VHS Revival pinpoints the reasons behind Joe Armstrong’s rise to Cannon immortality
In the mid-1980s, Michael Dudikoff shot to fame as Cannon’s most unlikely stealth assassin. For many martial arts fans, this was somewhat baffling. Not only did he lack basic martial arts training, he looked more like a teenage pin-up than a warrior trained in the Orient’s deadliest art form, and compared to co-star Steve James, his physique was somewhat wimpy, making him the antithesis of pumped-up 80s action stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Still, Michael became a cultural icon in his own right, a Cannon mainstay who would appear in such patriotic classics as Avenging Force (1986) and Urban Warriors (1987), but he will always be remembered for his role as Private Joe Armstrong, a mysterious pretty boy with an improbable background in the ways of the ninja.
In this article, VHS Revival pinpoints the reasons behind Joe’s legitimacy as Cannon’s most unlikely ass-kicker.
He Can Deflect Arrows with a Spade Handle
If you want to be a successful Ninja, you have to be able to improvise, but even more essential are the speed and fluidity of one’s instincts. When we first meet Joe he seems relaxed and passive, loitering around the army base like a catalogue model in-between shoots, but we soon find out that there is much more to our resident pretty boy than at first meets the eye.
After his fellow soldiers are ambushed by a gang of ninjas intent on kidnapping the Colonel’s daughter Patricia (Julie Aronson) a previously unassuming Joe decides to step in, fighting off a whole gang of drones before deflecting a series of arrows with a spade handle, stopping the final dart before it hits his future squeeze in the face.
He would even snap the final arrow as a message to the watching Black Star Ninja.
Rumours are it him took him several takes to conjure up the strength required to pull off the feat.
Amnesia Ain’t No Thang!
Joe would arrive at his consigned U.S. army base under a cloud of ambiguity, but the mystery didn’t end with his unassuming personality. Considering the vagueness of his records, it is quite astonishing that he was accepted as a soldier in the first place. For one thing, he had no next or kin, or even a recognised date of birth. In fact, he was discovered by an island crew and was brought back to the U.S. with amnesia, where he was in and out of foster homes after several serious run-ins with the law, guilty of deeds as serious as attempted murder.
Robbed of his memory and targeted by his peers, Joe may have been forgiven for feeling a little marginalised, but our unassuming hero is seemingly immune to the deep personal turmoil synonymous with retrograde amnesia, and is quite happy to float in the wind when not killing folks, masking the pain of isolation beneath his icy glare. That is until Joe is contacted by long-lost Japanese surrogate Shinyuki, a man who just happens to be employed by the enemy and lives but a stone’s throw away.
Luckily for Joe, it isn’t long before Shinyuki seeks out his former protege, and after a brief burst of blank-filling exposition, Joe simply smiles and gets on with his life, unperturbed by his master’s quite astonishing revelation as he gears up for his latest killing spree with the kind of flip serenity that would give Hannibal Lecter nightmares.
He Has the Eye of the Lampshade
There is no denying it, Steve James is a bona fide brick shithouse. Clearly trained in the art of combat, his character Corporal Curtis Jackson seems to be the true badass of the movie, but it takes more than highly-skilled brawn to lay waste to the significantly scrawnier Armstrong.
After Joe is singled out as the reason for the army’s many casualties, an easily goaded Jackson succumbs to the petulance of his platoon and agrees to give the blue-eyed newcomer an ass-kicking he won’t forget. Of course, our resident beefcake immediately bites off more than he can chew.
Not only does Joe quickly dispose of Jackson, he seems to take great joy in embarrassing his superior, kicking his ass in a plethora of humiliating ways before even having the gall to gets on his knees and place a bucket over his own head, handing Jackson a weapon and daring him to attack. Naturally, Joe doesn’t need sight to vanquish his vastly superior foe, and in spite of the ostentatious nature of his actions, Jackson immediately accepts him as his best friend and discusses them going into business putting on martial arts lessons back in the States.
He’s certainly a bigger man than me.
He Doesn’t Do Crowds
So, after embarrassing his soon-to-be best friend in front of his entire platoon and ostensibly robbing him of the respect needed to successfully fulfil his role, Joe makes a series of bold claims which further solidify his legacy as the movie’s true badass, although some would say those claims don’t quite add up.
At times, people can be just a little blind to their own hypocrisy. We are all guilty of it at one time or another, and for the most part it is understandable, but to walk away from such an arrogant display of bullying and immediately claim that you don’t want to fight and don’t like crowds is pushing it just a tad, don’t you think?
It’s lucky the rest of the cast didn’t think so, although one imagines that even if the entire barracks turned on him, raging and armed to the teeth with rocket launchers, there would still only be one winner.
Corrupt army officials despise a pretty boy, particularly one who can kick everyone’s ass and set about disrupting the kind of flagrant arms deal that only a Cannon production can keep furtive. From the very beginning, the higher-ups are just looking for an excuse to nail the soldier who should never have been recruited in the first place, and when a bunch of Privates bite the dust, they have all the excuses they need.
Problem is, they can’t kill him. The best they can do is threaten him with a court martial and confine him to the base. Harshly reprimanded, you’d think Joe would want to lay low for a while, but when a friend asks him to put his ass on the line for the kind of frivolous favour even your worst enemy wouldn’t dream of asking of you, our courageous and authority-defying pseudo-ninja is only too happy to oblige.
Tasked with delivering a love letter to a mystery babe, Joe sets about making his escape, which shouldn’t prove a problem for a man of his particular skills, right? I mean, he is a stealth assassin with years of training. Surely he is smart enough to use some of those skills to slip discreetly off the base and return to the barracks in time for lights out. You would certainly assume so, but instead Joe decides to take a more extravagant route, borrowing Jackson’s bright red superbike and leaping fifty feet off a conveniently placed ramp to freedom.
Why wasn’t he accosted for this careless act of career suicide?
He’s invisible, obviously.