There's a reason Mr. Miyagi never taught Daniel-san about throwing stars or poisons: ninjutsu is not for nice boys. The black-clad, katana-wielding ninjas of lore were borne of civil wars and shady dealings, employed by feudal warlords to spy on, sabotage, and kill their enemies; in short, ninjas were the bad-asses of ancient Japan. And isn't that exactly why we love them? (More to the point: do those stuffy samurai have their own rap song? Nope. Vanilla Ice knew what was up.)
These skilled assassins were mysterious, elusive, and deadly -- and, at the height of their cinematic popularity in the '80s and early '90s, they were a subgenre of muscular, cheesy action vehicles unto themselves. When it comes to movies, the bad boys of martial arts have infiltrated almost every kind of film: kid flicks, kung fu pics, and James Bond adventures. There's even a little ninja something for Twilight fans. (Are you listening, Team Jacob?)
Ninjas for Purists: Shaolin vs. Ninja (1979)
Ah, the confusion of getting to know your in-laws. Cultural misunderstandings and marital miscommunication set up this Gordon Liu kung fu classic in which a Chinese fighter (Liu) accidentally insults his karate-chopping Japanese bride-to-be and must duel a series of offended Japanese martial artists as a result. Shaolin vs. Ninja (also known by the alternate titles Heroes of the East, Challenge of the Ninja, and Shaolin Challenges Ninja) is notable not only because it's one of few Shaw Bros. films to showcase ninjitsu and other Japanese fighting styles, but also because its Japanese masters are respected and not vilified. Liu's final confrontation with a shuriken-throwing ninja expert played by Yasuaki Kurata serves up a buffet of classic ninja "sham" tactics and gives Liu his biggest challenge of the film.
Also see: Chinese Super Ninjas; Shinobi No Mono.
Ninja Friends for 007: You Only Live Twice (1967)
While every James Bond adventure features a mish-mash of plot turns, fighting styles, villains, and exotic locales, You Only Live Twice is set in Japan -- so naturally, 007 gets to meet a few ninjas along the way. When he's not busy turning Japanese, thwarting Blofeld, and hooking up with Japan's finest ladies, Bond befriends secret service agent Tiger Tanaka, who happens to have an army of ninjas at his disposal. He even trains Bond at his special school for ninjas!
Hollywood bridged the gap between Far East imports and the beefy landscape of B-movie action vehicles by creating something new in the 1980s: white ninjas! First, Chuck Norris roundhouse-kicked an army of evil ninjas in The Octagon; a year later, Italian Spaghetti Western veteran Franco Nero (Django) played an American facing off against genre favorite Sho Kosugi in Enter the Ninja. In the years that followed, other action stars got a piece of the ninja action, from Jean-Claude Van Damme (Black Eagle) to Christopher Lambert (The Hunted). But the most successful of them all was Michael Dudikoff; though he'd eventually pass the American Ninja mantle to successor David Bradley (who starred in American Ninja 3, 4, and 5), Dudikoff will always be remembered as the quintessential white ninja -- and, unfortunately for his career, not much else.
Ninjas for Kids: 3 Ninjas (1992)
The '90s boomed with martial arts flicks for kids, thanks to the franchise success of the Karate Kid flicks years before and the fact that the decade was an uberhot time for ninjas in general (see Dudikoff, Norris, and Lambert citation). One of the best-loved of these children's chop-socky flicks was 1992's 3 Ninjas, a family-friendly tale of adolescent brothers (Michael Treanor, Max Elliot Slade, and Chad Power) who learn the art of ninjitsu -- in its most peaceful, non-lethal form, of course -- from their Japanese grandfather (Victor Wong). Tackling subjects like family, sibling rivalry, and girls, young heroes Rocky, Colt, and Tum-Tum navigated their way through three sequels: 3 Ninjas Kick Back (basically, 3 Ninjas in Japan), 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up (3 Ninjas defend Native Americans), and 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain (3 Ninjas meet Hulk Hogan).
Also see: the abysmally cheesy Surf Ninjas, starring Ernie Reyes Jr. and Rob Schneider.
Ninjas for Comic Book Nerds: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
For a franchise built around a comic book series and a line of action figures, Steve Barron's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film turned out to be a crowd-pleasing success on its own -- especially considering that its four leads deliver roundhouse kicks and surfer dude dialogue while wearing awkward foam and latex body suits. In ninja terms, Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael are deadly but conscientious peace-keepers, raised by the mutant rat sensei Splinter to use their hand-to-hand combat and weapons skills for good -- unlike their nemesis The Shredder and the shadowy army of ninjas that comprise his Foot Clan. Of course, some consider its sequel, 1991's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze to be the best of the series, if only because it unleashed the unforgettable rallying cry of all ninja-dom unto the world: "Go ninja, Go ninja, Go!"
Also see: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III; TMNT.
Ninjas for the SNL Set: Beverly Hills Ninja (1997)
By the late '90s, ninja movies were so prevalent that Hollywood decided to spoof them with a Chris Farley vehicle. (Sadly, Beverly Hills Ninja would be the last Farley film released before his death in late 1997.) Farley stars as Haru, a chubby white orphan raised by ninjas who winds up mixed up in a murder investigation in Beverly Hills -- a ninja movie and fish-out-of-water tale all at once! Poor Robin Shou (Mortal Kombat) is dragged along for the ride as Haru's watchful ninja step brother of sorts, looking as pained to be there as we are to be watching; even Farley himself reportedly hated the final product.
Also see: The 1988 spoof Ninja Academy, by Greek "Z movie" filmmaker Nico Mastorakis; Tongan Ninja, featuring songs by Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords.
Ninjas for Japanophiles: Ninja Scroll (1995), Azumi (2003)
Let's not forget the ninja flicks that come from the Land of the Rising Sun herself. Yoshiaki Kawajiri drew acclaim in 1995 for his animated thriller Ninja Scroll, an epic tale of warring ninjas so popular it spawned a 2003 television spin-off. Years later, director Ryuhei Kitamura followed his celebrated gangsters-meet-samurai movie, Versus, with Azumi, a gory historical actioner adapted from the award-winning manga series about a young girl raised as an assassin in Tokugawa-era Japan.
Ninjas for Twilighters: Shadow Fury (2001)
Before he was Jacob Black, before he was Shark Boy, The Twilight Saga: New Moon idol Taylor Lautner scored his acting debut in the little-seen, low-budget sci-fi movie Shadow Fury. The 9-year-old future werewolf appeared as the younger version of a ninja clone played by MMA fighter Bas Rutten, nabbing the job with the help of karate skills which, a few years later, also nabbed him Junior World Championship medals and a number one ranking in multiple categories.
Jen Yamato is Film.com's newest writer; she'll be writing for us weekly!