NINJA III – THE DOMINATION (1984) (Blu-ray/DVD combo)
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

Released during Cannon Film’s early 1980s action pic heyday, 1984’s NINJA III – THE DOMINATION completes a trilogy which includes 1981’s ENTER THE NINJA and 1983’s REVENGE OF THE NINJA, all which attempted to compete with the majors on comparatively shoestring budgets. While the films are unrelated (with Japanese martial arts great Shô Kosugi, as the essential link, though he’s portraying a different character), this one totally separates itself from its predecessors, as it goes for a more gonzo type approach, blending martial arts with horror and fantasy elements, and the results are admittedly highly entertaining. With Shout! Factory licensing this oddball title from MGM (who owns the majority of the Cannon library for home video), their popular and rightly acclaimed “retro horror” arm Scream Factory has their heart in the right in place by giving it a beautiful Blu-ray/DVD combo release, accompanied by an equally enjoyable audio commentary.

In Arizona, a well-dressed Japanese man (David Chung, MISSING IN ACTION 2: THE BEGINNING) enters a cave and opens a hidden stone box containing an extraordinary sword and all the Ninja gear that goes with it, enabling him to become the “Black Ninja”. In the meantime, a prominent American scientist is out on the golf course with a quartet of Secret Service-type protectors. The Black Ninja attacks (first showing off by crushing a golf ball with his fist), killing them all in grand fashion (and making ample use of those deadly “throwing stars” he just obtained), and then leads the police on an endless chase that has them pursuing him by car, motorcycle and helicopter before he’s finally ambushed in a field. Although he’s fired at numerous times, Black Ninja disappears after detonating a smoke bomb and buries himself in the ground, out of sight! With the cops baffled as to where he could have gone, the slowing bullet-ridden assassin soon digs himself out, encountering athletic and toned telephone field worker Christie (Lucinda Dickey, BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO), mesmerizing her into accepting his sword, as he slowly begins to enter and dominate her mind and body (dropping deadly shortly afterwards).

Christie, who also works as an aerobics instructor, starts to date a persistently wooing policeman named Billy (Jordan Bennett), who was one of the surviving officers during the failed ambush of Black Ninja — this also gives the spirit of the killer an in, as he’s out to revenge himself on the other trigger happy cops by periodically taking control of Christie’s charming and seductive self. His possession of Christie is further enforced when smoke and a laser beam (which penetrates her head) materialize out of the screen of a “Bouncer” arcade came that she has in her apartment, and an exorcism is botched when Billy brings her to the den of an Asian spiritualist (veteran actor and director James Hong, “Seinfeld, party of three!”). Arriving all the way from Japan is the eye-patched “good” ninja Yamada (Shô Kosugi, PRAY FOR DEATH) who has a beef with Black Ninja (which we learn about in a flashback), and when he discovers his dead body in the coroner’s office, he seeks to remove his evil from Christie and bring him down once and for all. Further ascertaining the film’s horror elements, during a the climax set in a temple, the dead body of Black Ninja regains its spirit and rises from the slab for a final, epic confrontation with Yamada.

Made at a time when there was sort of a Ninja craze during the 1980s which included a number of related films and the prime-time 1984 Lee Van Cleef series “The Master” (which also featured Kosugi), NINJA III – THE DOMINATION is like no other, in that’s it so ridiculously over the top and embraces a number of different genres (and don’t let the “III” in the title deviate you, as the film stands on its own and is not really a sequel in the classic sense). NINJA III is such a product of the 1980s that it’s almost as if someone from today made a film set during that period, making sure that all the clichéd attributes were included. There’s the prominent presence of the video arcade game (which acts as a supernatural catalyst) the “Flashdance” spandex and headbands that the women wear during the aerobics dance scene (which looks straight out of a Jane Fonda workout video), a obligatory hot tub scene (with the possessed Christie seducing a sleazy cop to death and also terminating a duo of jealous bathing suit-clad bimbos) and a pulsating synth score that gets more intense as the action progresses.

