Thursday, June 16, 2011

Completist Guide to... The American Ninja series (1985-1993)

Welcome to the first of my completist guides in which I take an obscure franchise and discuss everything associated with it. This week we take on...
American Ninja (1985)
American Ninja was Michael Dudikoff's first leading role. If you check his imdb list he'd been acting since the early 80s appearing in little background roles in Tron and Bachelor Party. He'd also been a model at one time but this was his first opportunity at leading man status and what a part.
American Ninja was made by Cannon Films, a low budget studio run by two Israeli movie moguls Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Throughout the 80s these guys made a whole load of ridiculously cheap but fun action movies before biting off more than they could chew by mis-handling Superman IV and trying to develop a series of films based on Marvel Comics characters.
Anyway, Cannon did a lot of the 80s Chuck Norris movies including Missing in Action and Invasion USA (all of which I hope to cover one day). American Ninja was supposed to be another Norris picture before filming he dropped out and Dudikoff was signed. Nowadays when actors drop out of the films it's a big deal because people talk endlessly about it on the internet and it sort of tarnishes the film but back then it could be quietly hidden and didn't make much difference.
Now I've dealt with the backstory let's get into the film. Dudikoff plays Joe Armstrong, an American soldier stationed at a base in the Phillipines who just so happens to be trained in the “Way of the Ninja (TM)” when he was younger which comes in handy when a evil drug dealer and his army of ninjas try to steal a bunch of weapons from the military and later kidnap the general's daughter.
Now being born in 1983 I'm sort of unaware of the whole Ninja craze that came about in the early 80s. Growing up with stuff like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I just always assumed ninjas have been around for ages but, in terms of ninjas being on film, they hadn't really been seen in the West until films like The Octagon and Enter the Ninja came out.
The film's direction by Sam Firstenberg is cheap but never dull It's littered with a multitude of errors which I don't have space to mention here (check out the imdb goofs page), the funniest being towards the beginning where a group of soldiers who are meant to dead on the ground are clearly seen beginning to get up in the background. The story keeps moving at a fast pace and there's a lot of well choreographed action to go around. This was Firstenberg's third ninja film for Cannon following Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja and at times it feels like a live action version of one of those 8-bit Master System games like Shinobi. Firstenberg went on to direct a lot of stuff for Nu Image, another studio that put out similar stuff to Cannon in the late 90s/early 00s, including Operation Delta Force and Cyborg Cop 1 and 2 but none of those films compare to his 80s output.
Dudikoff plays the character of Joe very soft spoken and it makes a nice change from what Norris would have done with the role. I'd be completely stupid not to mention the late great Steve James who plays Joe's sidekick in the film as he's quite an important character and adds a lot of comic relief. James probably has the most 'acting' to do in the film as his character starts off picking on Joe before becoming his friend (trust me in terms of characterisation this is huge).
Anyway, as ninja films go this one is very near the top if not the top. The story is simple and the action is crisp. If I haven't sold you yet, I've got three words for you NINJA WITH A LASER. Ah crap, that's four.
Classic quote:
Jackson: Have you ever heard of ninjutsu sir?
Colonel Hickock: What's that?
Jackson: The secret art of assassin
Colonel Hickock: Yeah of course I have!
American Ninja 2 The Confrontation (1987)
Both Dudikoff and James returned two years later with American Ninja 2 where they are assigned to another military base this time on a Caribbean island where they investigate the disappearance of several soldiers and guess who's behind it all.... yeah ninjas! In the words of John McClane “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”
There's an air of just not giving a damn about this film that stretches from little bits of plot (the commander and all the soldier don't wear fatigues they wear shorts and t-shirts) to goofs in the film (one bits where Dudikoff and James leave the commander's office, it's only a tiny shot but you see it's not Dudikoff but his stand-in... where the hell was the Dudikoff?)
All of this doesn't really matter though because the film keeps the same fast paced comic book action of the first movie and the second half of the film introduces a bit of science fiction ridiculousness with genetically enhanced ninjas.
What's good about this film is that there's a genuine rapport between Dudikoff and James, they genuinely feel like good friends. James particularly shines during this film and has some great scenes where he tears off his shirt and throws bad guys around like paper planes.
Sadly nothing tops the NINJA WITH A LASER from the first film but there is a very cool sequence where a ninja tries using a grappling hook on Dudikoff's pickup truck and gets dragged and dragged and dragged. And also a brilliant bit where Dudikoff and James jump off a 200 ft cliff and land in little rowing boat. If that doesn't sell it to you nothing will.
Classic quote:
Wild Bill Woodward: Well, gentlemen, I don't think the U.S. armed forces ever let a lady down yet.
Curtis Jackson: Yes, sir, we should kick some ass.
Wild Bill Woodward: Take my car. 

