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12 Ninja Movies You Need To Watch Before You Die

We don't want to get too dark here, but the fact of the matter is that we all have a limited time in our lives—especially given the overwhelming number of ninjas just waiting in the wings to cut us down in service to their shadowy masters. It might just be the biggest problem facing society today. So why not make the most of your life, and learn a little something about the ancient shinobi arts while you're at it, with a marathon of amazing ninja movies?

Pop some popcorn, sharpen your katana, and come with us as we comb through the good, the bad, and the completely inexplicable to bring you a dozen ninja movies you must see before you die—which, if these flicks are any indication, could happen at literally any moment!

Heroes of the East

If you're looking for a place to jump on with ninja movies, there aren't a lot of better starting points than 1979's Heroes of the East.

Also known as Shaolin vs. Ninja, it's a classic in the Shaw Bros. tradition, with the time-tested formula of pitting a master of one style against a group of rivals to see whose kung fu reigns supreme. In this case, though, that master is the legendary Gordon Liu—who was fresh off his breakthrough performance as the hero of 36th Chamber of Shaolin the previous year, and who would go on to international fame as Pai Mei in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill—going up against eight different Japanese masters. It's a simple setup that leads to some phenomenal fights, and made Heroes of the East arguably the most important take on ninja action to come out of Hong Kong.

Five Element Ninjas

If you've spent more than, say, five minutes talking to someone about classic martial arts movies, you've probably encountered one of the most widely accepted truisms of the genre: Five Deadly Venoms rules hard. The exotic and unstoppable styles that are only vaguely tethered to reality, the heroes that need to dig deep to learn the secret weaknesses of their opponents, the cartoonish violence that finds people dying with fountains of bright red bloodblood—it's all there, it's great, and Five Element Ninjas combines everything about that setup with ninjas, and takes it about five steps further over the top.

While it's not as well-known as its predecessor, and only stars one member of the famous "Venom Mob," Lo Mang, Element is every bit the blood-soaked classic that Venoms is. The plot is pretty simple—a kung fu school that was defeated in battle hires a color-coded, element-themed ninja clan to get revenge on the warriors that beat them—but honestly? That hardly matters when you're getting glorious fight scenes with ninjas appearing and disappearing in a cloud of red smoke, or watching the heroes celebrate tearing their enemies in half by punching a giant boulder so hard that it explodes.

Seriously, this is a movie where one of the heroes gets his guts ripped out in a fight, and then continues fighting for another five minutes until he makes the crucial error of stepping on his own intestines. If that doesn't sound like something you need to see immediately, then there's a good chance you're reading the wrong list.

Ninja III: The Domination

No tour through the world of ninja cinema would be complete without at least one entry from the infamous Canon Films Ninja Trilogy, but if you want to see the '80s ninja explosion in all its bizarre, high concept glory, you need to go straight to the third one. And don't worry—while Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja are certainly worth seeing, they're not really necessary for enjoying this one.

Like its predecessors, Ninja III is nominally based around legendary ninja actor Sho Kosugi, but the real action here is found with the movie's other star. After an opening that finds a ninja launching a wildly violent assassination attempt on a golf course—which involves, among other things, taking down a helicopter by killing the pilot with a shuriken launched from between his toes—the ninja ends up dead, but not before his soul possesses Lucinda Dickey, probably best known for her role in Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. Here, she's Christie, a technician for the phone company and aerobics instructor who suddenly finds herself unwillingly moonlighting as a deadly assassin, a victim of... The Domination.

It's a twist on the usual ninja movie setup that combines martial arts action with the setup of a horror movie, and the end result is pure '80s radness.

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation

Stories about how white Americans are actually the best at being ninjas aren't exactly a rarity in the world of '80s action flicks. There's so many of them that they're not even a rarity on this list, and Cannon's American Ninja pentalogy pretty much defined the entire subgenre by pitting Michael Dudikoff against increasingly ridiculous odds and having him kick his way to glory.

If you're only going to watch one, though (and let's be real here, you should definitely only watch one), the second installment is by far the best. Dudikoff returns as an Army Ranger with the hilariously on-the-nose name of Joe Armstrong, sent along with sidekick Curtis Jackson (Steve James, sadly not the rapper better known as 50 Cent) to investigate the disappearances of a handful of marines from a military base in a Caribbean paradise. Naturally, those abducted jarheads are being brainwashed and genetically altered into an army of super-ninjas, which means Armstrong and Jackson have to ninja their way through an entire base of brainwashed bad guys to blow up the entire operation.

