They say that confession is good for the soul, so here it goes. I don’t get nearly as excited for new movies as I used to. Oh, there are still releases that I look forward to from filmmakers whose work I respect, but in the main it’s difficult for me to get all fired up over a lot of what hits my local cinema. The last part of that last sentence is much of the problem. Very little of what I consider to be of value (read: worth paying more than a rental fee) ever actually makes it onto one of the ten screens at my local theater. They are too booked up having the latest bland pseudo-comedy drivel or massively over-produced, ultra-homogenized blockbuster play on multiple screens to make room for more low key or artistic fare. Bear in mind, this is from someone who considers himself to be a fan of both drivel and blockbusters (and if you ask me nicely, I’ll gladly cry on your shoulder about the demise of the Hollywood Independents era and bemoan the apparent ignorance of the vast majority of studio executives currently in power who have likely never seen, nor care to see, a film produced before the day they were born), and not that more artistic fare imbues it with an innate superiority, but the lack of choice becomes a frustration, particularly when one hears about the myriad films being released for which your only choice of viewing is waiting for it to hit video and watching it at home. This is the second part of the problem, to my mind. There is a difference between experiencing something in a movie theater and experiencing something at home, and it’s not simply the size of the screen that counts. Film watching is intended as a communal affair (yes, modern audiences seem to have lost all sense of common courtesy when it comes to behavior in public, but we only have so much space here to get into that whole thing [not entirely true; we actually have all the space in the world, but I only have so much time, as I’m sure you do as well]). Some piece of humor which may leave you cold while watching from your sofa may be uproariously hilarious when in the company of fellow moviegoers. Also, watching everything at home takes a certain specialness away from these films, in my opinion. They become little more than something else on your television, complete with the level of control to which we’ve become accustomed to wielding in that regard. You can pause a movie to go to the bathroom, rewind to inspect some detail or decipher some bit of dialogue, do chores as a film unspools (and I’ve done all of the above, so I claim no innocence). These two main issues have diminished my joy in regards to new cinema, and it’s sad. Not sad enough that I’ll give up my passion for film, but sad, nonetheless. Having said all of that, I’m sure there are those reading this who may find it hard to believe that Sam Firstenberg’s Ninja III: The Domination (aka Trancers [no, not that one]) actually played pretty widely in cinemas. But it did, and more’s the pity that the theatrical distribution of pictures like it is a thing we have to talk about in the past tense.
An evil ninja (David Chung) attacks and kills “a prominent scientist” and his small army of bodyguards before being gunned down by the local police force. While moribund, he manages to pass his sword on to hot telephone repairwoman Christie (the divine Lucinda Dickey) along with his maleficent spirit which is hellbent on revenge (even though one would think that getting killed is merely an occupational hazard for a professional assassin). Later, Sho Kosugi shows up and fights some people while wearing an eyepatch.
Like all movies with possession as a subject, the most prominent aspect of Ninja III is one of identity. Christie blacks out when the ninja takes over; she completely loses herself. More than this, her physical appearance changes. Her skin becomes pale and the eyeliner on her eyes becomes more “Asian” (all the better to match the guy-liner on both Chung and Kosugi). This physical manifestation of a change in personality is something we’ve seen from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to The Exorcist and everywhere in between, and here there is an implication of sexual assault involved. When the ninja first grabs Christie, he violently wrestles her to the ground and claws at her, and there is the sense that he is about to rape her (never mind how illogical this would be, considering his situation). Later, when the strobe lights flash, the fog machine kicks in, and the wind fan threatens to blow everything to Oz (as you get when a spirit possesses your body), Christie is hit with a laser show that plays across her face and neck, and again there is a level of violation at work here, because the way she reacts is sensual, as if she were simultaneously being hypnotized and taking a lover. The communion between Christie and the ninja is both sexual and violent by nature, and the two are inextricably linked as such by the filmmakers.
