Friday night at the home drive-in: Revenge of the Ninja (1983)

I rented Revenge Of The Ninja with a friend when it was a brand new release on VHS and Beta, probably sometime in 1984. We thought it was one of the greatest movies we had ever seen. The action was (it seemed to us, at the time) non-stop and absolutely spectacular. We watched the tape several times before returning it to the store the next day.

We rented Enter The Ninja (1981), the first film in the series, very soon after that, and we enjoyed it, but it just didn’t live up to the impossible expectations that Revenge Of The Ninja had set. When Ninja III: The Domination (1984) came out later that year, we were excited beyond measure. If Revenge Of The Ninja was better than Enter The Ninja, then it stood to reason (in our young minds) that Ninja III: The Domination would be even better. Alas, we were puzzled by Ninja III: The Domination.  It was a strange mix of action and horror that just didn’t seem to work for us. Years later, while studying film at university, I saw Ninja III: The Domination on late night TV and realized it’s brilliance – but that’s another story.

I watched Revenge Of The Ninja a few more times during the ’80s and it never let me down. Sure, I saw other ninja movies, too, but none of them could hold a katana to Sam Firstenberg’s martial arts masterpiece. Oddly enough, I never bought a copy on VHS and I didn’t see the movie again for almost 30 years. Perhaps I was afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my memories of it. What if Revenge Of The Ninja seemed silly to me as a grown up? I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about that. But when Kino Lorber released a nice blu-ray with extras, I knew it was time to face up this lost chapter of my youth.

The good news is, I still love Revenge Of The Ninja. The action is still spectacular – the sequence in which Sho Kosugi chases down a group of thugs in a van is still one of my all time favourites. The other good news (there really is no bad news here) is that Revenge Of The Ninja does contain what could be described as campy humour; moments that weren’t designed to make you laugh, but still do. Some of my favourite movies have been described as “camp classics”, so this is not a bad thing (I once wrote a musical set in a women’s prison, after all). I suppose my experience of Revenge Of The Ninja is kind of like many a person’s experience of high quality children’s entertainment: you take it seriously as a child, but as an adult you see the moments of humour that were previously invisible to you. And that’s a good thing. It makes the movie fresh again.

Most movies are either “bad” (in that Ed Wood kind of way), or “good” in that Citizen Kane, Shawshank Redemption, whatever-looks-like-a-good-movie-to-you kind of way. And both types can be enjoyed immensely. It’s a rare, special movie that can tread the fine line between truly good, and campy fun. And I think Revenge Of The Ninja is one. If I had a rating system, I would call it a perfect four or five star, ten out of ten, two-thumbs-up masterpiece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema.