While Cannon’s American Ninja franchise was far from the first time an occidental character mastered ancient Eastern arts, it distilled the idea to its simplest, most populist form. He’s a ninja and he’s American so obviously that means he’s the best ninja because, y’know, GO AMERICA!
A huge hit of the video era, spawning its own toy line and four official sequels (not to mention countless imitations like American Ninja Commando, American Ninja The Magnificent, etc), the original American Ninja was a defining rental for most kids growing up in the ’80s. Combining the brashest aspects of US and Japanese pop culture was a winning recipe and, to this little kid from the Midlands, the coolest thing imaginable.
I wanted to BE Michael Dudikoff and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d admit to this.
Over the eight years through which the franchise ran, sales dropped, interest waned, Dudikoff came, went, came back again (replaced in 3 & 5 by David Bradley) and even I never reached the end. However, in the wake of 1 – 4 being re-released on Blu Ray, I decided to revisit the whole thing as an adult and assess its quality. I’ve seen a lot more ninja films since then and I’d like to think I’m more discerning than I was when I was eight, so, preparing to watch in quick succession (just call me American Binger!), I hung the Stars & Stripes, donned my hooded pyjamas, and pressed play, determined not to emerge until I’d created a final ranking (worst to best):
[Note: I didn’t include Avenging Force – a film that reunited the director and two stars of American Ninja and was released in Israel as American Ninja 2, thus ruining the numbering there for future films – because it’s not an American Ninja film. Sorry, Israel!]
5. American Ninja 3 : Blood Hunt
While Michael Dudikoff tried to launch a career outside of martial arts films, David Bradley stepped in for this misstep of a sequel. Although he sometimes gets blamed by fans for wrecking the franchise, Bradley is not actually bad at all. He’s got insane muscles, can act well enough for the material and fight as ably as Dudikoff. It’s just a shame he’s dropped into the franchise with this particular movie.
The plot involves a karate tournament and an orphan called Sean Davidson (Bradley) who was trained to be a ninja after the murder of his father. Unfortunately, the tournament is a front for some kind of Evil Science, masterminded by a ninja leader called The Cobra. This means we get three different classic martial arts templates crammed into one – the tournament plot, revenge for dead parents and bringing down a powerful organisation – and none are carried through satisfactorily.
In fairness to the script, it shows flashes of inspiration in its dialogue (“What is it?” / “It’s a urine sample” / “Don’t piss me off!”) and its action (there’s an underwater ninja scene although this is underwhelming because A) their masks come off and B) they don’t fight the shark circling nearby which is, frankly, what we all really want to see) but the direction is so, so flat. Everything plays like a dull TV movie. Even Steve James (reprising his role from the first two as sassy ranger Curtis Jackson) is on auto-pilot and unfunny throughout. His chemistry with Bradley is non-existent whereas, between the first two movies and Avenging Force, he and Dudikoff had developed a wicked comedic rapport. To murder the comic relief further, we get a goofball sidekick called Dex (Ivan J. Klisser) who is just painful to watch. The Jar Jar Binks of the franchise.
The fighting – choreographed by Mike Stone no less – is pedestrian too. The violence is so restrained it’s bordering on polite and the only good stunt is a scene where they land a hang-glider on a truck. Sadly it’s performed with such workmanlike drudgery, even that fails to ignite the thrills. The rigid score doesn’t help – a brief loop of Avenging Force‘s score repeated endlessly until it makes your brain itch – and the theme song (When The Cobra Strikes) is catchy but sounds like it was recorded in a toilet by a very drunk singer.
Blood Hunt isn’t atrocious but it is all woefully mediocre. When Steve James sighs “Ninjas? Not again!” you feel like he really, really means it.
4. American Ninja V
David Bradley returns for a third outing but his character is now ‘Joe Kastle’ instead of Sean Davidson. Turns out American Ninja V was originally meant to be an unrelated Cannon film called American Dragons but got retitled at the last minute. It shows.
There’s a massive tonal shift from the first four (all rated R) as it’s deliberately made for kids. This new ‘Joe’ is given a 12-year-old apprentice called Hiro (Lee Reyes) by his master (Pat Morita) and ordered to instruct him in the ancient arts. At first they don’t get on because Hiro is a wise-ass who would rather play his Game Gear than train but, when Joe’s girlfriend Lisa (Anne Dupont) is kidnapped, they bond together to rescue her from the clutches of the ever-present evil scientists (this time they’re building a gas bomb or some shit but really, who cares?). This involves flying to Venezula and duffing up a bunch of ninjas, as you’d expect.
