Tagline: The ultimate American fighting machine is back!
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Writers: Gary Conway, James Booth, Gideon Amir, Avi Kleinberger
Starring: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Larry Poindexter, Gary Conway, Jeff Celentano, Michelle Botes, Mike Stone, Len Sparrowhawk, Jonathan Pienaar, Bill Curry, Dennis Folbigge, Elmo Fillis, Ralph Draper
18 | 1hr 30mins | Action, Martial Arts
Budget: $350,000 (estimated)
The American Ninja franchise is a true product of the VHS era.
Much like the No Retreat No Surrender series, they are movies of low production value which only seem to decrease in quality, but there is something about them that keeps us coming back for more. Production company The Cannon Group would exploit America’s fascination with martial arts to devastating financial effect. This had very little to do with the quality of action on show or the actors involved, owing much to the nationalistic stance of the latter stages of the Cold War as an inherently fascist cinema exploded in a barrage of invincible protagonists and patriotic exposition.
The 80s was the era of the sequel, and for smaller production companies, taking a mainstream punt was very much worth the risk on the off chance of communicating with an audience and stumbling onto a veritable goldmine, with the growing popularity and accessibility of home video only expanding their horizons. Back in 1985, the first American Ninja would gross more than three times its $1,000,000 budget at the box office. Two years later, the second instalment, made on a minuscule $350,000, would recoup more than ten times that amount, while subsequent VHS sales – tapes were then sold to rental stores for an astonishing $55 dollars per unit – would prove an intoxicating accompaniment for the money men at Golan-Globus.
So what is it about the American Ninja franchise that is so appealing? The first movie was about as trite and predictable as the title suggests. Xenophobic, choreographically inept and chocked full of absurd stereotypes, it was a lazy yet appealing formula, with a steely-eyed protagonist and token black sidekick bumbling their way to freedom. Steve James, who plays that sidekick, was a physical specimen who could likely kick his fair share of ass, and was totally believable as the testosterone-pumped Sgt. Curtis Jackson, and while Sgt. Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff) looked more like a cherub-faced boy band member than an indestructible stealth assassin, his lack of dialogue would lend him a mystical air that you could really get behind, especially as a child.
In hindsight, I think part of the reason why I cherished the series all those years ago is that its fight sequences were not too dissimilar from those I would perform with my friends on the playground. There is no blood on offer in the American Ninja series, and sword attacks are either two inches shy of actual contact or consist of a plastic weapon gripped under the armpit, while our so-called stealth assassins do very little to conceal themselves, attacking in clumsy, unskilled rabbles as their samurai blades are somehow thwarted by balsa wood paddles. Watching the movie, I actually believed that I could be a ninja. At five years old, I was almost as skilled as the movie’s protagonist.
American Ninja 2: The Confrontation is even more ludicrous than its predecessor, and as a result perhaps more enjoyable. James is the movie’s true star, displaying the kind of infectious charisma that keeps the movie alive through long stretches of laughably mundane dialogue. Here, the two have evolved to have more of a buddy cop relationship, a fact that James seems to thrive on. Dudikoff, on the other hand, suffers quite severely, unable to make the transition from placid mute to charismatic hero. But at the end of the day, who cares? If you’re watching this movie with a critical eye, shame on you! Just be happy to ride the wave of spuriously staged ineptitude.
Predictably, the plot is almost a carbon copy of the original, but one which possesses the kind of sci-fi twist that will leave you choking on incredulity. After a host of marines begin mysteriously disappearing from an army station on a remote Caribbean island, cipher clerks Armstrong and Jackson are sent to investigate, a rather fortunate coincidence since ninjas are once again at the centre of an improbable operation and are clearly rather fond of the kind of bright locations that only serve to render their stealth attire useless.
Of course, everywhere our two heroes go they seem to find themselves in trouble. Even the bases’ captain – decked out in Hawaiian shirt and beach bum shorts – doesn’t care for the two outsiders, reluctantly explaining that a kid who hangs around the barracks “saw two giants dressed head-to-toe in some kind of strange black suits”. Of course, this leaves our two heroes with a very familiar glint in their eyes, although the Captain is baffled to hear the word ninja, which may as well be an alien language to a man who is supposed to be trained in the art of deadly combat, but who instead sits around scratching his nuts while his entire division succumbs to kidnapping.
It is also worth noting that Dudikoff is consistently replaced by a stuntman throughout the movie’s running time. This would be nothing out of the ordinary if the stuntman appeared only during dangerous feats of acrobatics – this is Dudikoff we’re talking about after all – but sometimes they seem to replace him just for the hell of it, and in one scene early in the movie, Joe and Jackson are dismissed from the captain’s office, only for that stunt double to take Dudikoff’s place, blatantly strolling out in plain view of the camera. Incredible!
Another thing that struck me about American Ninja was the sheer quantity of ninjas living within such a small locality. All day they seem to waltz around in full combat regalia, standing on the highest rocks they can find or simply hanging around in local bars without ever going detected by a giant military presence intent on colonising the world. This is supposed to be the United States Marine Core, for Christ’s sake! The sheer wealth of research that went into making this movie is just astounding.
After tepidly making their way through a series of Nintendo style fight scenes, Joe and Jackson finally stumble upon Leo ‘The Lion’ Burke (Conway), a sleazeball super-criminal who has kidnapped a local scientist in order to transform the abducted marines into an army of genetically enhanced super ninjas. It is here that the movie becomes truly mesmerising in its ability to make one chuckle, particularly when analysing ‘The Lion’s’ delusional master plan, one which includes ostentatious karate displays in which members of his ninja army senselessly slay each other, presumably costing him and his watching investors millions.
Our heroes do get a little help along the way, mostly from the professor’s tenacious daughter, while a young boy serves the predictable purpose of making Joe look like a sagacious father figure. Our totally radical captain also sees the light, inevitably bowing to the wisdom of his subordinates and ditching the beach bum lifestyle for a rocket launcher, but with his skills proving ordinary at best, the question still remains: can our two mortal heroes take on an entire army of indestructible supermen single-handed?
Well, that would just be spoiling things, wouldn’t it?
After setting Joe up in a local bar, Traitor Tommy attempts to come clean about his part in the disappearance of his fellow marines, but is distracted by a strange noise coming from behind the curtains of a cheap, windowless set. He is then impaled with what can best be described as an elongated toilet plunger.
Most Laughable Editing Fail
After falling asleep moments into a boat ride, Joe and Jackson are led to an island and ambushed by so many ninjas they would need a cruise ship to get there. Escaping their pursuers, our two heroes then leap a hundred feet from a giant rock, only to step comfortably into a small boat in the next frame when in reality they would have crashed through the bottom and sunk everyone.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Moments after making it clear that our heroes are not welcome at his barracks, Capt. ‘Wild Bill’ Woodward soon cosies up to them by insulting foreign host Inspector Singh, proving that prejudice stops at the red, white and blue.
Capt. ‘Wild Bill’ Woodward: ‘I don’t like that tiny maggot. I don’t like him at all. I mean, what is this? Ninjas, drug pushers, my men being kidnapped and murdered. This is really beginning to get on my tits!
Spoken like a true leader!
A low budget cash cow with an intangible mainstream appeal, American Ninja 2 turns to the buddy genre for inspiration, and while it inevitably falls short in its attempts, where it does excel is in its supreme capacity for accidental hilarity, making this the Terminator 2 of bad movie sequels. Just one question: if Joe blossomed under the tutelage of a Japanese master before succumbing to total amnesia, how did he grow to become so patriotic? As long as enough people die in the name of democracy, I suppose it doesn’t really matter.