American Ninja (1985)

American Ninja poster

American Ninja logo

Director: Sam Firstenberg
18 | 95 min | Action, Martial Arts

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Michael Dudikoff wasn’t much of a marital artist, but for a brief period during the mid-1980s he was a hero to kids across America, and he owes it all to American Ninja. He also owes a little to action movie icon Chuck Norris, a bona fide martial arts master and established superstar who turned down the lead role because he didn’t want his identity concealed on camera, stating, “If I’m going to be in a film, I don’t want my face hidden.” His loss, I say!

For me, American Ninja is one of the defining movies of the hugely endearing Cannon Group, a distributor-turned-production monster that churned out B-movie gold by the bucket load. This was cheap production, nonsensical storytelling and some of the stiffest acting of a generation, but there was something so irresistibly childlike about their approach to filmmaking, Israeli figureheads Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, known fondly as Golan-Globus, tackling everything from Oscar-winning thrillers (Runaway Train), to Indiana Jones knock-offs (the Allan Quatermain series) and even movies about breakdancing (Breakin), which at the time was considered little more than a passing cultural fad.

Breakin’, which was rushed into production to beat the more authentic Beat Street to the commercial punch, Cannon somehow advertising their yet-to-be-devised sequel Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo before its rival had even been released, thus making it obsolete, was a prime example of their legendary antics in their quest for low-rent hegemony. Looking to tap into every trend imaginable, Golan-Globus would often sell a movie based on a title and promotional poster, filling in the blanks on the fly, which, as I’m sure you can guess, or indeed already know, would lead to some truly fascinating projects for fans of second-rate movie madness.

American Ninja Dudikoff

It’s hard to pin down Cannon’s main focus genre-wise, particularly during those erratic early years of Golan-Globus, but for many their reign is most closely associated with the action genre. Charles Bronson’s morally bankrupt Death Wish series and the aforementioned Chuck Norris allowed them a degree of star power, Sylvester Stallone even climbing aboard the Cannon gravy train for a brief mainstream punt that included cult vigilante flick Cobra and arm-wrestling road movie Over the Top, but the company’s ultra B-movie catalogue proved just as memorable.

Ninjas were all the rage during the early 1980s, a fact that Golan-Globus would exploit by introducing cult ninjitsu practitioner Sho Kosugi to western shores with the ultra-violent Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja, but their ultimate goal was to westernise the sub-genre, a fact quickly confirmed when they suddenly demoted Kosugi to second billing for the absolutely potty Ninja III: The Domination, replacing the actor with Lucinda Dickie of Breakin’ and Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo fame. Kosugi was both perplexed and outraged by the decision, but in hindsight you can see the logic in an era dominated by Jane Fonda aerobics and MTV pop culture.

At the Cannon Group’s peak, 80s America was locked in a Cold War frenzy, any movie that was even remotely patriotic proving a smash on the home video market. In a decadent era of pro wrestling hegemony and MTV-styled patriotism that included high-octane releases Rocky IV and Top Gun, casual xenophobia was a sure-fire way to sell tickets. If it wasn’t the Ruskies leading the charge for cartoon supervillainy it was the Orient, or basically anyone who didn’t spend their days saluting Ronald Reagan and waving miniature American flags. Golan-Globus would even exploit the real-life hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 by Islamic terrorists in controversial Chuck Norris actioner The Delta Force. Though much less on the nose, the American Ninja series was the perfect vehicle for mindless patriotic entertainment.

American Ninja fight

Meanwhile, Hollywood would take a step in the right direction in terms of racial equality. Comedians such as Richard Prior would become household names during Reagan’s tenure, a young Eddie Murphy immortalising himself as Axel Foley, a quick-witted badass who became the marquee attraction of one of the most famous action franchises of the decade and the first bona fide black action lead. In an era defined by America’s crack epidemic and a complicit mainstream media that set out to demonise black communities irrevocably, there was still a long way to go, especially in Southern states, where many theatres refused to show movies featuring interracial sexual relations, but black stars were no longer there exclusively to provide back-up. In the case of Beverly Hills Cop, the white guy got to play the hapless understudy.

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 beginning to emerge, the likes of Rocky‘s Carl Weathers and Mr. T both becoming huge stars in their own right. Naturally, Golan-Globus looked to capitalise with Dudikoff’s Cannon sidekick Steve James, a brick shithouse with a million-dollar smile who oozed charisma. The original American Ninja proved a turning point in the career of 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.” Dudikoff’s name and image may have adorned the movie’s press material, but in reality James was just as important to their onscreen partnership when the two reunited for the more buddy-oriented American Ninja 2, the actor immortalising himself in action B-movie circles before his life was tragically cut short at the age of 41.