There’s a lot that doesn’t work about this film. At 1 hour 42 minutes, it’s obscenely long for such a minimal plot and, while we endure the trappings of action cinema (illogical storytelling, irrational contrivances, poor pacing) we never reap the rewards of insane fighting because it’s, y’know, for kids. In most of the fights, Bradley will literally knock down three or four ninjas with one non-connecting punch. It’s funny I guess, but not exactly exciting to watch. The rhythm of the film is very different to the others as a result and, for the most part, it’s boring.
That said, it’s not without its positives and is more watchable than Blood Hunt, at least. Mostly it’s the cast that make it work. Bradley comes into his own in this. His performance is charismatic, tender and genuinely likeable and the chemistry with Reyes is great. You can’t watch this and not want him as your own cuddly big brother. By the time he rescues a cute puppy from a burning lab, his adorableness levels hit an almost unbearable high although, being honest, this isn’t quite what we want from a ninja film. Reyes is a decent child actor and, to his credit, does all his own stunts and choreography (he was a junior martial arts champion in real life). Pat Morita’s only onscreen for about 10 minutes but is always a delight. However, this plucky band of heroes are let down by boring bad guys (I guess they can’t be too evil in a PG movie) that include naff green ninjas who look like they’re just wearing surgical scrubs and a mulleted goober in a $2 Dracula suit whom we’re supposed to find scary.
It’s clean and sweet and family-friendly but I found myself craving any edge at all. In fairness, if you’re a little kid and this is the only ninja film you’re allowed to watch, it’s probably mindblowing but for adults? Not so much.
3. American Ninja
Former fashion model Michael Dudikoff makes his lead role debut here as Private Joe Armstrong, the defining character of the franchise. Joe’s an amnesiac off-the-rails lone wolf youth who enlists in the army to avoid jail. He has no memory of his childhood and little exists on record about him so it’s a mystery as to where he picked up his almost supernatural martial arts skills. We first meet Joe when he and his loudmouth nemesis-turned-buddy Curtis Jackson (the inimitable Steve James) are stationed in the Philippines. They become embroiled in a local conflict against a gun smuggling ring headed up by the evil Black Star Ninja, and this unlocks a conspiracy leading all the way up to the heads of military and government.
I have to admit I enjoyed the ‘fish out of water’ element and Joe trying to ascertain his true identity much more than the bland smuggling plot. The Black Star Ninja – despite an awesome name and the fact that he shoots lasers in the climax – is a bit naff. He looks like he’s wearing a wooly hood, which makes me itch just thinking about it, and his black star facial tattoo kinda looks like a disease.
Of more interest is the enigmatic Japanese gardener (John Fujioka) who may hold the key to unlocking Joe’s supreme ninja power…
American Ninja‘s action sequences – a blend of martial arts and shoot-em-up mayhem – are quite cleanly done, shot by ninja veteran Sam Firstenberg (who’s also responsible for Cannon classics Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination). They’re slick and enjoyable but rarely breathtaking. There are highlights – the ninja chase through the trees at the start and the jawdropping helicopter stunt at the end – but some of the shoot-outs go on a little too long and the fights, while passable, aren’t exactly to the quality of Sho Kosugi, or indeed what was coming out of Hong Kong at the time…
This is definitely worth watching, don’t get me wrong. It’s an iconic and really fun action movie but it struggles severely with tone; all the Ninjutsu training is good and the Top Gun-style army buddy dialogue zips along nicely but it never settles in one place and the plot never grips enough to distract from the messiness. It’s like two films pulling in different directions although, that said, there is more groovy ninja magic in this than the other films in the franchise and that’s gotta count for something. Lasers, man. Lasers.
2. American Ninja 4 : The Annihilation
This one begins with Bradley reprising his Sean Davidson role but he has now somehow been ‘promoted’ from a professional karate fighter to a secret government agent (!!). He’s sent to Africa with his buddy Carl (Dwayne Alexandre as a mute, nerdy, barely-used replacement for Steve James) to stop some terrorists. These super-bad dudes have an army of ninjas, have kidnapped an entire squad of Delta Force commandos AND they have a nuclear bomb in their possession. Yow!
Unfortunately, Sean and Carl are no match for such dudes so – after a full 45 minutes of duffing up henchmen then getting caught – Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff) is called back to the franchise to save the day! Hooray! Rumour has it that Dudikoff insisted a lot of this be rewritten so that, rather than teaming up with Bradley as per the original intention, he got to demonstrate he was the superior ninja by rescuing him. It’s sad if that’s true because, along with being one of the most bizarre actor hissy fits ever (straight out of Godfrey Ho, I imagine Dudikoff slamming his fist on the producer’s desk and screaming “NO, *I* AM THE ULTIMATE NINJA!”), this weird structure (45 minutes of one story, then 45 minutes of the same story again with a different hero) lets the film down. It would’ve been great to see them fight side by side.
