The Series Project: American Ninja (Part 1)

American Ninja 1

I would like to begin this week's installment of The Series Project with a another special thanks to my local video store, CineFile Video in Los Angeles, CA. Since I'm old and stodgy, I still watch all of my movies in theaters or on DVDs (or VHS tapes; yes I have two working VCRs). CineFile Video has been providing me with almost all of my Series Project videos for years now, not to mention a few important ideas (a particularly well-educated clerk pointed out to me that there were indeed seven Smokey and the Bandit movies). I feel they deserve credit for helping me for so long, and for tracking down and renting to me importantly obscure movies like American Ninja 2: The Confrontation.

And American Ninja 2 will be discussed, my friends, as this week and next week will be devoted to those cable TV standard action flicks and Cannon Group superfodder, American Ninja, all (but two) starring B-movie action hero Michael Dudikoff.

The American Ninja films – as their ninja-centric titles would suggest – come from that magical era of '80s and '90s action films wherein an entire film could be hung on the dubious fighting skills of a single handsome model/athlete. This was the reason why Samurai Cop got made, along with any film to star Gary Daniels. Sometimes these films would be granted a decent budget, and they'd manage to land a fighter who would go on to be a big, big star (this is the genesis of Jean-Claude Van Damme), but for the most part, this particular action film epoch is seen as a risible and ridiculous time in film history, more prone to cynical laughs and parody than actual enjoyment.

Also this: The only way ninjas have survived into the current pop idiom are either as opponents to pirates (and even that's over now, isn't it?), or as turtles. Ninjas used to stand astride popular culture like the Colossus at Rhodes, whipping out throwing stars and wicked sword, slicing and murdering anyone who came in their way. They were almost as big as superhero are now, ninjas, and not a week could pass without a ninja video game, movie, or TV show hitting the world. How did it happen? How did ninjas come to dominate the way they did? What is the origin of the trend? Beats me.

I'm not going to be the one to step forth and defend any of these films as being necessarily good; most of them are total crap. I will, however, say that, despite their stupidity, there is a definite entertaining charm to many of the low-budget, corny exploitation action films that invaded thew world in the early days of cable television. Very occasionally, you'll stumble across a great one, like Andy Sidaris' Hard Ticket to Hawaii or Cannon's spectacular Ninja III: The Domination, and the world will just feel right.

All of this leads me to American Ninja, a low-budget 1985 feature film starring a hunky actor, and featuring many, many ninjas. Let us begin, shall we?

American Ninja (dir. Sam Firstenberg, 1985)

AN1 posterWhat makes a ninja? This is a debate that has been going on in schoolyards since at least I was a kind back in the mid 1980s. What's generally agreed upon: Ninjas are masters of stealth, and can sneak around without being detected. They tend to wear head-to-toe, unicolor outfits, sometimes as camouflage but sometimes juts as a uniform. They carry swords, and are expert archers. They also carry a barrage of unique weapons particular to ninjas, including the ever-popular shuriken (which some of my classmates actually owned!), nunchaku, sai, and other obscure Japanese weapons that are all familiar to American boys of a certain age.

Ninjas also tend to be assassins, although there is also a spiritual, meditative nature to the the martial art that the “good” ninjas practice. Ninjas sit right on the line between awesome badass and over-the-top cartoon. All I know about actual, historical ninjas is minimal, and looking up the perhaps-accurate Wikipedia entry on ninjas might prove to be more illuminating.

Michael Dudikoff is the American ninja. He's an army guy named Joe Armstrong – a stoic, handsome bodybuilder type – who just happens to be an expert at ninja fighting. He has amnesia, and doesn't know where he received his ninja training, but he knows the moves. At the beginning of the film, he and his platoon are beset by terrorists, which they dispatch of, and then immediately beset by ninjas. Armstrong manages to flee the scene with the General's Daughter Patricia (Judie Aronson), earning him her respect, but the scorn of the rest of his platoon, who sees him as a coward. He manages to fight his way back into their good graces by fighting Curtis Jackson (Steve James). The two of them become fast friends, forming a duo of sorts. Since they're named Curtis Jackson and Joe Armstrong, I was constantly thinking of character actor Curtis Armstrong. Or singer Joe Jackson.

AN1 ninja

The rest of the plot is hard to penetrate, and way too eventful to follow meaningfully. There are evil gun runners supplying weapons to an unseen group of “rebels” hiding in the Colombian woods. There's a local subvillain named Ortega (Don Stewart), who takes orders from a heavily accented supervillain named Rinaldo (John La Motta). The villains have an army of ninjas at their behest, and there is one of those immensely appealing scenes wherein we get to see hundreds of ninjas training in a giant, outdoor ninja training camp. I love training camp scenes in movies. The head of the ninjas is just called Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita), and it will be with him that the ultimate end fight will take place.

There are several army guys who shift alliances throughout, and it turns out that Patricia's dad (Guich Koock) was in on the criminal activity this whole time. Also, Joe does eventually remember who he is by running into his old ninja sensei Shinyuki (John Fujioka) who just happens to be the bad guy's butler. It will be Shinyuki who will eventually supply Joe with enough weapons to take on the Black Star Ninja in the big final showdown. Oh yes, of course there's a showdown. They're kind of compulsory.

AN1 weapons

Look, none of this matters. What matters is the fighting, and I'm happy to report that the fight are pretty fun, especially the climactic battle between Dudikoff and Black Star Ninja. Joe infiltrates the bad guy's lair during a big arms deal and manages to murder the bulk of them with his array of odd weapons. Black Star Ninja fights back, and there are a lot of punches, kicks flips, and weird-ass tools of destruction; Black Star Ninja actually has a wrist laser.

I tend to forgive films of this vintage and caliber, mostly for nostalgic reasons; these were the kind of action movies I grew up watching on TV. I'm willing to forgive the low-fi look and the dumb dialogue because it has some awesome fights, and I liked that Joe and Jackson became friends. It's not a good film, of course, but it's clunky dumb fun. I just wish it had kind of transcended into a cheesy action classic.

AN1 Black Star Ninja

Actually, that happened rather quickly, as now we have…