In this same way, the film deals with gender roles to some extent (perhaps even more than simple character identities/personalities), although it does treat this element rather problematically. Christie works as a telephone repair technician, a trade more commonly associated with men. She owns a cabinet video game (Bouncer), which at the time would be more associated with men (or at least I don’t recall a vast array of hot women at Aladdin’s Castle, one of our local arcades, back in the day). She becomes a ninja assassin (certainly not a common female role back then). Christie is hit on by our hirsute romantic lead Billy (Jordan Bennett), one of the cops who we first saw in the film’s beginning, while giving her statement to a detective. She also doesn’t especially care for cops (we don’t know if this is the ninja’s influence or not) or soft drinks, so she’s rebellious in this sense. Christie also teaches an aerobics class (since, after all, she’s a riff on Alex Owens from Flashdance thus requiring a tough, working class exterior and a softer, passionate interior along with a plethora of shots leering over her toned body), and she wears Billy down when he attends it with the assumption that it’s easy (after all, if chicks do it…). Later, Billy dismisses Christie’s “weird” feelings with an air of condescension that’s maddening (and let’s just get this over with: this guy is a Grade-A handjob and a chauvinist pig, and he never fails to irritate every moment his smug character is onscreen). Billy is a repressive force in Christie’s life, for conformity to traditional gender roles.
After the ninja takes over Christie’s body, she becomes even more masculine (read: aggressive) and more deadly, but she also uses her good looks more to her lethal advantage in this regard. One of the first things she does with her ninja skills is beat the crap out of a group of musclebound would-be rapists from her gym who accost one of her friends (let’s not question the thought process these guys had, since they’re all gym members attacking another member, and not only in broad daylight but also right outside the gym’s door). This is all done while Billy (remember, he’s a police officer) stands there gawking, after which he hauls Christie off for another pushy attempt at getting together with her (which works this time, mind-bogglingly enough; cue the legendary V8 [the juice, not the engine] scene). But it’s Christie (or at the absolute minimum, Christie’s physical body) who is in control of most situations in the film, even when possessed, and this lasts right up until she decides to try and exorcise this spirit. At that point, the two halves become more divided, and Christie grows from this ordeal, this encounter with the ninja’s masculinity, to a small degree (it can be argued that she should be viewed as a double for the evil ninja from the start [note that her work uniform and the ninja’s uniform are very similar in appearance], and all her possession did was give her an excuse to act out her discontent in the war of the sexes)to the point that she takes a more active part in the finale (though by that point she’s also become something of a background character). And here’s where the complications arise. Christie’s adversity if both freeing and repressive. She gets to act out her aggressions against male society (embodied by the police) while being subjugated by a more powerful male persona personality. It takes an even stronger male than that to set her free, and then the world she returns to is very traditionalist (possibly even Neanderthal) in its definition of gender roles. Consequently, Christie does little more than go from the frying pan to the fire, from my perspective.
I grant you that this film, for all the love it gets (and it gets a lot from me, as well), is essentially hollow. The romantic relationship completely doesn’t click. Kosugi seems like a character from another film who just shows up in time to fight the bad ninja and nothing else (they try to give him some pathos with a brief flashback, but it adds zero). The plot is episodic and undeveloped; the film feels incomplete in some ways, as if they meant to add more and/or connect more of the dots but then didn’t, and there are filler scenes galore as a result. Yet visually, there is a ton of Eighties flavor and texture, and it’s the collision of pop rock, pop art, aerobics, Ninjitsu, and the supernatural that makes Ninja III stand apart from the pack.
MVT: See above. The blending of some of the most disparate elements in the history of cinema makes this little gem shine all the brighter.
Make or Break: The climactic fight (and it should be said that the action scenes in this film are both extensive and impressive) stands out for being well-shot and kooky in equal measure. Plus, ninja (I’m pretty certain the plural of which is “ninja,” like the plural of “moose” is “moose”)!