And as for the action, there’s plenty of it, and I mean plenty. The elongated, relentless opening scene delivers a showcase for what you’re in for during the remainder of the running time, and another incredible sequence has Christie (when she’s possessed and garbed in full Ninja regalia) shooting arrows from a tree at the targeted police during a funeral, followed by a chase that ends up in the cemetery (with a number of tombstones becoming crumbling casualties of the mayhem). The possession scenes (with a levitating sword, floating telephones and the like) and the would-be exorcism scene (which has a dummy of Christie chained from side to side and spinning crazy like an upturned roulette wheel) are laughable, but succeed in adding to the fun and the “kitchen sink” style of the film’s shenanigans, but the chaos is simply non-stop, with endless fight scenes, either one on one, or on a more epic level, and Kosugi’s martial arts skills are on full display here.

The film is violent (with numerous secondary characters getting pierced with throwing stars, and one guy even having a dart fired into the barrel of his gun, causing it to explode in his face), but any on-screen gore is actually quick and never overly gratuitous, giving the film a good-natured quality about it which almost makes it suitable for younger kids. Kosugi’s “good” Ninja knocks out but never kills his numerous obstructers, and even clunks together the heads of two coroner workers like Moe Howard of The Three Stooges. Likewise, the film is low on cursing and there’s no nudity — the eroticism is limited to Christie showing off her naked back to Paul, only to put on a loose-fitting blouse, jump on his lap, and coax him to lick V8 Juice off her sexy neck (in some of the most awkward product placement, ever!). Of course, Paul’s bear-like back hair is another story! Dickey — an actress with a dancing background — is very likable in the lead role, but the majority of the acting is cartoonish, which I suppose is all part of the film’s bizarre, camp approach. With great stunt work (of which Evel Knievel’s son Robbie was a part of) and sharp editing, the old school, multi-genre-embracing thrills of NINJA III — THE DOMINATION (which can’t even be fully described in this review) make for a perfect retro HD movie night experience — just put your brain on the shelf, invite your open-minded pals over, and supply the beer and pizza!

For this Scream Factory Blu-ray/DVD combo release, NINJA III is being presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.78:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and given a 1080p High Definition transfer. The film looks flawless, as the original elements used show no defects and grain is minimal. The well-defined image has plenty of sharp detail, and with its many outdoor scenes, the colors (especially the blue skies and green landscapes look) appear life-like and boldly saturated throughout. Black levels are deep and the few darker scenes in the film never suffer and always look terrific. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track sounds fantastic, with the largely synthesizer score given an ample boost, dialog being crisp and clean, and there's no noticeable hiss or distortions to be found. A standard DVD (utilizing the same HD transfer found on the Blu-ray) presents the film widescreen and anamorphic (1.78:1) with a mono English audio track.

An excellent audio commentary is included with Polish-born director Sam Firstenberg (who also helmed REVENGE OF THE NINJA) and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert, moderated by Robert Galluzo. The commentary covers just about everything, and compliments the fun spirit of the film, as both gentleman obviously cared greatly about what they were making, but new the subject matter was purely “tongue-in-cheek”. Firstenberg admits the supernatural aspects were inspired by the recent hit POLTERGEIST (and obviously the decade-old THE EXORCIST), he describes the “Cannon look” that the film needed to achieve to fit in with their roster of current titles, and he also reveals that there was an EXORCIST-like head spinning scene — using a dummy of Dickey — which was cut prior to release (a behind-the-scenes shot of Dickey posing next to her synthetic double is scene in the accompanying still gallery). Lambert goes into great detail about the stunts on the film, pointing out in specific scenes when he doubled for other actors (he doubled a lot for Dickey, mostly in the concealing Ninja getup), and he stresses how the stunts were done expertly without the use of wires or CGI, a process which was still years away. The other extra on the disc (both supplements can be found on the DVD as well as the Blu-ray) is a still gallery which features many rare behind-the-scenes photos from the director’s personal collection, and they’re sure to please any long-time fan of the film. (George R. Reis)