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
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-1980s he became a hero to kids the world over, and he owes it all to American Ninja. He also owes a little to martial arts icon Chuck Norris, who turned down the lead role because he didn’t want his face hidden on camera, stating, “If I’m going to be in a film, I don’t want my face hidden. I’m going to be me.” His loss, I say!
For me, American Ninja is the defining movie of the oft-memorable Cannon Group, a distribution company that churned out ultra-violent schlock by the bucket load. This was cheap production, nonsensical storytelling, and some of the stiffest acting of a generation, but there was something there—there had to be. At the Cannon Group’s peak, ’80s America was locked in a Cold War frenzy, and any movie that was even remotely patriotic would have proved a smash in the home video market. If it wasn’t the Ruskis who 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.
Regardless of this kind of unabashed xenophobia, Hollywood would take a step in the right direction in terms of racial equality on their own shores. Comedians such as Richard Prior would become household names during Reagan’s tenure, and a young Eddie Murphy would immortalise himself as Axel Foley, a quick-witted badass who would become the marquee attraction of one of the most famous action franchises of the decade. No longer were men of colour there to provide the back-up. In the case of Beverly Hills Cop, the white guy got to play the hapless understudy.
Of course, stars like Murphy were still exceptions to the rule, but while Charles Bronson continued to play target practice with the ethnic youth of America, black action stars were popping up left, right and centre, many of them transcending their secondary role to become superstars in their own right. One of those actors was Steve James, who requested that much of his dialogue be altered after realising that most of his lines consisted of subservient fluff such as “no problem, whatever you say, partner.” A tower of muscle with the kind of pearly whites that illuminated every frame, James may have been the token black partner who would become the prerequisite for most of Hollywood, but in reality he was just as important to the Dudikoff James axis, and he would immortalise himself in action movies such as Avenging Force and The Exterminator before his life was tragically cut short at 41.
The Dudikoff James partnership would become legendary in B-movie circles, and it was Cannon’s high-kicking showpiece that would first discover the magic. 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. This does nothing to ingratiate him with his peers, 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 candidate actually knows his shit.
Joe also attracts the attentions of the Colonel’s daughter Patricia (Aronson), who immediately has eyes for our steely-eyed stranger. But the Colonel and his Republican cronies are not having 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 for 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.
I guess they’ll recruit anyone.
Fortunately for Joe, he makes overnight best friends with Corporal Colonel Jackson (Steve James), who is only too happy to become his lickspittle 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 that he immediately badgers Joe about the possibility of the two of them going into business together putting on karate exhibitions for the type of douchebags who learn martial arts as a means to humiliate their fellow man.
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, Joe sets about getting to the bottom of the island’s ninja-led conspiracy. That’s when he meets a mysterious old man named Shinyuki and 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 when they’re not knee-deep in lily ponds.
In the end, it comes down to a case of the good old U S of A against…well, everyone and anyone; except for the nutty old man who adheres to the kind of ancient philosophies that 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 is supposed to be, complete with Rambo bandannas, giant rocket launchers and a big black fellow thrown in to counterbalance the casual racism.
Flanked by two ninjas, 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, leaving him blind and at his aggressor’s mercy. With Jackson’s confidence building, Joe then points to his own head and awaits Jackson’s strike, only to dispossess him of his weapon at the last moment.
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 a prick to him since he arrived. Charlie wonders how his new best friend will escape the base unnoticed. Using his stealth instincts, Joe then leaps 30 ft off a carefully positioned ramp on Jackson’s bright red super bike.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Pissed at the fact that his men have been ambushed, the Colonel calls Jackson to his office for an explanation.
Jackson: Have you ever heard of Ninjitsu, sir?
Jackson: The secret art of assassination.
Colonel: Of course I have!!
As well as introducing us to the Dudikoff James axis, American Ninja typifies the kind of mid-80s ninja-led mayhem that had kids the world over tying belts around their heads. 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.