American Ninja Review

Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were a peculiarly eighties phenomenon, like Roland Rat, the Kids From Fame and Thatcherism. Setting out to become major players in the international film industry, they set up shop in London's glamourous Wardour Street and were, at one point, touted as the saviours of the British Film Industry. It all came crashing down eventually, in spectacular fashion, but for a few glorious years they were producing films so bad that even Lew Grade's ITC might have thought twice about releasing them. Along with highlights such as the undoubted camp brilliance of Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce and the truly appalling piece of Israeli propaganda The Delta Force, they gave us American Ninja, a film for those who found Rambo a tad too intellectual. On the other hand, if you found untold merriment in the sight of Stallone tramping around South East Asia looking like a cross between Jeremy Clarkson and a bag of walnuts, then American Ninja is the film to see. It's one of the few bad movies which is genuinely and unintentionally funny. I could be wrong here of course - perhaps director Sam Firstenberg and alleged writer Paul De Mielche are in on the joke - but I suspect I'm not.

In an unnamed bit of South East Asia, a US army base is host to Joe (Dudikoff), an orphaned ex-convict who joined the military as the alternative to a longer spell in jail. Attracting trouble faster than Mike Tyson, Joe doesn't get on with anyone and is soon on the wrong side of the Colonel, despite saving his shapely daughter Patricia from some incompetent terrorists and a mysterious gang of Ninja warriors. The strange reluctance of the authorities to give Joe any credit for his bravery is explained when we discover that every officer in command appears to be involved in a corrupt scheme to supply right wing troops with arms in an effort to combat Communist insurgency in the area. I hope you're paying attention.

The bad guys are led by an allegedly French arms dealer called Ortega (Stewart) and his Black Star Ninja accomplice (Tadashi Yamashita), a sadist with an acting technique derived from viewing too many episodes of "Kung Fu". Ortega isn't happy; due to Joe's involvement he "mat av to shut down ze entier operasion" but he dismisses the worries of Black Star with the confident assurance that "Zere are no American Ninjas !" How wrong can a man be. Joe, suffering with memory loss following an explosion in his past, has incredible fighting powers but knows not where or when he acquired them. A wild-eyed loner on the edge of oblivion, he is alienated from everyone around him, not even blinking when a sergeant announces "I know morale is low men, so let's hit the showers, OK ?" Troubled by flashbacks of his violent past, he can't help fighting his peers, notably a black martial arts expert called Jackson (James). Jackson makes the mistake of calling Joe a "bad ass karate boy", which starts a fight during which Joe pauses to water a plant and puts a bucket on his head. Understandably bemused, Jackson admits defeat (and who wouldn't ?) and becomes Joe's trusted buddy. Jackson wants to know about Joe's past, but Joe answers mysteriously "It's a long story". When it's finally revealed an hour later, you do wonder whether the ellipsis was worth the trouble. Off-duty, Jackson wears Tom Cruise shades and hangs about on a powerfully thrusting red motorcycle.

Meanwhile, Ortega is showing off his domain to some bit-part visitors. Pointing out some rather fetching vases of flowers, he announces that "Everysing you see ere, eet belong to me", and then points out a Japanese gardner called Shinyuki who apparently "Never sez a verd, vell ardly eser". Ortega has, along with some very tasteful pastel curtains, an entire Black Star Ninja army who train in colour co-ordinated tracksuits. Helpfully, he tells us that "Zis is ma private armee" and shows off the training programme which appears to consist of a lot of jumping about and grunting in a vaguely threatening manner. Who can combat this treacherous plot to take American arms and kill Communists with them ? Er, the Americans, who would of course never consider doing anything of the kind in South East Asia. Or, specifically, Joe, Jackson and Patricia since everyone else is in league with Ortega to some extent. There are various attempts to get Joe killed but all of them fail until you begin to wonder why Ortega doesn't just have the pesky Yank shot instead of sending countless numbers of incompetent Ninjas after him. At one point, Joe hides under a truck - an obvious homage to Raiders Of The Lost Ark - and travels to Ortega's hideaway in time to hear our bad guy express his delight at the weapons, "Magnifique ! Jus beautiful !" Sensing an alien presence, Ortega is forced into action - "Someone is in ere, lock ze doors so ee cant get away !" - failing to notice that, adding an air of pantomime to the proceedings, Joe is hiding in plain sight on the roof.

