Ninjas tend to wear all black because they want to move around in the dark without being seen, right? Like, that’s the whole point of being a ninja? I’m asking this because the hero of 1981’s Enter the Ninja is a white ninja, in both senses of the word: He’s a Caucasian man who’s become a ninja, and he wears a blindingly white ninja suit. In most cases, this would only work if you’re planning an assassination in, say, an Apple Store. But the all-white-everything approach works out okay for this particular ninja: During the wordless 10-minute action scene that opens the movie, it doesn’t stop him from hiding in tall grass from other ninjas. I’d like to think it’s because this particular ninja, along with his fellow white ninjas (Storm Shadow from G.I. Joe; the ninja-adjacent Marvel hero Moon Knight), is so confident in his ninja abilities that he’s willing to handicap himself via color choice just to make things fair to the other ninjas. We never learn what’s up with the white, though. Nobody in the movie even mentions it.
Enter the Ninja is one of those glorious cases of a movie attempting to cash in on cultural phases, getting them deliriously wrong, and turning out awesome anyway. Director Menahem Golan was one of the two brains behind the great-despite-itself B-movie production house Cannon Films, and this is right up there with the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling feature Over the Top on the list of his greatest directorial efforts. It’s clearly his attempt to capitalize on the wave of martial arts movies coming from Asia, and its title basically screams “Enter the Dragon ripoff.” But it’s also an early example of Western pop culture’s fascination with the entire idea of the ninja; James Bond had been fighting alongside them as early as 1967’s You Only Live Twice, but we were still a few years away from things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Fundamentally silly though it may be, this was still a successful movie that probably had a lot to do with the way ninja fascination spread through action movies and into cartoons, comic books, and video games.
The movie’s white ninja is Franco Nero, the Italian star of the original spaghetti Western Django. He couldn’t do martial arts for shit, and so there’s this gallumphing, clumsy quality to the movie’s fights, even though there’s clearly a lot of stunt-double action, too. Nero only suits up at the beginning and end of the movie; for most of it, he’s strutting around all mustached and square-chinned, basically looking like Ron Burgundy’s mental image of himself. The plot is one of those hacky things about a greedy developer (an oil prospector, in this case) who’s willing to get violent to force someone to sell some property. But there’s a whole lot of weirdness there, too. The property is in Manila, and the owner is an old war buddy of Nero’s who seems intent on drinking himself to death. He’s only insistent on keeping his ill-defined property because his wife likes it, and the property itself seems to be some vast tract of jungle populated by Filipino laborers who are constantly staging cockfights. And things escalate pretty quickly, going from intimidating barroom staredowns to mountains of dead bodies quickly enough to give you whiplash.
I should probably point out that this is not, strictly speaking, a good movie. If the fight scenes are awkward, the scenes of plot development are even more so. This is one of those movies where everyone involved seems to be speaking their second or third language, only settling on English because it’s the one they all speak well enough. Nero is good in other movies, but he’s so stiff and unnatural in this that he seems like he’s posing for photo spreads. His friend’s wife is Susan George, speaking in her native British accent rather than the Southern American honk she had in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry but somehow still coming off way less convincing than she was in that one. There’s a weird subplot about the friend being impotent and Susan George sneaking off to fuck Nero, the friend getting mad, and absolutely nothing coming of it. And the villains are so broad and absurd that they would absolutely twirl their mustaches if they had any.
But there’s a cheap, slapdash charm to this, too. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether it’s being funny intentionally or not, but I have to imagine that all the people involved had some idea how ridiculous this gets. (The sad-trombone sound effect when Nero rips off a henchman’s hook-hand and then throws it at him: Proof that this thing is at least a little bit of a comedy.) And anyway, the thing moves, never wasting time before the action gets ratcheted up another notch or two. It’s insanely watchable, and that’s not something I could say about most movies this bad. The movie opens by throwing you into an action scene that just goes on forever, with Nero fighting a virtual army of red ninjas before cutting off the head of a goofy-looking wax dummy. And we’re pretty deep into things before we realize that we’re just looking at a training exercise, the final step before Nero gets to be a full-on ninja. And even if Nero looks ridiculous during his fights, it’s a whole lot of fun to see a character leave him in a heavily guarded car, leave it for a couple of minutes, and then walk back outside to the sight of about 10 dead guards and no Nero.
And even if Nero didn’t make a particularly believable ninja, the movie also served as the breakout role for the Japanese martial artist Sho Kosugi, who plays the inevitable ninja hothead who doesn’t think a white guy like Nero should get to call himself a ninja, and who inevitably ends the movie fighting Nero to the death. Kosugi gets to do all the cool shit in the movie, including the opening-credits montage of him demonstrating just about every ninja killing technique you could possibly want to see. Kosugi inhabits the role in a way that Nero just can’t. This turned out to be the first in a great little run of ’80s action movies for Kosugi: Enter the Ninja got two sequels—neither of which had anything to do with the original plot-wise, and both of which had Kosugi in the lead—and he made a few more ninja movies after that, getting to fight people like Jean Claude Van Damme and Rutger Hauer along the way. We should have more people like him in movies today: Actors who are only good at playing one thing and who play it in every single movie. Also, we should just generally have more ninjas in movies today. Even white ones.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: Fist of Legend | Hot Fuzz | Assault on Precinct 13 | Payback | The Good, the Bad, the Weird | The Professional | Supercop | The Man With the Iron Fists 2 | Flash Point | The Way of the Dragon | Skyfall | Chocolate | Dirty Mary Crazy Larry | Iron Monkey | XXX | Headhunters| The Running Man | Project A | Homefront | Drug War | Robocop | Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Blood and Bone | Man of Tai Chi | Bloodsport | Battle Royale | Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi | Tombstone| Fearless | Red Dawn | Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China |Sonatine |Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master