American Ninja Review
“The deadliest art of the orient is now in the hands of an American.”
That’s all we ever wanted.
The Cannon Group’s dynamic duo of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were notorious for their business strategies, believing that they always had to be one step ahead of the game. Their plan was to often beat fellow film competitors into cinemas by buying low-end scripts and spinning them into B-grade pictures within a manner of weeks. By 1981 they had decided to tap into the martial arts market, wanting to revive the kind of scene that Bruce Lee had popularised in the west almost ten years prior. Ninjas were the way to go. In 1980, Chuck Norris - who later become a staple player for the company - starred in The Octagon for American Cinema Releasing, prompting Cannon Films to retaliate with Enter the Ninja. Directed by Golan himself, the film starred Franco Nero and Sho Kusugi, gaining enough of a loyal following that a sequel, Revenge of the Ninja, wasn’t too far behind. Cannon successfully wooed Sam Firstenberg for this task, who had just completed his debut feature One More Chance for the Israeli cousins, and was looking to sink his teeth into something all the more challenging, despite his total lack of experience with directing action features. Revenge of the Ninja overcame mixed criticism to become a solid hit at the U.S. box office and so Ninja III: The Domination went into immediate production in 1984, this time with Golan wanting to shake up the premise by having a female serve as its protagonist. It proved to be a bizarre mixture of dancing, martial arts andfantasy horror elements, but ultimately failed to take in the kind of money Cannon was betting on. Nonetheless, Firstenberg continued working with the group, following up with Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo later that year.
By 1985, Golan was growing tired of flogging a dead horse. He wanted a fresh one.
He decided that the path toward riches lay with introducing audiences to a new kind of hero: a man trained in the ancient arts of self-defence; a man with no recollection of his past; an American man who wasn’t Jason Bourne. Firstenberg was immediately attached to direct, with teaser posters depicting Chuck Norris, having recently completed Missing in Action 1 and 2, in the lead role. Norris decided to step away, reportedly due to his own ego of not wanting his face shrouded by a dark hood. After an open call session a young Michael Dudikoff, who was more versed in comedy and dance roles, was brought in as a replacement. And so the legend of Joe begins.
Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff) finds himself enlisting in the U.S. Army, by orders of a court judge, whom threatens him with serving jail time otherwise. Joe has no recollection of his past, haunted only by dreams of his childhood, in which he seemingly undergoes magical martial arts training. No sooner does he arrive on the Philippine base, than he’s quickly thrust into battle with the Black Star Order ninjas, wiping the floor with them and saving a young and somewhat ungrateful woman by the name of Patricia (Judie Aronson) - daughter of Colonel Hickock (Guich Koock) - during the process. Unfortunately, Joe’s fellow comrades perish during the violent, albeit colourful assault, and when he returns to base Joe is goaded by his colleagues, despite his valiant actions. Leader of the pack, Corporal Curtis Jackson (Steve James) is quick to bully Joe, challenging him to a one-on-one fight with little reason. Joe convincingly defeats him while wearing a bucket on his head; Curtis - a long-standing martial arts instructor - seems surprised by Joe’s fairly standard self-defence techniques. Nonetheless, they swiftly shake hands and a friendship is born. It’s not long before they’re embroiled in a gun smuggling conspiracy involving the Black Star Order, which reaches the upper echelons of the military itself!
Originally produced as American Warrior, American Ninja was written by martial arts practitioner and former marine Paul De Mielche. While that reads like it should be a recipe for success (in financial terms it was a hit), Firstenberg’s first feature in the franchise can hardly be praised for its authenticity, though it was filmed around military bases within the Philippines. That’s not to say it doesn’t work. In its own inimitable way, American Ninja’s slapdash approach to just about everything we see on screen is all part of the charm; a characteristic which permeated many of Cannon’s features throughout the eighties, with confused political content, maximum levels of testosterone and wild, violent escapades. It encapsulates the worn turn of phrase “So bad it’s good”, back when the sentiment felt genuine, and as such defines a decade of glorious B-movie endeavours.
