From Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, the duo who were responsible for producing the coolest films of the 1980s, comes American Ninja!
Private Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) is the newest arrival on an American army base in the Philippines. A former member of a street gang, he has been forced to enlist in the army in order to keep himself out of jail. Because he keeps to himself, the other soldiers do not like him. Colonel Hickock (Guich Kook) is angry that his daughter, Patricia (Judie Aronson), likes Joe and conspires to have Joe court martialed. Joe’s only friend is Corporal Jackson (Steve James), who starts out as an enemy but changes his ways after Joe shows off some sweet martial arts moves. Because Joe is an amnesiac, he does not know where or why he learned how to fight. He just knows that he can.
It’s good that he can because the local black marketer, Ortega (Don Stewart) has hired the legendary Black Star ninjas to help him steal supplies from the base. Ortega has even allowed the ninjas to set up a training camp in his back yard. When Joe prevents the ninjas from kidnapping Patricia, the ninjas swear revenge.
As if there could possibly be any doubt, American Ninja was made and distributed by Cannon Films. It is about as pure an example of the Cannon aesthetic as anyone could hope to find. Find a star — in this case, Michael Dudikoff — who was credible without being expensive. Give him a love interest who was easy on the eyes and who could get held hostage during the film’s climax. Toss in slow motion stunt work, big explosions, and Steve James. Come up with a title that would appeal to both NASCAR-loving patriots and drive-in movie fans. End result: American Ninja!
As a film, American Ninja get the job done and then some. The fights are well-choreographed and the movie does not allow things like character development or subtext to get in the way of showcasing plenty of ninja action. There are enough weird details, especially after Joe dons the black pajamas of the American Ninja, to keep the move interesting. At one point, a ninja literally vanishes and what’s cool is that no one acts surprised when it happens. Long before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, American Ninja showed that there’s nothing a ninja can’t do!
One final note: Keep an eye out for my favorite scene, in which a slow-moving jeep bumps into a tree and explodes with all the force of a planet that’s just been zapped by the Death Star.