editing is slapdash, and, best of all, there’s a boom mic – an actual boom mic! – briefly visible in the final fight scene.
“Is it true,” Christie flatly asks us near the end, “That only a ninja can destroy another ninja?” I’m not entirely sure about that, but that’s exactly the kind of straight-faced camp that Ninja III: The Domination is all about. It’s both derivative and unique, a sum of familiar parts that build to a batshit insane, thoroughly exceptional film. It is, from golf course beginning to witch-hut middle to mystic temple end, an experience quite unlike any other.