That said, there’s otherwise a lot to like here. Both American Ninjas have fun with their roles, and if you want to see Michael Dudikoff showing off a wide range of different colored ninja suits and silly costumes (including a priest outfit) then this is the film for you. In addition, Robin Stille (aka scream queen Robin Rochelle) is by far the best ‘love interest’ in the whole franchise and probably the only one who’s given an actual character so props for that.
The fights are not exactly spectacular but then they rarely are in this franchise – instead we get a fair few cool stunts, a handful of explosions and some awesome man-on-fire scenes at the end. There’s also an astonishing training sequence with fifty or sixty ninjas in different coloured suits on a mountaintop, doing some kind of super-lethal Total Wipeout style assault course. Have to admit I had a little ninjasm at this point…
If you’re still not satisified, there’s a whole subplot relating to a post-apocalypse-style town called Sulfur Springs, that’s full of leather-clad revolutionaries straight out of Mad Max 2! While this is definitely in the wrong film, it’s quite entertaining. It’s often said that the first year in any new decade is like an exaggerated version of the last decade’s styles and this, made in 1990, proves the theory. So many 80s tropes collide here – post-apocalypse, martial arts,Rambo-style military action, terrorist/nuclear paranoia – it’s hard not appreciate it for trying. American Ninja 4 is flawed as hell but for its sheer relentlessness and eagerness to please, it’s one of the better entries in the series.
1. American Ninja 2: The Confrontation
You might be thinking I’m being pretty lukewarm on the franchise but don’t worry… all is saved by American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, a sequel so good it’s not only better than the first but better than all the other four put together, as far as I’m concerned.
With a bigger budget and a much, much tighter script, American Ninja 2 brings the ninjing with more joy, gusto and nutzoid stunts than the others ever dreamed of. Joe and Jackson return and are sent to a lawless Caribbean island to solve the mystery of some disappearing marines. Mayhem ensues. The ‘genetic research’ plot (which I won’t spoil) is more entertaining and outlandish than any of the other rather lacklustre conspiracies in these movies and the rhythm of the film – balancing plot with fighting – is faultless. FAULTLESS.
Dudikoff and James have both honed their performances and have an easy chemistry here that yields genuine laughs in amongst the action (as well as a knowing homo-eroticism – at one point the musclemen all go out to ‘Mangrove Island’ for a group swim!) and the supporting cast are fun too, playing flamboyant and engaging characters (especially Jeff Weston as unorthodox marine captain ‘Wild Bill’ and Gary Conway as uberbad dude ‘Leo The Lion’). Throw in a bright, colourful setting and a wicked synth score and you can’t go wrong.
Where American Ninja 2 shines though is its action. The fights may not be brutal or gory (my only real regret about the whole film) but they are plentiful. I couldn’t even keep count how many dudes got duffed up in this; it was just constant. The first major fight between Dudikoff, James and a flurry of ninjas (who, at one point, make an awesome human ladder to climb up the rocks) is so good it puts many films’ final fights to shame and yet AN2 only escalates things from there. That’s the entree. We also get ninjas on fire, ninjas being towed along and flung about on the back of trucks, exploding motorcycles, more pyro than you could imagine and a finalé in the ‘ninja arena’ that is as perfect an icing on the cake as you could ask for.
There’s a visceral thrill to most of this film in that it takes so much of what came in the previous seven years worth of American-made B-Grade action cinema, throws more money at it and somehow comes up with a definitive article, a rush of dumb-bell martial arts awesomeness at full throttle. It’s basically like having a ninety minute ninjasm and I can’t recommend it more highly.
So will we ever see another American Ninja movie? It’s hard to say. A reboot would be much more likely than a new sequel (as much as I’d love to see an aging Dudikoff return as a slightly mad Pat Morita type character or David Bradley running some kind of kung-fu orphanage) but I feel like it’s already been made slightly redundant by the two Scott Adkins Ninja movies, both of which play closely to the American Ninja template but with stunningly brutal, mindblowing action and fighting. I can’t think of anyone more suited to the role in 2015 than Adkins and his films have already set the bar pretty high for modern American ninjing, so maybe it’s best that his franchise continues and we let this one rest for a while longer? Ah, who am I kidding? The more ninjas the better… Keep ’em coming!
You can read more from Craig at his blog, Ninjas All The Way Down.