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 as deadly assassins look to make chopped sushi out of her. There are corrupt officials, gobsmackingly 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 fake plastic weapons and a serious lack of blood for a movie with such a preposterous body count. Oh, 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 stroking a flick-knife and doing his best James Dean impression than play hacky sack with the boys. This does nothing to ingratiate him with his already distrusting peers, so much that when a group of them are attacked by a gang of ninjas hellbent on kidnapping the Colonel’s daughter, the mysterious Joe is held responsible for their deaths, but not before catching the attention of the high-ranking Black Star Ninja, who unlike Joe’s fellow soldiers realises that this mysterious boy band candidate actually knows his shit. To be fair, Dudikoff is no slouch in the choreographed combat department, and what he lacks in acting ability, or, more accurately, what he lacks in his ability to galvanise American Ninja‘s distinctly B-grade script, he more than makes up for with raw charisma, projecting the blue-eyed charm of a young Mel Gibson.

American Ninja

Inevitably, and against his intentions, Joe attracts the interest of the Colonel’s daughter, Patricia (Weird Science‘s Judy Aronson), who immediately has eyes for our steely-eyed stranger. But the Colonel and his Republican cronies are having none of it, particularly when they pull Joe’s records and realise that he has no next of kin, or even a recognised date of birth. In fact, an island crew found him 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 (James), who is only too happy to ride his inferior’s coattails having had his ass handed to him in front of his entire platoon in a priceless scene involving a bucket, a length of hose, and an incredible display of extra-sensory combat skills, the kind that would leave a peak-of-their-powers Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker fleeing in a panic. So impressed is Jackson by the newcomer’s willingness to embarrass him that he immediately badgers Joe about the possibility of them going into business together, the two putting on karate exhibitions for the type of douchebags who learn the scared art of defence as a means to humiliate their fellow man. As you can probably tell, he’s easily won over.

Meanwhile, a group of sleazy men meet at a plantation to cut a furtive deal, where 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. Bear in mind, this is a secret, illegal operation that is but a stone’s throw away from full military reprisal, and these aren’t your typical ‘shadow in the dark’ ninjas. They’re bright and multicoloured, immediately laying waste to the whole stealth concept. They’re clearly not worried about being outnumbered either. In an ostentatious display, the Black Star Ninja senselessly lays waste to a group of his own men for the sake of some watching business associates, because killing your own soldiers is a sure-fire way to win any war, not to mention extremely cost-effective given the amount of training that’s been invested in them.

American Ninja Dudikoff 2

To be fair, the US Army are pretty useless, many of them falling foul to their highly-skilled opponents without so much as an unconvincing ‘ahhhhh!’, but the nefarious, ninja-backed crime syndicate didn’t bank on Joe, a man who can deflect arrows with a spade handle and stop enemies dead with one impudent glare. After ignoring the Colonel’s threats of court martial and not-so-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 unlikely surrogate fathers who can magically disappear in clouds of smoke.

In the end, it comes down to a case of the good old U S of A vs… 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 absurdly plotted action, the gargantuan holes in logicality, and the legions of degrading stereotypes at your sticky little fingertips. It’s pure child’s play.

Most disrespectful of all, in pure Golan-Globus 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.

Barrels of Fun

In typical outsider fashion, Dudikoff’s underdog pulls out all the stops in his arcade-like quest to eradiate the Earth of all ninjas, one epitomised by a priceless confrontation on enemy territory.

Flanked by two ninjas, Joe drives his (clearly 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.

Action Jackson

Steve James may have taken a long-overdue stand against racist scripts that reduced black characters to subservient fodder, but there’s no doubting the superior fighter here, at least in the world of make-believe.

After making short work of Jackson during their on-base confrontation, Joe feels that further humiliation 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 his opponent’s strike, only to dispossess him of his weapon at the last moment.

Whatever you say, partner.

Stealth Tactics

Ninjas (at least those dressed in black) are renown for their stealth abilities, the element of surprise their deadliest weapon, though Dudikoff’s Joe takes it to levels beyond the ancient art of the Orient.

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 also can’t help for some elaborate reason, but Joe, who has been confined to the base for extracurricular indiscretions, is only too happy to risk his neck for a stranger who has been nothing but a dick to him since the moment he arrived.

Charlie, of course, wonders how his new best friend will escape the base unnoticed, especially in broad daylight. Using his stealth instincts, Joe then leaps 30 ft off a carefully positioned ramp on Jackson’s bright red super bike, speeding into the distance like a herd of thundering wildebeest without detection.

How, you might ask?

He’s invisible, obviously.

Choice 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?

Colonel: What?!

Jackson: The secret art of assassination.

Colonel: Of course I have!!

As well as introducing us to the Dudikoff/James axis, American Ninja logo typifies the kind of mid-80s, ninja-led mayhem that had kids the world over tying belts around their heads in a high-kicking frenzy. Cardboard sets, bucket-orientated fight sequences, exploding toy helicopters and characters emptying bins that are already clearly empty — what else could you want from an action movie?

The answer: a sequel. But more on that later.

Edison Smith

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