Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: my younger readers are perhaps unaware of the seismic event that was the ninja fad in the U.S. during the 1980s, of which Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is but the latest aftershock. Seems like as good an excuse as any to look back to one of the films that kicked things off.

Alright, so do something for me: think of a ninja.

The thing you just thought of is made-up fairy tale bullshit. That's okay, though, it's the same thing I thought of. Even the word is slightly bullshit: if I have my facts right (and PLEASE chime in if you have better info), the characters for the word ninja can also be pronounced shinobi, and the latter is the more "authentic", but the former was popularised in the 19th Century because it was easier to say for the Westerners who were at that time swarming into Japan like ants at a picnic. Historically, shinobi were fighters from rural provinces in early feudal Japan, a millennium ago or less, who were trained in subterfuge and espionage tactics to protect local villages. Essentially, my sense is that the shinobi were basically the down-rent version of the samurai, with a more rough-and-tumble, winning-matters-more-than-honor attitude, and a farm-based rather than urban-based background. During the Sengoku period in the 15th-17th centuries, the shinobi were increasingly hired as military spies and assassins, using high-level weapons training in concert with excellent disguise skills to accomplish their tactical missions.

Note that "excellent disguise skills" does not mean "dressed in jet-black pajamas and hood with swords sticking out all over". These were spies, not warriors. They looked like you and me. The image of the shinobi as a figure all in black dates to the 19th Century, when they were incorporated into contemporary pop culture as romantic historical characters. The black is taken from a theatrical conceit: in certain stage conventions, figures dressed in black weren't really "there", as they manipulated props and such.

More than a century after their popularity spiked in Japanese culture, ninja/shinobi started to enter the Western pop culture consciousness through the 1967 James Bond picture You Only Live Twice, where they were part of the whole Exotic Oriental atmosphere that movie was trying to generate. Over the course of the 1970s, international film audiences were able to see ninjas show up as fighters and villains in various Hong Kong action movies. By this point, any resemblance to the historical figures was wiped out by the guttural screaming, exaggerated poses, and endless repertoire of edged weapons that we are familiar with today.

As the decade wound to a close, it became just a matter of time before some savvy American producer whipped up a home-grown ninja picture, one that would reach beyond the niche audience for Hong Kong action imports, and in 1980, the two first shots were fired in what proved to be a decade-defining infatuation with the fantastic, martial arts madmen sort of ninjas: April saw the publication of the bestselling novel The Ninja, by Eric Van Lustbader, which was followed by the summer release of the film The Octagon, in which a group of ninja terrorists were defeated Chuck Norris (who'd presumably encountered the characters during his time making movies in Hong Kong). All it took, from here was a little nudge over the cliff's edge, and now I will at last introduce you to the film and filmmakers who provided the kick.

The filmmakers, to the surprise of nobody keeping an eye on the exploitation of trends in '80s B-movies, were Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the heads of Cannon Films. Cannon would ride out the decade as the pre-eminent purveyors of schlocky, Zeitgeist-humping action movies, and the film that really launched them into the stratosphere was the 1981 release Enter the Ninja, the same movie that turned American ninjas into a pop culture perpetual-motion machine. It's hard to say why: probably just because most Americans hadn't really seen anything like this before. Certainly, Enter the Ninja isn't an especially great movie when it involves anything other than ninjas flipping out and killing people; to be perfectly blunt about it, it's a tedious slog.

Enter the Ninja began life as a story concept by stuntman Mike Stone, who intended to star in the lead role himself. By the time the screenplay was completed by Dick Desmond and an uncredited Golan, Stone had been bumped back down to stuntman status, thanks to the unexpected availability of Franco Nero, famed star of Italian genre fare going back to his lead role in the iconic Django. I will say that I feel sorry for Stone: Nero's presence in the leading role adds nothing of value to the film beyond the ability to market it as a Franco Nero picture, and the actor's visual appearance in 1981 - paunchy and sweaty, looking like a sad-sack Luigi from a gritty urban reboot of Super Mario Bros. as a 1970s domestic drama - doesn't exactly scream "this man is a world-class ninja!"

By the same token, Nero isn't really the problem here. The problem, more than anything, is Golan's direction (he took over the film when Charles Bronson refused to let him have the keys for Death Wish II, which became Cannon's next gigantic hit in 1982). As a producer, the man might have had a laser-like ability to focus in on exactly the biggest fads an the most reliable moneymakers, but his time spent on film sets didn't usually result in terribly exciting final cuts. His movie prior to this was The Apple, which I think is by far the most appropriate use of his directorial talents: the generally hallucinatory quality of that film's awful screenplay benefits from Golan's addled matching of shots. In Enter the Ninja, as in the other action films he directed in the 1980s, the pacing is lethargic and the action scenes uncomfortably stapled into the movie.

