September 17, 2014

Movie Review: American Ninja

In the 1980's ninja flicks were big business. It did not matter if you were a legit martial artist or not, if you looked like someone who could do it, someone would put you in a movie. The Cannon Group took advantage of this fact and churned out a series of ninja movies throughout the 80's. After making a pair of Sho Kosugi classics (Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja), they shifted gears and turned State-side for their lead. This resulted in the original “classic” in American Ninja starring Michael Dudikoff. A movie with a star featuring little actual martial arts experience, but able to fake it well enough for a mainstream film. Dudikoff has since trained in a number of martial arts.

American Ninja, released in August of 1985, was directed by Sam Firstenberg. If you look at Firstenberg's filmography, he seems to have been the go to guy for this stuff. It is hard to deny the man's penchant for B-grade ninja flicks, with the likes of not only American Ninja, but American Ninja II: The ConfrontationRevenge of the Ninja, Ninja III, Avenging Force, American Samurai, and Delta Force 3 to his name. Oh yes, he also helmed Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. Are any of them good? Well, perhaps not technically, but there is no denying the enjoyment to be had watching them. American Ninja is as good as any of them, maybe.

Michael Dudikoff stars as Joe Armstrong, an amnesia victim who got in a bit of a scrape with the law and had to choose prison or enlistment (odd options, but all right). Obviously, he chooses enlistment and finds himself working a convoy in the Philippines. While driving a truck in the convoy, they are attacked by rebels, who happen to be accompanied by a bunch of ninjas, A fight breaks out and Joe breaks out his ninja skills, saving a colonel's daughter in the process, although a number of soldiers are killed during the battle. Being the lone survivor and possessing a questionable past leaves Joe accused of being a bad soldier or even a traitor.

As the flick moves forward, we learn there is a crime syndicate that employs ninja security who traffic in weapons. They have partnered with the local American military to more easily obtain and move weapons. In true 80's hero fashion, it falls on Joe and his new sidekick Curtis Jackson (Steve James from The Exterminator) to step up and fight. It all builds to a battle between Joe and the dreaded Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita from The Octagon).

It is a silly movie that at times may take itself a little too seriously, but in the last act, things get a little crazy, a little goofy, and I wish the whole movie played by this aesthetic. We learn more about Joe's amnesia and his mysterious ninja training. We get to see Joe ditch the camo and don black ninja gear. We watch Joe and Black Star Ninja compete in an obstacle course, after whicht the evil ninja fires flames from his hands. Before we even get there, there is that silly moment in the first big fight that set the stage for what kind of movie this is, when Joe uses a crowbar and a tire iron as throwing weapons. What makes it a little silly is that it is more like a toss where you cannot imagine it causing any real harm and the actors on the receiving end have to sell the damge like champs (Oscar-worthy performances all around). Then there is the jeep that taps a tree and explodes. Oh, and let's not forget Curtis Jackson's line involving little nuts.

The plot is nothing new and the first ten minutes or so feels like the opening to an A-Team episode. It is low budget and it is clear that few of the cast members have any fight experience. Still, there is something about the silliness of it all that is eminently watchable. Sure, I wish the crazy feel of the last act was used for the whole thing, but at least what is there is there. It is not great by any stretch and not one of my go-to 80's B-action flicks, but it is fun nonetheless and it managed to spawn 4 sequels!

Mildly Recommended.

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