Never trust your younger self’s taste in movies. That was the key lesson critic Travis Johnson learned when he rewatched all the American Ninja movies, which are now available to stream on Stan.
Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.
I know this because nostalgia was the emotion aroused when I saw American Ninja and its first three sequels on a list of upcoming Stan titles, and it was nostalgia that inspired me to float the idea of a retrospective piece on the franchise, which I swear to god I recall quite enjoying when I was 10 or thereabouts. It was not nostalgia that prompted editor Luke Buckmaster to actually commission the piece; if I had to put money on it, I’d be likely to select a baser motivation, like cruelty, schadenfreude, or good old fashioned sadism.
So I spent a Sunday with a couple of bottles of decent red and the first four American Ninja flicks. They’re cheerfully cheap exploitation actioners from the Cannon Films/Golan-Globus stable, which also brought us the Delta Force movies, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Masters of the Universe, and pretty much the entire back third of Charles Bronson’s big screen career. And believe me, it was a wild ride.
Back in the ‘80s, ninjas were the coolest thing ever, and that’s before they started mixing things up by making said ninjas teenagers, mutants and turtles. You couldn’t throw a shuriken in the pop culture landscape without hitting some black clad master assassin, and while the ninja archetype had been a staple of Japanese kabuki theatre for ages (that’s where the traditional black costume comes from, by the way) the masters of death infiltrated American culture, and by extension global Anglophone culture, through the unguarded door marked “B movie actioners.”
The Cannon Group, always with their finger on the moneymaking pulse, had already had success with their ninja trilogy Enter the Ninja (1981), Revenge of the Ninja (1983) and Ninja III: The Domination (1984), but decided to up the ante. What could be better than a plain ol’ Zen-garden variety ninja? How about…an American Ninja?
Our hero is the fantastically named Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff), a moody new recruit stationed on a U.S. army base in the Philippines (always a popular shooting destination for budget-conscious exploitation filmmakers). When we meet him, Joe spends most of his time silently brooding like James Dean recovering from a stroke, but when a seemingly endless army of ninjas try to kidnap the commanding officer’s daughter, it turns out Joe has a secret: he himself is ninja.
Joe was trained up by one of those crazy Japanese soldiers (John Fujioka, whose credits also encompass American Samurai and American Yakuza) who spent decades hiding on a Pacific island after the end of World War II). Joe is also an amnesiac, which mitigates the need for any more back story and clears the way for plenty of ninja-on-ninja action. But American Ninja has another secret…
The big secret is it’s dreadful
Now, yes, I feel you, fellow readers of a certain age; I loved this bloody thing as a kid too, but seen in the cold light of maturity, American Ninja is terrible. It’s shot and scored like an episode of The A-Team, sloppily written, appallingly acted. And all those faults could be forgiven if the actual action sequences were much chop—action fans will put up with a lot if there’s an amazingly choreographed fight sequence every 20 minutes or so.
American Ninja reneges on that deal. Leaning hard on the assumption that anything ninja-related is inherently cool, it foregoes anything even remotely resembling competent execution. Moments of supposed drama are undercut by truly risible dialogue. At one point a soldier, surveying a small mountain of slaughtered G.I.s, solemnly declares “This massacre was the work of ninjas,” which would be some Sherlock-level deduction if it weren’t the fact that every corpse is riddled with arrows, spears and shuriken.
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I can’t say I had a bad time. There’s an earnestness to the proceedings that is simultaneously hilarious and charming. Dudikoff, a model-turned-actor taking his first big lead role, has the kind of B-movie star charisma that keeps you watching even as everything around him falls apart, although his almost complete lack of martial arts training is obvious.
If one of your key metrics is ninjas-per-second, there’s an excess of black-clad (and other shades—the ninjas here are colour-coded for your convenience) assassins jumping about the place in a manner that is in no way secretive or stealthy. Plus, there’s the film’s secret weapon, the late Steve James as Dudikoff’s sidekick, Sergeant Curtis Jackson, who brings an excess of sass and charm to the screen whenever he isn’t beating the living tar out of a small army of ninjas.
So, that’s a passing grade, I guess? American Ninja made back ten times its $1m budget at the domestic box office, and brisk video rentals ensured that a couple years later we returned to the ninja well again with…
Suddenly things get weird. And if your franchise is predicated on the prevalence of ninjas in the modern world, it’s already pretty out there. American Ninja 2 answers the unasked question: where are all these masked mooks ready to fall on our hero’s sword coming from?
Tasked with investigating the disappearance of a number of U.S. marines on a corrupt Caribbean island (but actually shot on South African and Mauritius), Joe and Curtis discover that local drug lord The Lion (Gary Conway, who also co-wrote the screenplay, coming across as a kind of coked-out Klaus Kinski) has kidnapped a scientist who was working on a cure for cancer. But when said scientist said “cure for cancer” The Lion heard “cloned army of super ninjas” and here we are. Mayhem ensues.
