Starring Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Tadashi Yamashita
Fight Choreography by Mike Stone
Directed by Sam Firstenberg
Back in 1985, America was made up of three things: Apple pie, Reaganomics, and Ninjas. This was the time when Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus ruled the world under the name of Cannon Films, which became the home of Chuck Norris and cheesy action flicks. During this time two kinds of films ruled the action roost: Anything with a guy running through Vietnam freeing guys still held captive there, and ninjas. Lots and lots of ninjas. The biggest series to come out of all that was American Ninja.
The story opens with the cheesiest music you’ve ever heard, right out of the A-Team. In fact, I think it actually was the A-Team soundtrack, but whatever. We meet Private Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff), who seem like an odd bird from the get go, not wanting to speak with..well, anyone.
He drives an escort in the Philippines for the daughter of his General, and before long the escort is ambushed by a group of thugs, and after a moment of pretending that yeah, he’s just content to stand there and get shot, he decides it’s NINJA TIME and unleashes level 1 ninja skills, punching and kicking the baddies aside, unaware that a group of ninjas, hidden in the trees and hill above are watching him. Yes, they are hiding among green trees in black uniforms, so of course they can’t be seen. I don’t think Michael Dudikoff knew any martial arts prior to the film, but he did pretty well for what was asked of him. (Since those films I know he’s been practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with the Gracie family) Unfortunately while Joe goes off to save the annoying general’s daughter, the rest of the military escorts jack up the remaining thugs, but wouldn’t you know it the ninjas jump in to kick some ass, and massacre the entire company. Joe and Patricia don’t notice this as they escape into the forest, pursued by ninjas. The scene would be fine if not for Patricia, who comes off as a typically vapid, pampered American girl that was also a prevalent stereotype of heroines during those Cannon years. He gets her back home, where her father gives Joe a lot of shit for fighting off the bad guys instead of standing his ground. The specific reasons why he’s so angry becomes apparent later.
Meanwhile, a conglomerate of bad guys are led by a dude named Senior Ortega, and you know he’s bad because he’s wearing a white suit with a pink tie, which means he’s evil incarnate. He shows off his lead ninja Black Star (Yamashita) who, in a typical show of how badass he is, kills one of his own trainees. Something tells me those guys don’t include insurance in their benefits package. Back at the base, we meet Curtis Jackson (James), the martial arts instructor on base (you know he’s black, because most action hero black sidekicks are named Jackson), challenges Joe to a fight, and this leads to a good scene of Jackson getting grappled and tossed about by Joe, who doesn’t really want to hurt Jackson, and after he admits defeat they form a friendship. Yes, ladies, it’s a guy thing. We just roll that way. We come to learn that Joe has lost his memory, and has these ninja skills but doesn’t know where they come from. Soon Joe becomes a target of Ortega, and Joe faces off with them in a warehouse attack that features a lot of ninja action, not badly done, and okay for American fight choreography. Joe follows the attackers back to their base and finds out who he really is and why he knows ninjitsu, and with the help of Jackson and a the US military, goes to stop Ortega once and for all, and face the Black Star Ninja and Ortega’s ninja army one last time…
This is all really silly. I mean jeez, during the last fight Black Star tries to kill Joe with a flamethrower in his sleeve, and a laser in his other sleeve! That’s not a ninja, that’s Master Chief! Yes, this movie drips pure cheese, but the best kind. So much of the 80’s is in this film, and came out at the height of the ninja craze that swept the United States at the time, even if most of the ninja scenes were just way off of what they were really like.
One scene I have to point out, because it’s my favorite for some reason, is when Jackson fights this big Asian guy toward the end of the film, and gives him a punch to disorient him, and then shows him his tiger claw hand, to his face, right before he uses it to grab the guy’s testicles and starts to crush them, shouting out “How do you like that? Them nuts!” It’s a crazy scene, but funny in all the right ways. It actually occurred to me a lot of guys get kicked in the nuts in this film, even one poor sod who was pretty much already beaten by Jackson, and takes one more to the family jewels for posterity.
All in all, it’s still good fun all these years later, and formed a snapshot of what many American action films were like during that era. And never fear, Joe Armstrong and Curtis Jackson will return…in American Ninja 2!
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best)
CHOREOGRAPHY: (5) Not great, but not horrible either. Michael Dudikoff acquited himself quite well, and Steve James is always fun to watch. It simply suffers from the American fight choreography of the day. I think it was actually better than, say, The Octagon with Chuck Norris.
STUNTS: (5) Some good overacted death scenes and reaction by some of these guys puts the “ee” in the cheese of this film.
STAR POWER: (6) Michael Dudikoff would go on to star in several more American Ninja films, and this is what he’s most famous for. Steve James did more of them also, and other films before dying too young at the age of 41 due to pancreatic cancer. He always played the sidekick to other stars, though he was the better martial artist in just about every film he did.
FINAL GRADE: (5) It’s an American ninja classic made during that period of time, and is cheesy fun, but not really a good martial arts film.