Tagline: The Orient created the world’s deadliest art. Now there’s an American master!
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Writers: Paul De Mielche (screenplay) Avi Kleinberger & Gideon Amir (story)
Starring: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Judie Aronson, John Fujioka, Guich Koock, Don Stewart, John LaMotta, Tadashi Yamashita, Phillip Brock, Tony Carreon, Roi Vinzon, Manolet Escudero, Greg Rocero, Berto Spoor, Michael Hackbart, Jerry Beyer, Rohy Batliwala, Jim Gaines, Steve Cook, Brian Robilliard
18 | 95 min | Action
Budget: $1,000,000 US
Michael Dudikoff wasn’t much of a ninja – come to think of it, he wasn’t much of an actor either – but for a brief period during the mid-1980’s he became a hero to kids the world over, and he owes it all to American Ninja.
For me, American Ninja is the defining movie of the oft memorable Cannon Group, who churned out ultra-violent schlock by the bucket load. This was cheap production, nonsensical storytelling, and some of the stiffest, most unmemorable acting of a generation, but there was something there; there had to be.
At the Cannon Group’s peak, 80’s America was locked in a cold war frenzy, and any movie that was even remotely patriotic would have proved a smash. If it wasn’t the Ruskis that were the enemy, it was the Orient, and if not them – well, anyone who didn’t spend their time saluting Ronald Reagan and waving miniature American flags would do.
There is nothing remotely original about American Ninja. We have an impossibly handsome protagonist, a token black sidekick with muscles to burn, and a smoking hot damsel who spends her time screaming and complaining about her hair. There are corrupt officials, clueless extras, and the kind of uninspired twist so blatant you almost feel betrayed when it finally condescends to slap you in the face. We also have jeeps exploding after rolling into trees at 1 km/h, a whole assortment of plastic weapons, and a serious lack of blood for a movie with such a preposterous body count.
Oh yeah, and there are ninjas. Lots of them!
We begin on a US military base in the Philippines, where Joe (Dudikoff) would rather spend his time playing with his flick knife and acting like James Dean than playing hacky sack with the boys, a fact that they don’t take to lightly, and when they are attacked by a gang of ninja’s hellbent on kidnapping the Colonel’s daughter, the mysterious Joe is held responsible for the deaths of his comrades, but not before catching the attention of the high-ranking Black Star Ninja, who unlike Joe’s fellow soldiers realises that this boy band member knows his shit.
Joe also attracts the attentions of the Colonel’s daughter Patricia (Aronson), who after accusing Joe of trying to kill her and demanding that he fly to Italy to replace her dress and shoes, begins to soften and immediately has eyes for our steely-eyed stranger. But the Colonel and his Republican cronies are not buying it, particularly when they pull the stranger’s records and realise that he has no next of kin, or even a recognised date of birth that matter. In fact, an island crew found Joe unconscious while ‘blasting a hole in the jungle’, and he was brought back to the U.S. with amnesia, where he was in and out of foster homes before almost killing a man at 16.
I guess they’ll recruit anyone.
Fortunately for Joe, he makes overnight best friends with Corporal Colonel Jackson, who is only too happy to become his token black sidekick after having his ass handed to him in front of his entire platoon. So impressed is Jackson by the newcomer’s willingness to embarrass him in the most ostentatious way imaginable that he immediately badgers Joe about the possibility of the two of them going into business together, putting on karate exhibitions for people who learn martial arts as a means to humiliate their fellow man. Of course, contrary to his actions only moments earlier, the hypercritical Joe is far from interested, stating rather plainly that he doesn’t want to fight, doesn’t like crowds, and doesn’t need money.
You could have fooled me.
Meanwhile, a group of sleazy men meet at a plantation to cut a furtive deal, and they are treated to an elaborate ninja exhibition on an assault course bigger than an amusement park, one that nobody else on the island is apparently aware of. These ninjas are bright and multicoloured, immediately laying waste to the whole stealth concept, and the Black Star Ninja senselessly disposes of a few of them for the sake of some business associates, because killing your own men is a surefire way to win any war.
After ignoring the Colonel’s threats of court martial and stealthily escaping the base to which he has been confined, Joe sets about getting to the bottom of the island’s ninja-led conspiracy, and after bumping into a mysterious old man named Shinyuki, he begins to recall his childhood in great detail, one of crappy weapons training, cod spiritual philosophies, and surrogate fathers who can magically disappear in clouds of smoke, until one day they leave you behind forever.
In the end, it comes down to a case of the good old U.S.A against…well, everyone and anyone; except for the nutty old man who adheres to the kind of ancient philosophies which are no longer a threat to the Capitalist way of life. If you’ve ever owned a collection of GI Joe action figures, the finale of American Ninja is likely to give you a serious bout of playtime déjà vu, not only in regards to the cheap looking vehicles of which there are too few, but because of the badly staged, absurdly plotted action, and the degrading stereotypes at your sticky little fingertips.
Worst of all is the fact that, in true jingoist fashion, our American protagonist masters the art of the Orient as a means to conquer those who utilise it as the spiritual practice it’s supposed to be, complete with Rambo bandannas and giant rocket launchers, with a big black fellow thrown in to counterbalance the flagrant racism.
Flanked by two ninjas, the not-so-slick Joe drives his plastic sword through a barrel, seemingly missing both targets and putting himself at his opponents’ mercy. Moments later, another ninja appears dying from behind the barrel, causing his comrades to temporarily retreat in surprise and realise the true potential of their pretty-faced foe. If that wasn’t incredible enough, as with every other kill featured in the movie, there is absolutely no blood to be found anywhere.
Most Absurd Moment
After making short work of Jackson during their on-base confrontation, Joe feels that further embarrassment is necessary and decides to get on his knees and place a bucket over his head, making him blind and therefore at his aggressor’s mercy. Right? Wrong! After pointing to his own head, Joe awaits Jackson’s strike, only to dispossess him of his weapon at the last moment, swooshing the stick an inch from Jackson’s terrified kisser.
Most Pointless Stunt
Army Base doofus Charlie has a problem: he has to get a note to a girl he is dating, but has priors that he just can’t shake. Jackson can’t help him for some elaborate reason, but Joe, who has been confined to the base, is only too happy to risk his own neck for a stranger who has been nothing but an arse to him since he arrived. How will you get off the base without being seen, Charlie asks. Watch! Joe says, before jumping 30 ft off a carefully positioned ramp on Jackson’s bright red, super bike.
So that’s why they’re called stealth assassins!
Most Absurd Dialogue
Jackson: Have you ever heard of Ninjitsu, sir?
Jackson: The secret art of assassination.
Colonel: Of course I have!!
Cardboard sets, bucket-orientated fight sequences, exploding toy helicopters and characters emptying bins that are already clearly empty – what else could a person want from an action movie? The answer: a sequel. But more on that later.