Dir. by Sam Firstenberg - 1 hr. 35 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
So look, sometimes it's late at night and you're looking around at all the movies you have available to you, and you're not exactly in the mood for something intellectually challenging. I'm not too proud to admit it, sometimes I can't handle "The Usual Suspects," I need something like "American Ninja" instead. I want bad acting, people engaging in a poor facsimile of martial arts, and to see just how much pulse-pounding action $1 million dollars would buy in 1985. "American Ninja" is exactly that.
Joe (Michael Dudikoff) is an American soldier stationed in the Philippines. He's a loner, Dottie, a rebel who refuses to join a friendly hacky sack circle in favor of playing with his switchblade. When driving as part of a convoy to deliver supplies somewhere, Joe and the other American soldiers are set upon by a bunch of ninjas (!). Joe decides to fight, which means that four of his fellow soldiers are killed in the scrum, but Joe escapes with the colonel's daughter, Patricia (Judie Aronson). Upon returning her safely to the base, Joe is persona non grata with the other soldiers, which results in Jackson (Steve James) picking a fight with Joe. Unfortunately for Jackson, he is not an American ninja, but Joe is, exhausting Jackson with a series of basic throws, which then makes Joe and Jackson best buds. In between attempts to consummate his doomed romance with Patricia, Joe is targeted by the local gun runner, Victor Ortega (Don Stewart), who sends the Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita) and his ninja corps after Joe. And plenty of sweet 80's kung-fu fighting.
Probably the best thing that you could say about "American Ninja" is that director Sam Firstenberg makes efficient use of his budget. The fact that it was shot in an exotic locale (the Philippines, in case you weren't paying attention) helps, using military bases and equipment helps, too. The end result, while unquestionably cheesy, doesn't look terrible. There's not a ton of gloss to it, but if you compared it to an episode of "The A-Team," for instance, I think that "American Ninja" would come off comparatively well. And that's really what this movie should be compared to: 80's action TV shows. They even use that same yellow bubble font for the beginning credits that was inescapable for a period of time.
But the cheese, it's so delicious. The fighting is nothing special, which is both unfortunate and understandable. There's a ninja-training ground, run by the Black Star Ninja, where you can see things like ninjas who have orange outfits climbing ropes. The acting, on the whole, is pretty rough. But seeing as how you'd expect that going in, the only person who's really annoying is Patricia. And that's partially because of her behavior (although she gets slapped for it at least twice), and partially because I'd expect an Army brat to be a little less helpless and diva-y. Jackson is actually pretty fun, and once "American Ninja" gets down to the third act (action!) and the crotch-punching starts, it's fun. Jackson actually has the best nut-check; in the middle of fighting a shirtless, muscular henchmen, Jackson aggressively King of Pop's his opponent, and follows it up by repeatedly punching his opponent with his ball-sweat-drenched fist right in the nose. If a low-blow and a bunch of a face-punches can't get the job done, making the henchmen smell his own drippings will.
But maybe the best element of cheese here is the idea that America produces better ninjas than anywhere else. In fact, just one American ninja is enough to defeat hordes of actual Asian ninjas (I say Asian because they're largely masked, and although I'm not sure of their heritage, I'm assuming they didn't all come from the Philippines. So maybe Pan-Asian?). American excellence, indeed! I feel like there's no way "American Ninja," and the idea that it takes only one American Ninja to overcome anything thrown at him (even the Black Star Ninja!!!) might not have played well in countries that have strong histories of martial arts.
On the whole, "American Ninja" is fun because it takes itself pretty seriously, does have some fighting, and sticks to the plot. It's also fun because the idea of a local crime lord electing to employ a large force of ninjas as his defense program is awesome, and that all it takes is the right American Ninja to overcome all of that. In this picture, one Dudikoff is worth a thousand ninjas.
1.5 / 5 - TV