American Ninja 3 Blood Hunt (1988)
American Ninja 3 is where the series started to falter. Firstly the film really suffers from the loss of Dudikoff who decided he wanted to move from cheap action films. I'm not sure what the entire story was but I can't help but feel he was tired with Cannon. Here's a link to Dudikoff doing an introduction to some obscure film called The Bronx Executioner. It was done by Cannon who bought some cheap Italian exploitation films and decided to try and flog them by slapping Dudikoff's name on the cover. You can see the boredom in his eyes as he's reading his introduction off a card just off screen.
The third entry was where Cannon tried to cut corners and moved production to South Africa which a lot of low budget films did during the late 80s. Cedric Sundstrom takes over the directing reins from Firstenberg and unfortunately fails to give us a very exciting film. The action is very sparse and when does come is shot in very uninspired broad angles and at a very sluggish pace, as if he's trying to disguise how short the fights are by having the fighters stop every other minute.
The biggest change-up is David Bradley who steps into the lead role. At least Cannon had the sense not just to recast Dudikoff's role. Bradley plays Sean Davidson a martial arts champion who joins up with James, returning in his signature role as Jackson.
It's nice to have James keep a little continuity with the earlier film but here he really seems a little dead behind the eyes and really only gets to go berserk towards the end of the film. Essentially, everything in the film is very workman-like and sub-par. Once again we have genetically engineered ninjas like AM 2 and despite the new location and big time villian, The Cobra, there's little to separate it and give the film an identity of its own.
This was David Bradley's first role and unlike Dudikoff who only had a little martial arts knowledge Bradley is very good at martial arts unfortunately his talent isn't showcased and even in his later film he never really developed a competent acting style but he is an above average fighter.
Interestingly, Bradley did do a couple of films with Sam Firstenberg including Cyborg Cop 1 and 2 which are both better, more action packed movies than this.
Classic quote:
The Cobra: But I am glad that I can tell you that there will be no more inefficient hijackings, no more bungled kidnappings or mistimed bombin
gs, because you see now terrorism can be scientifically focused to be totally effective! 
American Ninja 4 The Annihilation (1989)
American Ninja 4 from a distance looks like a return to form because Dudikoff's back. True he is, he takes over the lead in the back half of the film but Steve James is missing and it really shows. I'm not sure why James didn't come back. Bradley's character does have a black sidekick and it's possible this was meant to be James.
The plot revolves around a bunch soldiers who have been kidnapped by an sadistic English general played by James Booth, who also scripted AM2, Avenging Force (which I'll come on to later) and Pray For Death. Sean is sent in to rescue them and tries to convince Joe, who's now a school teacher, to come along with him but he refuses. When Sean gets captured Joe decides to don the ninja costume once more and save everyone's ass.
Again, Sundstrom returns to the director's chair but the action is slightly better this time around; a little less sluggish than before. Bradley also returns as Sean, this time with a little more charisma. James is sadly left out but Dudikoff is back.
Really this is a film of two halves. The first half is Sean's movie and it's only marginally more kinetic than AM 3. Then Sean gets captured and Joe takes over as lead for the last 30 minutes. Here the film really gets going and we almost see a little magic of the earlier movies. There's a great bit where a ninja tries to fire an arrow at Dudikoff and he catches it in his teeth. This is what we're talking about – ludicrous ninja action. Sadly, it's a little too late and the film ends on a perfunctory fight scene.
One thing that really annoyed me, when Joe finds out Sean's been captured there's a bit of montage as he trains and we see him building this awesome samurai sword but then on the final assault on the ninja compound HE NEVER USES IT. As far as I can see, he doesn't even take it with him. What the Hell!
Anyway, the film does at least have the courtesy to finish on a cheesy power ballad called 'Fight Fire with Fire' so I guess I can give it some points.
Classic quote:
Sean Davidson: This isn't a game, Gavin, those were ninja! 

American Ninja V (1993)
Sort of don't want to cover this film as it isn't really a true American Ninja flick. Apparently it was meant to be called American Dragons but, possibly due to it's suckiness, the execs decided to slap American Ninja on the front to make a quick buck off a crappy movie.