The first twenty minutes or so do well to highlight minor flaws in the overall pacing. An enjoyable action set-piece notwithstanding, a lot of time is spent with Joe and Patricia as Firstenberg attempts to pair the two in romance - their on-screen chemistry being cute rather than sizzling. Although admirable, Aronson moans a lot in a serviceable but underwritten role, while Dudikoff appears out of his element: his inarguably handsome yet vacant visage is perhaps the result of over-directing, as he tries his damnedest to sell the troubled amnesiac to the audience, despite a sincere enough attempt in trying to imbue his cool factor with that of a sensitive young man thrown into an unwanted situation. However, he begins to thaw out once he’s paired with Steve James, and as the movie’s buddy hook begins to gel it blooms into an enjoyable ride, where the ridiculousness of it all is fully embraced, none more so than by James himself, as he throws himself around like a kid in a candy store.
To much admiration, American Ninja compliments its own silly narrative by way of its strange mash-up of oriental, colour-coordinated warriors and staple action clichés. A violent, though largely bloodless affair, it sees Michael Dudikoff rise to the challenge of becoming a convincing onscreen fighter, and for the most part just about getting away with it (due to Mike Stone’s choreography), however nonsensical it gets: a scene in which Joe curiously throws away an assault rifle - though he has no qualms about actually killing - tells us that this man is indeed a dangerous weapon himself. Which is just as well, as proceedings do get a bit mystical by the third act, when Joe finally learns more behind the relationship he shares with his Japanese gardening friend (played by John Fujioka) and how to stretch his abilities to their fullest potential, before confronting head ninja Tadashi Yamashita in a duel to the death using ninja magic...with lasers and shit.
Far from being one of the most lauded action films of the decade, American Ninja has managed to endure for thirty years and remains one of its most indisputable gems, coming from an era which truly put out some of the greatest terrible movies of all time. That it’s received a blu-ray release of this magnitude only goes to show just how important it ultimately is within the history of action cinema.
88 Films has given American Ninja a 1080p transfer for this UK release, using the MPEG-4 AVC encode. First off the bat, the most noticeable thing is that saturation appears a tad inconsistent, resulting in overly orange/pink skin tones at times; this does tend to fluctuate between shots, so it could well be down to the original elements. Foliage also appears very lush, complimenting the Philippine locations well, and in all such colour rendition doesn’t prove to be too distracting when you end up with a bunch of cartoonish ninjas and equally animated action sequences. Detail is reasonably crisp, with solid close-ups and grain is well-handled during the majority of daylight exterior shots, suffering somewhat during darker scenes, which do lose some detail but not to any detrimental effect. A few specks of dirt here and there, but otherwise looking good for its age, with no signs of major clarity tinkering.
Audio consists solely of an English LPCM 2.0 track, which does a lot to bring out Michael Linn’s enjoyable score, balancing it nicely with that of numerous explosions and gun fire. Dialogue is clear throughout, which is as good as we can hope for. An nice, clean effort.
The only real caveat here is that 88 Films hasn’t seen fit to include optional English subtitles.
Original UK Trailer, going under the name of American Warrior.
Audio Commentary Featuring Sam Firstenberg and Stunt Coordinator Steven Lambert -
Sam Firstenberg is joined by American Ninja stunt coordinator Steven Lambert, and the result is quite tedious. Sam is usually an entertaining chap to listen to, but partnering him with Lambert - despite the two being close friends apparently - ultimately proves to be a frustrating listen, as Lambert regularly cuts him off mid-sentence, while the director tries to shut him down whenever he rambles on for too long. He’s just too damn polite to not succeed. Lambert acts in self-congratulatory fashion throughout most of the commentary track, taking credit for just about every stunt you see on the screen, with cries of “This is me”, practically every ten seconds, with total disregard toward other stunt members listed in the film’s credits, such as Mike Stone, Doug Wan, Richard Norton (in fairness he gets a mention, but not in any stunt capacity) and Kenny Lesco. I don’t doubt that some of his recollections are hazy but it really smacks of egotism and unfortunately bogs down what might have otherwise been an informative listen. As it stands, there’s about twenty minutes or so of actual trivia to be had.
Ninja Gaijin: Remembering a Classic Cannon Franchise. -
At almost 90 minutes, this proves to be a very fine addition to the release, understandably focusing on American Ninja and its sequel, given Firstenberg’s direct involvement. Featuring newly recorded interviews with Firstenberg, Paul De Mielche, BJ Davis (2nd Unit Director), Steven Lambert (Stunt Coordinator), Tadashi Yamashita, Phillip Brock (Private Charley Madison), Debbie James (daughter of Steve) and of course Michael Dudikoff and Judie Aronson, there’s a lot of ground covered. From Cannon’s attempt in kickstarting a new franchise, through shooting the first two movies, we’re treated to some fun recollections and facts, along with tributes to the late Steve James.