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American Ninja (1985)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

AMERICAN NINJA (1985)

Starring: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Judie Aronson, Tadashi Yamashita, Don Stewart, John Fujioka

Written By: Paul DeMielche, Avi Kleinberger (story), Gideon Amir (story) Directed By: Sam Firstenberg

The Short Version

The title and the fact that it’s a Cannon production tell you all you need to know.

It’s cheesy.  It’s absurd.  It makes no sense.

That’s exactly what makes it so much fun.

And then there are the fight scenes.  The highly entertaining fight scenes.

American Ninja is silly, but it’s fun, pizza-and-beer silly.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEESE PIZZA.

Let’s face it, folks: this is a pizza and beer flick.


Pairs Well With...

HEILEMANN'S OLD STYLE.

Cheap.  Retro.  That just about covers it, I think.

“Beware the Black Star Ninja.  He has taken the dark path and betrayed the code!”

“Then he must die.”


When it comes to preposterous cheez, it’s really hard to beat a flick that carries the double pre-title whammy of the Cannon logo and the declaration of a Golan-Globus production.  Yes, some are better than others, but any savvy moviegoer knows that anything that follows those two items is going to be some kind of circus.

But you know what, folks?  Circuses can be fun, even if the clown car ends up being one of the highlights of the show.

Case in point: American Ninja.

American Ninja is one of those movies that define why I don’t use numeric ratings anymore.  From a traditional critic’s perspective, this movie is either “low mediocre” or “just plain bad,” depending on the generosity and/or sobriety of the critic in question.  But when it comes to the Golan-Globus circus, that just isn’t fair.  The aforementioned savvy fans know what they’re getting into, and even for those unaware of what the Cannon logo signifies… Come on; just read the damn title and look at the promo art.  Do you honestly expect Kurosawa here?

If you’re a normal human being, of course you don’t.  Instead, you expect absurdity that exists primarily as an excuse to stage some action scenes.  And guess what?  American Ninja delivers!  Low mediocre?  Nonsense!  This is great!

With that in mind, let’s start with the good stuff: the action.  American Ninja isn’t exactly what one would call “balls to the walls,” but when there’s a fight to be had, it’s a fight to be enjoyed.  As suggested by the title, the focus here is mainly on hand-to-hand stuff combined with old fashioned silent weapons (swords, bows, shiruken, etc.), and what gunplay there is consists mainly (though not entirely) of people with automatic weapons shooting and missing, even at pointblank range.  The fighters represent a combination of legitimate practitioners and regular actors asked to spend time with the combat coordinator; however, director Sam Firstenberg (who had previously worked on Breakin’ 2: Electric Bugaloo, of all things) shoots the fight sequences in a way that really brings their best aspects forward, highlighting standout combat moves and never dwelling too long on a moment that’s finished while there are still other snippets of asskicking to present.  This filming technique, combined with the fact that the “regular actors” (including headliner Michael Dudikoff) obviously paid attention when the combat coordinator was talking, smoothes out most of the rough edges that often appear when non-fighters are asked to fight, making it difficult for the casual observer to notice anything out of sorts, and making it easy for savvy viewers to let it all slide for the sake of enjoying the well-presented action.

That’s why we don’t really care that the convoy stop is awkward and almost moronic from a story perspective; we’re having too much fun watching Michael Dudikoff display the fine art of Tool Fu.  (Who needs a throwing knife when you’ve got a decent screwdriver?)  We see the warehouse scene coming from a mile away, but so what?  Again, the action on display makes it fun to watch, and the preposterous chase scene that follows is awesome icing on the cake.  (I won’t spoil it for you entirely, but here’s a hint: it’s all about the sidecar.)  The prison break?  Again, stupid beyond belief from a story perspective, but… I think you get the hang of it by now, right?

Ah, but wait; there’s more!

