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Revenge of the Ninja

Kino // R // May 26, 2015
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted May 1, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Revenge of the Ninja emerged just as Cannon Films' love affair with the '80s ninja craze kicked into gear, marking the action-film directorial debut of Sam Firstenberg, who would go on to helm several genre flicks for the studio over the next ten years ... including, yes, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. Viewed as a follow-up to Enter the Ninja despite the stories having no connective tissue between them, the film also features the first time that an Asian actor, genre legend and martial-arts master Sho Kosugi, took top billing in an American-made film, a testament to his capabilities in holding attention during energetic choreography. In retrospect, it's the stuff that guilty-pleasure legends are made of, mixing "so bad it's good" craziness under Firstenberg's direction with reputable ninjitsu poise from its lead, coupled with an inspired downbeat premise to drive it forward. Revenge of the Ninja will also make skeptics twitch if they scrutinize much of anything in this almost-realistic setting, so proceed with caution amid the cult-classic praise.

Following the brutal assassination of much of his family in Japan at the hands of a large ninja clan, Cho Osaki (Sho Kosugi) flees to America -- with his infant son, Kane, and his elderly mother -- to open an art gallery with the backing of his close friend, Braden (Arthur Roberts). Himself a student of ninja techniques due to his family lineage, Cho vows to never again practice the art, taping his sword shut in a symbolic gesture. Six years pass where Cho eventually sets up an Asian doll installation in a California gallery, while practicing martial-arts with a select few people, including the flirtatious Cathy (Ashley Ferrare) and police consultant Dave (Keith Vitali). Cho doesn't realize, however, that the dolls being trafficked through his gallery are actually a front for a drug operation with ties to the local organized crime syndicate, a situation that exacerbates when his son goes missing and a silver-masked ninja appears to be complicating the dealings. What's an ex-ninja to do when all other options seem expended?

One of the first scenes in Revenge of the Ninja features a group of roughly a dozen or so of the supposed clandestine assassins standing out in broad daylight prior to a planned strike, shortly before Cho Osaki catches two bow-drawn arrows in his hands ... and another in his teeth. That's the kind of cartoonish logic to prepare for in Sam Firstenberg's film, a talking point that sorta gets swept under the rug in discussions about which of these schlocky ninja flicks are the best of the bunch. Underneath this '80s cheeseball goofiness, however, lies a straight-played, tragic tale about a father-son duo moving on from a calamity in their lives, paired with a ninja master's vow to abandon the deadly art and, as a side bonus, his desire to open a gallery of Japanese relics in America. Granted, there's a lot of inanity to cope with -- the fighting prowess of an untrained kid, an elderly woman doing backflips, magic mind-control that would've come in handy far before it's used -- but at least there's genuine motivation keeping it going.

Much of the success behind Revenge of the Ninja rests on the shoulders of Sho Kosugi, who effortlessly wears the attitude of a time-worn widower with dormant lethal capabilities. Previously the villain in Enter the Ninja, where he had little dialogue but copious screen presence opposing a heavily-mustached Franco Nero, Kosugi actually stands relatively strong amid a collection of goofier, deadpan performances; the booming voice of the silver-masked ninja is, in particular, absurdly sinister. Between gangster theatrics and double-crosses behind his back, Kosugi maintains a stoic, solemn charisma as Cho Osaki, keeping a grip on a worthwhile purpose as the screenwriting lunges in outlandish directions. Once he dons the suit, however, and uncorks his bottled-up ferocity, that energy he projected in Cannon's previous ninja flick emerges, the intensity of his eye-liner gaze driving him forward in the name of his family and heritage, embodying the very essence of nostalgic badassery.

