American Ninja (1985)
Directed by Sam Firstenberg.
aka American Warrior
Written by Paul De Mielche, Avi Kleinberger, Gideon Amir and James R. Silke.
Starring Michael Dudikoff, Steve James and Judie Aronson.
Followed by American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)
Out of all the bizarre trends the ’80s hoisted upon pop culture, ninjas have to be among the most prolific. From anthropomorphic turtles to Lee Van Cleef, those well-versed in the arts of stealth and combat seemed to be everywhere — and I mean everywhere. Suddenly, any two-bit action flick schlock factory received a license to render their product “mysterious” and “exotic,” just by decking out half their actors in black long johns. Never one to pass on a fad that could net them some extra bucks, the Cannon Group gladly hopped aboard the martial arts bandwagon, putting out a series of cult cheesefests that included 1985’s American Ninja. But whereas the previous year’s Ninja III: The Domination is more in line with the image of crazy cinematic corn people romanticize about the decade, this delivers a mostly back-to-basics slugfest that doesn’t go truly nuts until its final fights. Still, though American Ninja might not be as gleefully ludicrous as some wish, that doesn’t mean it’s a wholly flavorless slog devoid of any ironic charm.
No one knows exactly where Joe (Michael Dudikoff) came from — not even Joe himself. As far as the world is concerned, this lone wolf popped up out of nowhere, hauling around the mother of all chips on his shoulder and enlisting in the Army rather than face jail. But as it turns out, Joe is also an impeccably-trained martial artist, using his skills to fend off a legion of ninjas attacking his convoy and attempting to make off with the colonel’s daughter (Judie Aronson) one morning. His abilities pique the ire of Ortega (Don Stewart), a local mogul controlling the ninjas and using them to help run his black market operations. Soon enough, Joe becomes a foil to Ortega’s evil schemes, pummeling his way through the fiend’s organization…while getting closer to discovering the true nature of his identity.
For its first two acts at least, American Ninja comes off as standard-issue, “oo-rah” action fare of the time. Viewers see the usual gratuitous displays of machismo (which ramp up when Steve James’s fellow soldier picks a fight with Joe), generic foreign baddies, and traces of Reagan-era jingoism for good measure. There’s hardly a trope that American Ninja doesn’t touch on, giving it a paint-by-numbers feel that’s all too common among similar genre contemporaries. There just isn’t anything about this picture’s take on the beefcake hero mowing down faceless enemies and claiming the arm of the terribly-written love interest that rouses the blood for a long while — until the climax takes its gloves off in a truly epic fashion. Ninja claws, laser beams, and teleportation magic all work into Joe’s final assault on Ortega’s goons, a deliriously entertaining flurry of sights that makes you wonder what made director Sam Firstenberg (Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) save them all for the end.
But while American Ninja’s first hour seems rigidly traditional in comparison to its gonzo finale, Firstenberg pulls through with a mostly competent production. Given that he’s working with one of Cannon’s infamous shoestring budgets, he blesses the movie with an appropriately gritty look and even crafts a decently riveting action sequence on occasion. As for our hero, it’s no wonder that the producers hired Dudikoff more for his James Dean-esque mug than his acting skills, but for a dude who reportedly had no martial arts training before filming, he handles himself fine in a rumble. Though he can’t emote for beans and is often outshone by the infinitely more charismatic James (who’s stuck with the sidekick part), Dudikoff can throw a punch and successfully glower his way to the ending credits with few other issues. But the same can’t be said for Aronson, who finds herself undermined at every turn by her paper-thin shrew of a role, or Stewart, whose only distinguishing trait is playing a Spanish villain with an inexplicable French accent.
It takes a bit to reach the silliness that some folks might seek, but all in all, American Ninja has the stuff to satisfy lovers of action cinema junk food. The powers that be cared enough to insert what production value they could, so despite the numerous acting and screenplay hiccups, there are patches of fun scattered throughout. American Ninja hasn’t inspired me to hit up its myriad of sequels, but its 90-something minutes of blood, sweat, and more sweat weren’t all for naught.