How about that movie, anyway? The opening of the film finds a white-clad ninja tearing ass through a forest, murdering his way through an army of red-clad ninjas, before ultimately arriving at a dojo where he beheads the master (Dale Ishimoto). This turns out to have been all a test, somehow, with the master calmly bringing in his severed wax head and all the "dead" ninjas pulling off the squibs they had put on just for the occasion as the whole dojo celebrates the skill with which the white ninja completed his training. That ninja, as we see when he pulls off his hood, is a fat-faced Westerner (American? South African?) named Cole, played by Nero in the flesh, Stone in the action scenes, and overdubbed by Marc Smith. Only one member of the dojo fails to join in the celebrations: Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), a descendant of samurai masters who resents this uppity white fellow for sticking his nose into the ancient traditions of Japanese martial arts. Hasegawa will matter later.

Meanwhile, Cole travels to the Philippines, where Golan and Globus were able to shoot for dirt cheap. I'm sorry, where Cole's old buddy Frank Landers (Alex Courtney) and his new, distractingly British wife Mary Ann (Susan George) are working a plantation. Cole's arrival is perfectly timed: the Landerses have been getting a lot of grief from a wealthy businessman named Venarius (Christopher George, no relation to Susan) - Venarius! God bless terrible B-movie character names! - who wants to buy their land. To that end, he's been funding a local group of thugs headed up by the purely evil hook-handed, comically short German Siegfried Schultz (Zachi Noy). Recalling the words of his master, that to fully become a true ninja, he must do good in the world, Cole happily agrees to step in and save the land and livelihoods of the Landerses and their local employees. With the help of a local crusty old shopkeeper and comic galoot named Dollars (Will Hare), Cole tears through the thugs with little enough effort that Venarius decides to reach out for help from the one man who'd like nothing than to see Cole's bleeding body at his feet: Hasegawa. And thus the stage is set for a ninja-on-ninja climax.

It's a good climax, too. The action in Enter the Ninja isn't too great, for the most part: it involves lots of crappy cutting that tends to reduce the fighting to a series of isolated movements, and often the switch from Nero to Stone and back is just hilariously poor. But the film is bookended by its two best sequences: the chase through the forest is, while utterly daft and cartoonish, treated with enough energy and surprisingly high-impact violence (all the more since we later see it was faked - some real bullshit, right there) that it's easy to see how 1981 audiences, unaccustomed to this sort of thing, went gaga for it. The finale, meanwhile, is the first time we get to see Kosugi in action much at all, and that alone is worth the price of admission. He'd become one of the early ninja movie stars, appearing in both of this film's semi-sequels along with a smattering of other pictures in the '80s and early '90s, which has been enough to guarantee himself an appreciative cult. He earns that cult, too. The final fight is a breath of fresh air after all of the mostly clunky action sequences throughout the film, with real choreography and a keen sense of how to move bodies and swords, and whatever boring flaws the rest of Enter the Ninja has (and it has little else), that final fight is absolutely worth hunting out, maybe even worth sitting through the hour and a half of dopey '80s movie that precedes it.

It really is a dopey movie. Not awful. Nero alone guarantees it's not awful. He might look all wrong for the part, and he might be pantomiming with some brazenly terrible dubbing (every character in the film sounds dubbed - given the production standards, they probably all were - and it's wretched to watch, but Cole is certainly the worst of it), but he was a legitimately good actor, as any fan of his Italian pictures can attest. Even in the midst of Golan-Globus schlock, he had a way of presenting himself to the camera that's pure Movie Star, and he treats the barbarously trite scenario of "lone fighter comes to save the farm from developers" as though it's the most important thing. One can find everything going on around him to be thoroughly, desperately dull (a confession: I actually fell asleep watching this the first time) at best and enervatingly corny and cutesy when Dollars shows up to do his greedy curmudgeon thing, but Nero anchors the film in a way that keeps it moving.

Still, it's the difference between "watchable" and "horrid", nothing that pushes the film up anywhere near to "good". Golan's directing is erratic and trivialises the plot more than its inherent clichés do, and the long wait for Hasegawa to show up lacks anything resembling "stakes" - Siegfried "The Hook" is such a dimwitted little bozo of a villain that all of the film's attempt to make him a terrifying psychopath feel more like parody than anything, and Cole himself barely seems able to take the little squawking German at all seriously. It's not that we could ever expect Cole to lose - this is an '80s action movie - but he doesn't even seem to have to work for it for the whole middle of the movie. That, coupled with the borderline-illiterate staging of much of the film's action and drama scenes, makes Enter the Ninja a fairly unengaging sit. Lord knows, the ninja film could get much worse than this: with its relative lack of garish cartoon ninja-ing (the final battle is an ice-cold and peerlessly stripped-down thing), and its concrete, if overfamiliar conflict, this is one of the most stable of all the films made in the '80s ninja craze. But it's not really all that much fun, and if a gonzo idiot film can be fun while a relatively stable, "realistic" film isn't, then I should think the gonzo idiot film is to be preferred.

But I will thank the movie for this still from the credits, one of the most '80s things imaginable: