One of the fads of the 80s were ninjas. Ninjas were everywhere: in comics, cartoons and movies. ninja movies were the staple of low budget movie studio The Cannon Group. They were cheap to make and the mystery of the ninja warrior was an easy sell. Most of their ninja movies featured white leads to make the movie easy marketable to western audiences. But 1985’s American Ninja would take that concept to the next level.
American Ninja stars Michael Dudikoff as Joe Armstrong. A guy with a mysterious past who has just been enlisted at an army base in the Philippines. He doesn’t talk much, but he is skilled in using a butterfly knife as he demonstrates in the opening scene.
As the movie opens a convoy of army trucks run into an ambush and they find themselves under attack. Joe, driving one the trucks, is the only soldier who actually fights back. It quickly turns out he is a skilled martial artist. After he dispatches a lot of the men holding them up, the other soldiers finally decide to fight back as well. But just when they though they had won a group of Ninjas appear. These ninjas brutally murder almost everyone. Joe manages to escape and save the colonel’s daughter Patricia (Judie Aronson). Being an attractive young woman, she also functions as the obligatory love interest for Joe.
Back at the base Joe quickly becomes a pariah accused for being responsible for killing all of his fellow soldiers. To be honest, they’re not entirely wrong. If Joe would have just let them leave with the trucks everybody would probably still be alive. But since Joe is the protagonist these guys are all bullies to him en we should hate them.
It turns out these ambushes happen on a regular basis and are ordered by a local crime lord who operates on the other side of the island. He also has an army of ninjas who train on a daily basis at his compound. It’s now up to Joe and his ninja skills to put a stop to all of this.
American Ninja is one of the movies of my youth. By the time I had the opportunity to see the first one, there were already four movies released. In the 80s franchises were still something special and to young innocent me the fact that there were four American Ninja movies meant that they were probably great movies.
While 14 year old me loved this movie back in 1992, it’s hard to keep up that opinion nowadays. American Ninja is a low budget ninja movie made by The Cannon Group. The amount of great films produced by Cannon can be counted on one hand and none of them have the word ninja in the title. But despite all of this, American Ninja does have plenty of redeeming qualities.
Dudikoff, a male model, is a great lead and obviously a precursor to Jean-Claude van Damme. He probably has as much lines in the movie as Schwarzenegger has in the first two Terminator movies. His silent approach works wonders for the character and his brooding stares give the character plenty of mystery. The only thing he’s lacking are actual fighting skills, but the choreography mostly covers that up. The fight scenes are shot in the typical 80s style, which means no quick cuts like we’re used to today.
He pairs greatly with Steve James, an actual martial artist with an impressive physique. These two have a decent amount of chemistry between them.
But as much as they do their best, American Ninja is basically a feature length episode of The A-team. Joe is able to run through an open field with dozens of people shooting at him and nobody manages to hit him. Whenever Joe is surrounded by dozens of enemies they all attack him one by one. The only serious threat he faces is the leader of the ninjas: the Black Star Ninja.
American Ninja is just 90 minutes of silly nonsense. But it’s entertaining nonsense, even after almost 40 years after its release.
A day after watching American Ninja I watched the 1961 10-time Academy Award winning movie West Side Story for the first time in my life. It was one of the most tedious and boring movies I have watched in a long time and I seriously pondered the idea of increasing the playback speed or just stop watching halfway through the movie. I sat through 2.5 hours people singing and dancing about a rivalry between two gangs and two lovers caught between.
As schlocky American Ninja is, I’d pick it over the 1961 Academy Award winner of best picture any day.