The unlikely plotting continues in deliriously confused fashion. Although we don't seem to know when Joe was born we do know that "At age 16 he was sent to prison". The time scale of the film is also worrying. We discover that at the age of 6, Joe was found by the Japanese Ninja warrior Shinyuki (yes, the gardener from Ortega's mansion) but that after a short time he was knocked unconscious in an explosion, Other dialogue later indicates that this explosion was 6 years ago which must mean that either Joe is now 12 or that the explosion knocked out of him all sense of time. If you can explain any of this, please e-mail me care of DVD Times. The Black Star Ninja, supposedly a crack assassin, has at least six chances to kill Joe but strangely fails to do so on each, adding an ironic edge to the later exchange between him and Ortega - "Can you kill eem ?", "Yes !". Black Star Ninja also has a rather bigger tummy than one would expect on so fearsome an athlete, but perhaps his psychological imperative is explained by Shinyuki's revelations - Beware the Black Star Ninja ! He has taken the dark path and betrayed the code !". Is George Lucas in the house ?

It all concludes in the expected massacre during which Joe is joined by Jackson, who has dressed as Rambo for the occasion with a headband that not even Wayne Sleep would be seen dead in. I won't reveal the delights contained in this denouement but do keep an eye on the Ninjas, all of whom have first class death scenes, especially the one on the balcony.

I can't really begin to express how wonderfully terrible this film is. Back in 1986 I used to rent an unfeasible number of videos from the corner shop and seeing American Ninja again was like a wonderfully guiltless revelling in the sort of trash I used to see week after week. It's not quite as joyously ludicrous as Invasion USA, a Chuck Norris flick which should be on the curriculum of every film school, but it's certainly up there with the likes of Missing In Action and anything starring Tim Thomerson. Michael Dudikoff was pushed as a new action hero in the mid-eighties but his lack of either charisma or acting skill told against him. The rest of the acting is on the level of a slightly below par amateur dramatic performance - although Steve James is conceivably a decent actor sending up material that he couldn't do anything else with - but Don Stewart deserves a special mention for his resounding failure to sound even vaguely French and his manly attempt to deliver a line like "No von can shtop us now !" with some kind of conviction. Sam Firstenberg must be congratulated for his unswerving lack of attention to detail and his collaborators all live down to the same standard. Michael Linn should be singled out for producing a music score of such 1980s awfulness that it might even be worth buying on CD.

If you think bad films have nothing to offer you then a viewing of American Ninja is essential. Less politically offensive than the Rambo movies, it offers mindless action served up at regular intervals. The action is sometimes good but Dudikoff is a martial arts hero without any grace or style and most of the more difficult bits are patently performed by a stunt double. The action scenes were choreographed by Mike Stone, "world famous karate champion", who was presumably in need of the cash. There are four sequels which aren't nearly as diverting - and yes, I have seen them all.

The Disc

This is another no-frills MGM DVD release of one of their back catalogue movies, and it's nothing special.

The picture quality veers between good and mediocre. The colours are particularly good and the level of detail is reasonable although some of the jungle exteriors look a little soft. The night scenes have a small amount of artifacting. Some grain is in evidence throughout along with some print damage. The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1.

The soundtrack is Mono only and is servicable enough. The frequent sound effects and explosions would be better served by at least a stereo track but the mono track reflects the original recording of the film.

The disc contains a trailer for some film called "American Warrior" which, a close examination reveals, is the same movie. So camp it ought to feature Graham Norton, the trailer informs us that "The deadliest art of the Orient is now in the hands of an American" and features a smashing image of Dudikoff posing in front of a vast American flag. There are 16 chapter stops.

How many people are prepared to buy a very silly eighties Ninja movie on DVD is a moot point, but if you're looking for mindless action it doesn't come much more mindless than this. A very average DVD release suggests that MGM are well aware that the commercial potential of this is a touch limited. Still, I have to say that my life is richer for having seen it again.

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