The action in Revenge of the Ninja really boils down to how much of the screenwriting decides to get in the way of the hand-to-hand combat. When Sho Kosugi and coordinator Steve Lambert unleash fight choreography and swordplay free of other props and weapons, the pair and Sam Firstenberg capture tight, vigorous sequences with awareness of the geography of locations, whether they're surrounded by bamboo in a Japanese setting, at an open playground, or between the walls of a stories-tall apartment complex. As soon as climbing spikes, caltrops, or other tools of the trade fit in -- especially during the film's big rooftop battle between rival assassins high above the city -- things get fairly out there in the plausibility department while they play around with what makes ninjas so adept at infiltration and subterfuge. No matter which kind of violence takes center stage, though, director Firstenberg doesn't hold back in shedding lots of blood in Cho Osaki's vengeance, generating both chuckles and gory surprises as he eventually gets just as wrapped up in finding and killing his child's kidnappers as Liam Neeson does nowadays.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Revenge of the Ninja's 35mm cinematography might not look traditionally spectacular from start to finish through this 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC encode, but it's certainly a far cry from the MGM DVD released a dozen or so years ago and displays flashes of excellence that'll be a treat for fans. The image can be somewhat flat and hazy on occasion whenever the focus gets pulled back, but fine object details do emerge in tight close-ups on faces and hair, on Cho's sword, on the dolls in the art installation, and so forth. Dust and debris are also pretty frequent, some blips remaining for a full stretch of film for a scene, but it's really only at its most invasive during title cards and image transitions. Once you get beyond those issues, however, there's a lot to relish within Kino-Lorber's treatment. Contrast is rather well-handled, rendering suitably deep black levels and satisfying shadows that enhance the image's depth awareness, though a few of the much darker sequences result in some mild blue-ish swaths of distortion. The color palette is vivid but not overtly dialed-up, displaying convincing skin tones and striking differentiation in reds, blues, and greens. And despite the persistent flecks, the grain structure looks pretty fantastic and balances rather well with the details underneath.

Not much of a surprise in the audio department, presented in a stable 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track that wears its vintage with pride. The real victor here is the dialogue, which remains consistently clear and responsive to bass levels depending on who's speaking, whether it's Sho Kosugi's lower rumble or Ashley Ferrare's delicate higher-pitched tempo. A lot of smaller sound effects create a nice grasp on atmosphere across the two channels, too, like splashes and trickles of water and police walkie-talkies. Punches, kicks, slammed bodies, shattered wood, and clanked swords can be kinda flimsy, either hitting with a dull thud or revealing a little rasp when they're telegraphed, though a degree of that's to be expected anyway ... and there are a few exceptions when the fidelity jumps up a satisfying notch. The decadently '80s synth music sounds its age, but hangs back and lets the action play out without any interruptions. All points considered, Revenge of the Ninja doesn't sound too shabby at all.

Special Features:

Commentary with director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert:
From my perspective, there are three things that typically result in a satisfying commentary experience: legitimate enthusiasm and an unpretentious attitude from the participants as they reveal details about the production that'll make those listening further appreciate what's on-screen. This track featuring Firstenberg and Lambert fills all three of those requirements from start to finish, discussing some of the intricacies of Revenge of the Ninja's production -- filming in Utah, wonky marketing practices, Sho Kosugi's participation and who's behind what costume, things that were removed for a theatrical release -- in a way that generally follows a scene-by-scene basis, mostly when they spot something on-screen and elaborate on it further until something else grabs their interest (avoiding touching on any leaps in story logic). Plot description is kept to a minimum until it seems relevant, such as discussing the big reveal of Cho Osaki's hidden ninja gear, and the energy keeps up all the way through discussing the logistics of the vigorous finale. Well worth listening to.

The Blu-ray also arrives with a Theatrical Trailer (1:42, 16x9 HD).

Final Thoughts:

Revenge of the Ninja sports a fairly grounded premise for an '80s ninja flick that's based on family tragedy, Japanese tradition, and criminal deception, something that really works in its favor as Sam Firstenberg and Sho Kosugi orchestrate energetic martial-arts action in classic Cannon Film fashion. Those things have helped the film hold together over the years despite its dullard mystery and daft logic, a combo which makes for a surprisingly entertaining hunk of cheese that's "so bad it's good" yet also kinda works on its own merits. Sho Kosugi makes for a fine melancholy hero who we're just itching to see get back in the ninja garb, which he does in the film's rambunctious finale built on the grand battle between covert assassins with rivaling moralities ... but without the black and white outfits to really hammer home the point. Taken seriously, it's a questionable hodgepodge of action with moment that seem as if they were lifted from a Saturday morning cartoon; taken with grains of salt and butter poured over popcorn while in the right mindset, it's quite a bit of nostalgic fun. Kino-Lorber's Blu-ray looks and sounds pretty decent, and comes with a nice director/stunt coordinator commentary. Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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