THE DEADLIEST ART OF THE ORIENT IS NOW IN THE HANDS OF AN AMERICAN
Martial arts were big in the 1970s. Thanks to a major influx of kung fu movies on the grindhouse circuit, many of them courtesy of the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, and the rise of the even more legendary Bruce Lee, the public taste for martial arts flicks was stimulated. By the time the 1980s had come along, American audiences wanted to see these skills in the hands of people they could more readily identify with onscreen. As such, there was an explosion of low-rent action films with a martial arts theme, making stars of people like Chuck Norris, Cynthia Rothrock, Loren Avedon and Billy Blanks. In 1985, there was another name added to that list. His name was Michael Dudikoff and the film was American Ninja.
Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff), a reluctant private on an American army base in the Philippines, gets caught up in an attack on a military convoy by a group of rebels who are trying to steal the shipment and kidnap the base colonel’s daughter, who happens to be along for the ride. Using his apparent martial arts skills, Joe rescues Patricia (Judie Aronson), but everyone else in the platoon is killed, so his superiors turn on him. Meanwhile, those responsible for the attack want him dead and send an army of ninja after him.
Okay, it’s going to be kind of difficult to do any kind of serious review of this movie because it is so wilfully ridiculous. It’s meant to be. It was never really intended to be anything serious, rather just something that would sell tickets, popcorn and generally cash in on the American martial arts craze. As such, I’m going to resort to an occasional thing I do with bad films whereby I look at it from two different ways: Critic Hat On/Critic Hat Off… here we go.
Critic Hat On: What is going on in this film? Seriously. The conception of the film is so unbelievably hollow, it’s amazing the film doesn’t literally fall to bits in your hands. An American in the Phillipines with amnesia and exceptional martial arts skills finding himself in the US Army because of a court order? Are you kidding me? Did they throw this together in an afternoon? And why does no one know who he is? His name is on his shirt and his locker, and he would have to have gone through some degree of paperwork to get in, but no one knows his name. He’s just “the new guy.” And what is actually happening? A bad guy wants to steal a piece of military equipment, which is apparently a single rocket launcher, to sell to another bad guy. Who is this first bad guy? Where is he from? His accent would suggest French, but his name would suggest South American. The general’s daughter even refers to him as Senor Ortega. Surely it should be Monsieur Ortega. And why is he in the Phillipines? And the other bad guy, is he Italian? There’s something about him wanting supplies to fight Communists or something, but surely there are better ways of getting weapons than buying them from a crooked French/South American businessman who steals the goods from the local military base. And why does Ortega have a private army of ninja, who all wear different colour outfits like the world’s most threatening Benetton advert? Where did he meet this head ninja guy, known as Black Star Ninja because of a black star tattoo on his face? And why do the ninja all wear black when fighting the good guys, even in broad daylight? Ninja are meant to be stealthy, silent assassins, but this lot leap around the place and constantly give away their position long before attacking. And what kind of plan is this overall? If Ortega had the most senior officers on the base on his payroll, why did he have to hijack anyone? He seems to have an import/export business, so why can’t he just have stuff delivered? Seems pretty straightforward with a single truck and a bit of fudged paperwork. And pretty much everything involving the old gardener guy… what in the hell is going on here? How did he find the young baby Joe Armstrong? Why did he choose to keep him in the jungle and train him in the ways of the ninja? Since when is this guy a ninja? At one point he literally fades away because of his ninja skills. And did anyone working on this movie ever bother to find out what a ninja actually is, or was it just a case of watching another bad movie featuring them and going from there? Since when did ninjas follow the Bushido Code? All of the ninja in this film are appalling fighters, doing that ‘attack one at a time’ bit. And they constantly use the smoke pellets when it’s not necessary. And why, amongst all of his other weapons, does Black Star Ninja have a flamethrower and laser gun? That’s right, a laser gun. Why is Italian guy bothering with a rocket launcher when he could speak to Black Star and get himself a freaking laser gun?
That’s a little over 500 words worth of plot holes and half-baked ideas, and I haven’t even touched on the love interest, the best friend, the corrupt sergeant, the colonel, the rebels… Christ, this is weak.
Critic Hat Off: Who cares about the story? It’s really only there as an excuse for the action sequences. If you’re watching this movie for a good story, then it’s your fault you’re not enjoying it. America Ninja makes no claims at being good, just at being action-packed. There’s fist fights, gun fights, car chases and explosions. And besides, is it so hard to swallow the American soldier with amnesia and exceptional martial arts skills? You liked the Bourne films, and that’s not exactly as dissimilar a starting concept to this, is it?
Critic Hat On: The producers wanted their lead to have a kind of James Dean quality because… I don’t know why. So they cast Michael Dudikoff as their American Ninja, despite the fact that Dudikoff had absolutely no martial arts training or knowledge. I’ll say that again. At the time of making American Ninja, the guy playing the title role knew no martial arts whatsoever. Dudikoff doesn’t so much fight as throw poses in the hope that it looks good onscreen. When he’s required to actually act, he’s quite bad. Not the worst thing ever, but still not great. Frankly, no one’s particularly good in this. Most of them are really unconvincing, like Guich Koock’s Colonel Hickock (emote, for God's sake), which actually makes Dudikoff look better by comparison, but he’s still bad.
Critic Hat Off: One thing I will say for Dudikoff is that he really does go for it. You can see he’s trying to be good, and he literally throws himself into the action scenes, even if it’s not really necessary. This certainly goes towards our being able to take him a bit more seriously as a fighting machine. Also, he runs and jumps around with such readiness and skill, that I’m sure there’s a case to be made that Michael Dudikoff was a major figure in the development of parkour. Also, you can see a bit of a James Dean quality in Dudikoff… not in the acting department, just the looks, but still. And, come on, Steven James was awesome.
Critic Hat On: According to the IMDb’s trivia page on American Ninja, director Sam Firstenberg said that he loves this film because it has “a special quality of innocence, true friendship, love and youthful idealism”… what utter horseshit. What kind of a short-sighted idiot thinks that American Ninja has anything even remotely close to any of these themes in there? Why can’t he just admit the truth about the film? I’d at least respect him a bit more if he did. And the editing, good lord… The editing is so choppy, the action sequences so badly done that, in the beginning, you’d be sure that no one has actually thrown a single punch. It’s all close ups of fists and feet and then people falling over. They can’t even keep track of what foot is delivering the kick. At one point, Dudikoff kicks with his left foot and the following shot shows his victim falling away from his right foot. And the fact that there’s a flubbed line still in the film (“I will honour the… code, father.”) is just incompetence. And half of the vehicles seem to be made of nitro glycerin, since they explode on the slightest impact. If you’re going to blow up the car, at least make me think the crash was bad enough that a fire is a possibility. Also, the music seems to have been taken from one of the weaker episodes of The A-Team or Magnum P.I.. And don’t get me started on problems of simple logic between scenes.
Critic Hat Off: … no, no excuses. It’s incredibly piss poor work, even by crap 80s movie standards, and the director’s clearly delusional, but you’re still taking it far too seriously. Just enjoy the nonsense, you ass.
As you can see, I jumped around on this one a lot. American Ninja is bad. Really bad. It’s more hole than plot, the direction is terrible, the action sequences are a mess, the acting is woeful and it seems to have absolutely no conception as to what a ninja really is. However, picking on such things is really taking the film in the wrong spirit. It exists as something to be laughed at and enjoyed as “so bad, it’s good”. The proverbial perfect guilty pleasure. Personally, I can think of other films that do this better, but that’s neither here nor there. So long as you watch this with your brain switched off (or missing), you’ll likely enjoy this.