Bradley returns, almost unrecognisable from his earlier roles, as Joe (not Dudikoff's Joe though) a random guy who happens to be a ninja. He teams up with Lee Reyes as Hiro a little ninja wannabe and together they try and track down
a scientist's daughter and go up against evil ninjas.

Honestly, this is film is pretty bad. Very little ninja action, and when it does happen it's usually bizarro stuff like ninjas wearing pantomime capes disappearing in clouds of smoke. Also, to say that Reyes character is ten times as annoying as Anakin Skywalker in Phantom Menace is a massive understatement.

To be fair, this is a family comedy but with the title American Ninja you're tricked into watching the whole movie waiting for kick ass ninja action and it never really comes. I gotta say I fell asleep a couple of times during this movie and dutifiully rewound the film in case I missed anything. I didn't. I ended up wasting more time. Don't do what I did. Just say no.

Classic quote: (and sole funny line)
Viper: Who are you?

Hiro: You killed my father!
Viper: I kill many fathers.
Avenging Force (1986)
Now, Avenging Force isn't a part of the American Ninja series but I wanted to end this post on a high note. Filmed in between American Ninja 1 and 2 and again directed by Sam Firstenberg, stars Dudikoff and James as secret service agent Matt Hunter and politician Larry Richards.
The name Matt Hunter comes from the Chuck Norris film Invasion USA and again, I think this was another reject that Dudikoff got from the great bearded one. The two films don't really connect any more than the name but it's interesting to see that Norris turned down two great action film roles, American Ninja in particular made $35 million when it was released in the cinema which is pretty good considering it's $1 million budget.
Now Avenging Force sees Matt Hunter protecting black politician Larry Richards from the attentions of a twisted group called the Pentangle – a group of rich businessmen who wear creepy masks and want Richards dead. Later in the movie they try and recruit Hunter to join the group by kidnapping his daughter. It's a bit of weird plot development – have they thought this through, kidnapping his daughter to make him join them? Also, they've called themselves the Pentangle, and have 5 members, they'll need to change all their business cards to The Hexagon which doesn't sound nearly a creepy.
There's a twist that happens halfway through the film that I don't want to ruin but it's a real emotional punch to the gut – not something that generally happens in these sort of action b-movies. Most characters in these flicks always seem to be so invincible it was tough to take but ultimately it makes for a better film.
Again, with all of Firstenberg's films, the action is really well handled. He seems to have a penchant for bizarre villains for his heroes to fight. There's a particularly gruelling fight scene set in the swamp forest that looks like something out of Deliverance. I've got to applaud Dudikoff he gets really chucked around, it can't have been an easy thing to film.
The film ends on a slightly unsatisfactory cliffhanger and I'm disappointed they never got round to filming a follow-up because it really begs for it. But I guess when Norris and Dudikoff aren't interested in doing another Matt Hunter movie you've got to call it quits.
Classic quote:
Larry Richards: Matt, you don't have to get involved in this part, this is my fight.
Matt Hunter: Your fight is my fight. You just remember that. 

American Ninjas and Fighters CD
 It wouldn't be complete if I didn't talk about the score too. The only available CD is called American Ninjas and Fighters and features the American Ninja score by Michael Linn as well as George Clinton's work on AM2, 3 and Avenging Force. Unfortunately rather than individual track they bunch the scores together as 20 minute 'suites' which sucks a little and makes it hard to judge the album. Despite Clinton varied music background it's Linn's score to the original film that stands out, a great little trumpet-heavy, military-esque theme tune that really gets you pumped (it's pretty awesome to jog to). Clinton's track for AM3, 'The Cobra Strikes' is the album's other highlighted, a pounding synth heavy little track with ultra-cheesy lyrics.

Final word

So that's it. The American Ninja series covered top to bottom. Check back in for more epic completist guides soon.


  1. Hello..coming by to visit and hope u can drop me an email at reanact(at)

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  2. I'm forever grateful for this in-depth review of the American Ninja series. You are doing important work.

  3. Did anyone else notice that the CO in AN 1 was named William Hickok, the birth name of Wild Bill Hickok, and the Marine CO was named Wild Bill?

  4. Did anyone else notice that the CO in AN 1 was named William Hickok, the birth name of Wild Bill Hickok, and the Marine CO was named Wild Bill?