The action sequences in American Ninja play on the “ramp up” philosophy: each one ends up being more fun than the last.  And so, even though, as noted, the movie as a whole can’t be called “balls to the walls,” once the third act arrives and our hero trades his Army fatigues for black pajamas, the doors get blown wide open and absolutely anything goes.  It’s not just a matter of more intense swordplay or ninja magic smoke bombs; it’s also a matter of the film’s primary combat villain, the ridiculously named Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita), finally coming into his own and being revealed as the mid-budget chop socky equivalent of Boba Fett, complete with super ninja flamethrower and – I kid you not – ZOMG Lazerz!  The climactic series of sequences are truly a joy to behold for the cheesy action fan, and even if the stuff that had come before hadn’t been worthwhile, the third act would be enough to make the whole movie worth watching.

Who knows? You might not even notice that there's next to no blood.

So.  That’s the good news, and for me, it’s enough.  Preposterous action is exactly what I expect from a Golan-Globus flick, and with American Ninja, that’s exactly what I (along with every other member of the audience) get.  Time to break out the pizza and beer and have a party.

Really, folks; the beer will make everything else go down a lot easier.

Because if I were approaching this from a standard critical perspective, I’d have to point out that the script for American Ninja is unbelievably stupid, even for a low/mid budget 80s action flick.  I’m not even going to try to explain the plot; I’m not even convinced that the screenwriter fully understood it, though I am impressed that a concept so initially simple could be made to tie itself into so many (occasionally contradictory) knots.  The dialogue is wino-lazy, but savvy viewers can turn that into a positive by making a drinking game out of picking out the clichés.  (“We must stop him!” is so lazy that I suggest it be worth two drinks.  But anyway.)  Fortunately, though, the director pays almost no attention to either of these potentially catastrophic items; instead, he just plows through them with a straight face in anticipation of the action sequences that he and the audience at large actually do give a damn about.  Again, from a critical perspective, this might seem lazy in and of itself, but from a rational audience perspective, this is exactly what Sam Firstenberg needs to do in order to make American Ninja work.  A negative becomes a positive, and the stupidity becomes fun precisely because the man at the helm is ignoring it.  Hallelujah for a director who actually gets it.

As for the acting… um, yeah.  I have to say that I do like Michael Dudikoff; he does a mean James Dean pose, he’s obviously studied Steve McQueen’s style, and, as noted, he seems to have actually paid attention to the combat coordinator.  Indeed, I’d rather watch Dudikoff than Lorenzo Lamas any day of the week.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Dudikoff’s non-physical acting is awkward at best, and that every word he says sounds like it’s coming from the mouth of a shy nerd trying to ask the prom queen out on a date.  And even though he’s got the moves down on the physical side, he just doesn’t have presence like, say, Dolph Lundgren or Jason Statham.  When Michael Dudikoff walks onto the screen, you don’t know that you’re supposed to be watching him unless the camera makes it explicitly obvious that he’s the star, and that, I think, is what ultimately kept his star from rising very high… which is too bad, really, because the potential is definitely there.  Ah well; such is life in movies that have synthesized faux-military soundtracks.

But when all is said and done, director Sam Firstenberg’s efforts behind the camera give Michael Dudikoff the presence that the actor can’t give himself, and the rest flows from there.  The fights look good, and that’s all that really matters; indeed, the fact that so much else about the movie is so absurd only serves to make the end result all that much more fun.  If there is badness to be found in American Ninja – and surely there’s plenty – then it is of the transcendent variety that comes back out the other side to become the fifteen clowns piling out of the Volkswagen to turn the circus into a party.

Bottom line, American Ninja is exactly what savvy fans have come to expect from Cannon and Golan-Globus: an absolutely preposterous flick that makes up for a multitude of sins by having highly entertaining action sequences and knowing how to have fun with itself while wearing a straight face.  No, it’s not Kurosawa, but it doesn’t need to be.  Indeed, it wouldn’t be nearly as good if it was.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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