The Cannon Canon

A closer look at Cannon Films’ most bizarre works

If you’ve never heard of Cannon Films, you probably know their work. They’re the company who made Chuck Norris a star and gave him almost all of his most famous, non-Walker, Texas Ranger roles. They made approximately a trillion ninja films in the 1980s. They gave directing work to genre luminaries such as Tobe Hooper and George P. Cosmatos, and gave Dolph Lundgren possibly his most ignoble role in Masters of the Universe. With so many films under their belt in a relatively short time, it can be hard to pick out the gems from the piles of crap.

The Ninja Trilogy

The Ninja Trilogy isn’t really a true trilogy, as the three films share no characters or overarching plot. Rather, they’re all variations on a theme: “Ninjas do cool shit.”

The first in the series, Enter the Ninja, stars Italian actor Franco Nero, the guy from all the original Django Westerns, though not known for his super-great American or Japanese accents. Thinking quick, the production dubbed over all of his lines with someone more all-American sounding. The plot is similar to that of Cannon’s sister series, American Ninja.

Nero plays Cole, the one white guy cool enough to learn ninjutsu in Japan, then brings his skills back to the West and eventually is wrapped up in a revenge plot, putting him on a collision course with his old rival, Hasegawa, played by Sho Kosugi. If you’re watching an action movie and a ninja shows up, there’s a 75 percent chance it’s Sho Kosugi. He rules, though still I question whether or not he’s a ninja in real life.

The sequel, Revenge of the Ninja, makes Sho the star as more ninja-oriented revenge action takes place, eventually climaxing with a ninja duel on top of a skyscraper. It’s great, but nowhere near the level of bonkers that the series would take itself to in Ninja 3: The Domination.

Nevermind that there wasn’t really a Ninja 1 or Ninja 2. Ninja 3 has two questions for you: First, what could be more unstoppable, more deadly than the flexibility of aerobics with the mastery of ninjutsu? Second, are you ready for The Ninja Exorcist? You better be. After possibly the greatest opening scene of all time happens as an evil ninja is murdered during a golf course rampage, we focus on an innocent aerobics instructor—played by Lucinda Dickey, who shows up in other Cannon films—who becomes possessed by the malevolent ninja’s spirit. Of course, only a ninja can defeat another ninja, so it’s up to Sho Kosugi to perform Ninja Exorcism and defeat the villain once and for all.

Also, there’s a sex scene that uses V8 that made me want to throw up, so that’s cool.

Death Wish 3

This is the movie scared conservative senior citizens see when they close their eyes. New York is a borderline apocalyptic hellscape ruled by gangs and rapists. Rich, predominantly white people are terrorized daily and afraid to leave their homes. Who will save them? Charles Bronson, of course. More accurately, Charles Bronson’s Large Guns.

Screw societal reform, screw affordable housing, screw rehab programs—the only way to stop gang violence is to put a bullet in the head of each and every one of them. By the end of the movie, gangsters who look like they should be terrorizing Bartertown are getting mowed down with a WWII belt-fed machine gun, and Charles Bronson blows up an apartment complex with a rocket launcher. Normal revenge fantasy stuff. The movie is a frenzied mess, full of bloody violence and wholly unnecessary rape scenes. “THIS IS THE ONLY WAY TO SAVE NEW YORK,” the film screams at its audience. I doubt that message, but it’s a riot if you’re inclined to watch a morally bankrupt, politically backwards action movie.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

The original TCM is a set-in-stone classic of the horror genre. A genuinely unsettling, uneasy work that feels like it wasn’t just about lunatics, it was made by them. Where do you go from there? Well, 12 years after the original changed horror forever, Cannon was about to find out. Funneling their money into the original director, Tobe Hooper, they recruited him to make a sequel to the classic. I’m…not sure that’s what Hooper did.

I’m not sure what TCM2 is at all. Is it a mean-spirited parody of the original? Is it an Evil Dead 2 situation, where it’s a loose remake with a comedic bent? Is it just a mere shell for Dennis Hopper to do some of the most extreme overacting the coke-fueled ‘80s had ever seen? The sequel trades the original’s sparse farmhouse setting for a Tim Burton-esque madhouse of squealing psychopaths and chilli magnates. Hooper felt that the original’s elements of black comedy were overlooked at the time, so he decided to amplify them in a major way for the sequel. In doing so, he abandons any pretense The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a film meant to scare you, but it’s still a hell of a lot of fun. Dennis Hopper dual-wields chainsaws at one point, and I dare you to find that in any other piece of media. Only Cannon could bring that sort of magic about.

What more could you ask for from a film company in the ‘80s? Now do yourself a favor and queue up Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films on your favorite streaming service and indulge.