Following the never-fail sequel equation of “more of the same only louder,” original American Ninja director Sam Firstenberg (Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) strips out everything unimportant, including continuity (don’t expect any questions left dangling from part one to ever be answered) to give us Dudikoff and James tooling around a tropical paradise, quipping and laughing and fighting hordes of ninjas. The ridiculousness of the plot just adds to the fun; if you asked a recently concussed MMA fan to come up with a James Bond movie, it’d look a lot like this.
Which is to say that while all of the first film’s faults are present and correct, its charms are pretty much doubled. Dudikoff and James have settled into an easy back-and-forth chemistry, the comedy has been upped (top marks to Jeff Weston as corrupt local marine CO Wild Bill), and the usual budget and quality control issues are largely counterbalanced by ensuring there’s always some gonzo nonsense going on to keep the viewer entertained. It’s really the peak of the franchise—a fact thrown into sharp relief when we get to…
The American Ninja universe is simply bursting with ninjas, which precludes the need to tie their appearance in the movies to our man Joe’s past. He simply stumbles across them on the reg and has to butcher them en masse in the course of whatever he happens to be doing. Indeed, there are so many ninjas around the joint that when star Michael Dudikoff is unavailable (he was either tired of martial arts flicks or didn’t want to shoot in apartheid-era South Africa depending on who you listen to), a second American Ninja will rise in the form of David Bradley’s Sean Davidson. Never mind how or why: Steve James’ Curtis literally bumps into him at an airport, and they team up to stop yet another drug lord, The Cobra (Marjoe Gortner), from unleashing some kind of half-assed bioweapon on the world. Also, there are ninjas to obliterate.
The plot has never been the most important element in this franchise but the chemistry between the leads certainly has been—and while James remains the MVP, you really miss Dudikoff’s presence here. Poor Bradley is a much more accomplished martial artist than his predecessor, but simply can’t centre the film, which means we’re left to actually pay attention to what’s going on—always a mistake with this series. All of them are sluggishly paced, cheaply made and lazily shot, but Blood Hunt says the quiet part loud, and no amount of ninja genocide can make up for it (don’t worry these ones are clones too; we can always make more).
But it’s an ill wind etc etc, and Blood Hunt does have a couple of interesting wrinkles. For one thing, there’s a female villain in the form of Chan Lee (Michele B. Chan), who more than holds her own against the sweaty cast of alpha males she must contend with. For another, we get an underwater ninja fight, which is novel enough if you ignore the technical logistics thereof. But it’s all in vain; after the serviceable first instalment and the genuinely enjoyable second, American Ninja 3 is a big step down. Still, it actually gets marginally worse with…
We should acknowledge that the subtitles in this series make absolutely no so sense.
In an ideal world, this would play out like Fast & Furious, when Vin Diesel returned to the fold after a two-movie absence. Instead it’s got more in common with Highlander: Endgame, which is not so much a film as a war crime.
The plot, in the shell of a nut, sees New Coke American Ninja (Bradley) muff a mission against a Saudi terrorist rather than a drug boss this time around, trying to stop a suitcase nuke from being smuggled into New York City. He muffs it, thus requiring the OG American Ninja (Dudikoff) to rescue him. That might be fine, but essentially it means you’re watching the same bad guy base being infiltrated twice, with very little to distinguish the two sequences. Also, there is no Steve James this time around, which knocks at least two stars off of any possible rating.
Honestly, by this stage of the game I was all ninjaed out, but the key problem with American Ninja 4 is a certain meanness of spirit that has crept into the proceedings. The presence of an Islamic terrorist as the villain is at odds with the generic drug dealers and super ninjas we’d contended with up to this point, and a sequence in which a hostage is burned alive seems pointlessly cruel. We’re here to watch ninjas kick each other senseless in exotic locales, not torture porn. And while it’s fun to see Dudikoff back, he needs Steve James in the mix to brighten things up, which would sadly not happen again (James passed away of pancreatic cancer in 1993).
Well, firstly, you can’t trust your younger self’s taste in movies—that much is clear. What lit up your world when you were 10 is unlikely to do it again in your adulthood—if it does, it’s either a work of genius or you’ve got a bad case of arrested development.
Secondly, if you do want to revisit some of these mistily-remembered VHS gems, a marathon session is not the best way to go about things—even the most ninja-positive viewer will be ODed on ninjas by the time episode four rolls around. Thirdly, don’t be afraid to jump straight to American Ninja 2—you’ll have missed nothing, and the second instalment is an altogether more lively dose of martial arts action. And fourthly, the late Steve James definitely deserved more respect—if he’d lived, he’d a fixture in The Expendables franchise for sure.