Back in the day Cannon Films pumped out a lot of science fiction, horror and action movies of which quite a few have now become cult classics. And back in the day when American Ninja was hitting theaters I was sixteen and dabbling in the martial arts myself, so was my best friend at the time Gerry. We saw American Ninja in the theater one Friday night and loved it.
American Ninja 2 came around in 1987, and I recall seeing the commercial on TV. Oh, yeah, I was ready to see this flick too, but it never came to a theater in town. I caught it on cable a year later. During this time I was also collecting martial art magazines and I remember reading some articles on the movie. Wish I had kept them. By that time Gerry was in basic training. I don’t recall if he ever saw it later on. We reconnected for a time on Facebook and come to think of it these two movies never came up in any conversation.
American Ninja introduces us to actor Michael Dudikoff , aka The Dudikoff, in the outer reaches of fandom The Great Dudikoff where scripture has been created, and where he and his flicks are prayed to and revered. I shit you not! Well, maybe, a little. The Great Dudikoff plays Joe Armstrong, who has amnesia regarding his childhood. A childhood that had him raised in the jungles of the Philippines by an ex-soldier who thought the war was still on. He trained Joe (named him even) in the lethal ways of ninjitsu, but he was taken away when a bomb blast from nearby construction separated the two and gave Joe his amnesia. Joe was a troubled youth as he grew up, had multiple run-ins with the law and his latest gave him a choice—go to jail or enlist in the army.
Joe did the latter and that’s where the movie starts. He’s the new guy on base down in the Philippines, and in charge of driving one of the supply trucks. Rebels attack this recent supply run, but Joe is forced to unleash his ninjitsu when hot Patricia Hickock (Judie Aronson) is attacked. She’s Col. William T. Hickock’s (Guich Koock) daughter and was being driven out along with the supplies. All the drivers retaliate and actually win, but there was a new threat overseeing this attack—fuckin’ ninjas! The douchy kind, too, led by the Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita). They show up and kill all the soldiers but Patricia’s driver Charley Madison (Phil Brock) and Sergeant Rinaldo (John La Motta). Joe and Patricia are about to get iced by ninja arrows, but Joe deflects them, tipping his hand to the Black Star Ninja that someone has trained him in the art of ninjitsu, which is forbidden for Westerners to know. Now Joe has to be killed at all costs, because he just knows too much, and this extends to the gunrunning subplot Patricia’s father and Rinaldi are into.
On the other side of the island is the compound of our second bad guy, Victor Ortega (Don Stewart), and his private ninja army that the Black Star Ninja is in charge of. Joe eventually learns about the weapons being delivered to Ortega but can’t find a compassionate ear because of how high up the corruption goes, which gets him set up for death-by-ninja several times. Have no fear, though, he’s made friends with Corporal Curtis Jackson (the late Steve James) and the aforementioned Charley, who both wanted to kick his ass into the unknown for what they believed was his fault in getting their men killed.
Curtis tries really fuckin’ hard to hand Joe his ass, even though he himself has had some martial arts training, but Joe’s ninjitsu is just too strong. Joe hand’s Curtis his ass, and Curtis is gracious enough to know he’s had his ass kicked for good reason, and they become friends. It’s a guy thing, if there are any chicks reading this. Dudes sometimes become great friends after first impressions lead to asskickery. It happened to me in grade school once. And thank God only once.
I was pleasantly surprised to see this flick still holds up for me. The best part honestly is the final act when Joe finally realizes he was trained in ninjitsu and suits up with all his ninja weapons and takes out that compound of ninjas and the Black Star leader.
At the time this came out Weird Science (1985) was also brand new and I never realized Judie Aronson was in that movie too. I love Weird Science. I don’t think it hit me until many, many years later.
Having just now given The Great Dudikoff’s resume a look I see he was also in Tron (1982), Uncommon Valor (1983) and Bachelor Party (1984), before he became Joe Armstrong. I had seen all those flicks and still he didn’t really register until he starred in American Ninja. That happens sometimes. An actor won’t make a big impression on me until he headlines a genre I’m a fan of, in this instance ninja flicks, which were big back in the 80s.
I was equally surprised to see sequel #1, American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, did not in any way shape or form hold up to the memory I had of it. It’s a rather inferior sequel that copies the template of the first flick with a few changes. The main villain, Leo Burke (Gary Conway), is another megalomaniac rich guy with his own compound, who also has a ninja henchman, Tojo Ken (Mike Stone), in charge of another private army of ninjas. But there’s a sliver of science fiction in this one that has Burke wanting to create these super ninjas and do to that he needs marines to experiment on. And similar to the first movie he has a man on the inside arranging the evil deeds, but this time his inside man is an unwilling one because Burke has kidnapped his wife.
Army Rangers Armstrong and Jackson are sent down to this Caribbean Island to sort this shit out and make the proper people pay. There’s even a sidekick/comic relief Charlie (played by Larry Poindexter), one of my many problems I had with this follow-up. They should have called this American Ninja Light. The addition of comedy was a mistake, and the action scenes are quite weak, not as well choreographed as they were in the first film. The ninja’s are also weak in this entry; so much so even Jackson could take them on with no problem. There’s no love interest in this one, but there is a girl (Michelle Botes), the daughter of the kidnapped scientist. The ending ninja battles are the movie’s only saving grace and even then the finale from the first movie was better.
Of note, however, are the two screenwriters—Gary Conway and James Booth! Conway did double duty as the movie’s villain but I know him better as Steve Burton from the series Land Of The Giants (1968-1970). And James Booth made a really great bad guy in Cannon’s Sho Kosugi ninja movie Pray For Death (1985), not to mention a scientist in the Fred Olen Ray alien rip-off Deep Space (1988).
Back on August 16 Olive Films released all four American Ninja movies on separate DVD and Blu-ray editions!
Video/Audio/Subtitles (American Ninja/American Ninja 2): 1080p 1.85:1 high definition widescreen—5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio—English subtitles
A year ago 88 Films (UK) released all the American Ninja movies on blu-ray. I have not seen them so cannot compare the transfers, but I was very pleased with Olive’s release! Colors and clarity are excellent!
American Ninja Extras:
- Audio commentary with Director Sam Firstenberg & “A Rumble In The Jungle: The Making Of American Ninja” Producer Elijah Drenner
- A Rumble In The Jungle: The Making Of American Ninja (22:47)
- Theatrical Trailer
American Ninja 2 Extras:
- Audio commentary with Director Sam Firstenberg & “An American Ninja In Cape Town: The Making Of American Ninja 2” Producer Elijah Drenner
- An American Ninja In Cape Town: The Making Of American Ninja 2 (16:53)
- Theatrical Trailer
I enjoyed the featurettes, but you should know 88 Films created a feature length documentary on the franchise which is included in their blu-ray set. Too bad they couldn’t have somehow ported that over, but I suspect it would have been too expensive.