It's goofy as hell, full of bloodless knockouts and insanely over-the-top twists, but all that adds up to a movie that's uproariously entertaining. Just make sure you don't follow it up with the bloated, incomprehensible, and Dudikoff-free American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt.

Pray For Death

On one level, Pray For Death is basically just Death Wish with Charles Bronson swapped out for Sho Kosugi. Look a little deeper, though, and there's something in here that's a little bit smarter than your average ninja revenge story.

Make no mistake: there's a lot of ninja revenge in this movie, with Kosugi playing the role of Akira Saito, a highly trained ninja who, after being forced to murder his own brother, leaves a life of shadowy violence behind in order to travel to America with his family and open a restaurant. Unfortunately, it doesn't work out that way, and when the mafia shows up looking for a bit of priceless jewelry and puts his family in danger, Akira realizes his old life of violence isn't far behind him after all.

Like pretty much all of Kosugi's ninja films, the action is spectacular, but the really compelling stuff here comes in how the movie presents Akira as an immigrant in pursuit of a peaceful new life in America, and the contrast between the dream of hard work and success and the barriers he encounters along the way. It might all lead to Akira donning his ancestral helmet and finding vengeance at the end of a sword, but the way it gets there and its attitude towards the American Dream elevates it to something a little more interesting than the standard bloody punch-up.

Ninja Assassin

On the off chance that you were worried Sho Kosugi had stopped being a total badass after the '80s, don't fret. In 2009, his starring role as the villain of Ninja Assassin proved that he definitely still had it.

Produced by the Wachowskis and directed by James McTeigue—who previously collaborated in those roles on their adaptation of V For VendettaNinja Assassin cast Kosugi as Lord Ozunu, the ruthless head of a ninja clan that trained orphans from birth to become... well, you can probably guess what they become, it's right there in the title. Unfortunately for Ozunu, his chosen successor, Raizo, goes renegade after the Ozunu executes the only person who ever showed him kindness, setting the stage for exactly the kind of beautiful, visually stunning fight scenes that you'd expect from the people who brought you The Matrix.

It's worth noting that Raizo was played by South Korean megastar Rain—who previously worked with the Wachowskis as Taejo Togokahn in the criminally underrated Speed Racer—and in the process became the first-ever Korean-born actor to headline a major Hollywood movie.

Ninja Strikes Back

Anyone who has nostalgia for prowling the aisles of video stores looking for the weirdest movies they could find undoubtedly has at least a few fond memories of Hong Kong's infamous "Brucesploitation" era. If you're not familiar, well, it's pretty simple. After Bruce Lee's sudden death in 1973, the world of martial arts films exploded with a glut of imitators—Bruce Li, Bruce Leung, Bruce Lai, Bruce Leung, and our personal favorite, Brute Lee—grinding out the cheapest possible knockoffs to capitalize on the sudden vacuum left in the industry.

Needless to say, almost all of them are very bad. Ninja Strikes Back, on the other hand, actually kind of rules.

The movie stars Bruce Le as—wait for it—"Bruce," joined by a pretty great cast that includes the legendary Bolo Yeung, of Bloodsport fame, and the hard-kicking Hwang Jang Lee, who you may recognize as the dude who usually beats the living hell out of Jackie Chan for the first two acts of a movie. The plot is thin and the movie itself is probably even sleazier than you expect (one scene takes place in a house where a porn film is just casually being shot in the background), but if you can get past the thin layer of grindhouse grime, it's a cut above the usual Fake Bruce stuff, and immensely entertaining in its own right.

The Killer Elite

In theory, The Killer Elite sounds like the most amazing movie ever made. It's directed by Sam Peckinpah, whose gut-wrenching classics like The Wild Bunch and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia made his name synonymous with brutal, nihilistic violence, with a story that sees James Caan as a CIA contract killer out for revenge against his former partner, tasked with taking down an army of ninjas to stop an assassination. In practice, however, it's a movie where we're asked to believe that Burt Young—you know, Paulie from the Rocky movies?—is capable of just cold mowing down a bunch of trained ninjas with an uzi.

The Killer Elite is incredibly uneven and far from the director's best work, but a sub-par Peckinpah movie is still more than worth seeing, and there's a lot to enjoy here. The movie climaxes in a battle on board a World War II-era cargo ship, and while the endless slow motion death scenes almost feel like a parody of The Wild Bunch, it's still pretty awesome, with a ton of innovative action sequences and a sense of jumbled-up, frenetic motion that feels more like something from the mid-2000s than the slower brawls of a '70s thriller.

The Octagon

If you only ever watch one Chuck Norris movie in your life, it should be... well, honestly? It should be Lone Wolf McQuade, where Norris, at one point, drives a turbo-charged pickup truck out of his own grave. If you want one with ninjas, however, go for The Octagon. Despite the lack of truck-based resurrection from the grave, it's basically the platonic ideal of a Chuck Norris movie, with the steely-eyed Lee Van Cleef thrown in for good measure.

Norris stars, of course, as Scott James, a bearded karate master who finds himself caught up in a terrorist plot by what the movie's tagline calls "the unholy masters of terror." Since he just happens to be pals with a couple of mercenaries who are also dealing with a pretty severe ninja problem, the whole thing climaxes in a sequence where Scott James has to fight his way through the ninjas' own lair, the Octagon, battling through an entire building of evil killers and deathtraps, presumably in search of a last name to go with the two first names he already has.

It's worth mentioning that unlike a lot of action movies, this one features voiceover narration, with Norris offering the viewer some insight into his character's thoughts—which, if we had to guess, has a lot to do with the fact that this is his third starring role, and he hadn't quite developed the acting chops that you'd see later on in Walker: Texas Ranger.

Azumi

Director Ryuhei Kitamura is probably best known for his work on Godzilla: Final Wars, the all-out franchise-ending brawl that finds everyone's favorite kaiju duking it out with pretty much every other giant monster, up to and including his own American counterpart. If you really want to see Kitamura take on hyperviolent widespread destruction, though, you need to sit down and watch Azumi.

Based on the manga of the same name by Yu Koyama, Azumi stars pop singer Aya Ueto as an orphan trained from a young age to become a deadly assassin, including a final exam to complete her training where she has to kill her fellow trainees in order to pass. And that's just the start. By the end of the film, she's taking on an entire town, slashing her way through about a hundred weapon-toting stuntmen and literally dropping buildings on them to get her bloody revenge. It's incredibly stylish action, with practical effects enhanced by CGI that only rarely ends up feeling silly—Azumi cutting an arrow in half to kill enemies on either side of her looks goofy as all hell, but is rad enough that it hardly matters—and there's a twist at the end that's truly delightful for fans of ninja action.

Izo

Most movies about ninjas are pretty straightforward, but nobody ever accused Takashi Miike of making "most" films. His career as a director has been all over the map, from the disturbingly violent yakuza movie Ichi the Killer to the kid-friendly fantasy of The Great Yokai War, and even the live-action adaptation of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney video game. The one thing that unites them all is a style that verges on the surreal, creating movies that are often less about the narrative and more about the experience.

That's the case with Izo, Miike's look back at real-life 19th century historical assassin Izo Okada. Rather than just being a simple biography, it follows Okada through the afterlife, punctuating violent encounters with stock footage as it asks the big questions about the nature of suffering and the inevitable course of history that leads to violence.

It's an incredibly challenging movie, to the point where multiple critics have referred to it as "unwatchable," and it's certainly not the fun martial arts romp that you'll get with other films on this list. That said, while it might not be as purely entertaining as those movies, it's definitely fascinating.

Miami Connection

Okay, look: Miami Connection might only be a ninja movie on a technicality—the bad guys are referred to as "bikers by day, ninjas by night" in the songs performed by the heroic Tae Kwon Do rock band Dragon Sound—but we'd find a way to work this movie into any list of films you should see before you die. It just happens to fit here better than in a rundown of essential rom-coms. And yes, you read that correctly: the heroes are a Tae Kwon Do rock band called Dragon Sound. This movie rules.

Made with a minuscule budget in 1987 by amateur filmmaker, martial artist, and Dragon Sound rhythm guitarist Y.K. Kim, the movie received incredibly poor reviews on its initial release, but became an instant cult classic after it was unearthed by the Alamo Drafthouse in 2012. It's easy to see why, too. We hate to tout something as being "so bad it's good," but the tortured drama, energetic amateur acting, and spectacularly weird plot of a two-fisted synthpop band throwing down against a bunch of cocaine-dealing ninja bikers have an incredible amount of charm that more than makes up for what it lacks in technique.

For real: the songs alone, including "Friends," "Against the Ninja," and "Tae Kwon Do Family,"  would make the movie worth seeing. The fact that they're writing these songs about actual deadly ninja battles where people are straight up murdered in train yards? That's just icing on the cake.