A Movie A Day #134: America Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989, directed by Cedric Sundstrom)


Is an American Ninja film still an American Ninja film if it doesn’t feature the American Ninja?

That is the question posed by American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt.  Michael Dudikoff, who played Joe Armstrong in the first two films, is nowhere to be found.  Instead, he has been replaced by Doug Bradley.  Fortunately, the movie does not try to pass Bradley off as being Joe Armstrong.  Instead, he is a new character, CIA agent Sean Davidson.  Sean’s father was a martial arts champion who was killed by gangster while Sean watched.  Sean later went to Japan where he was trained in the ways of the ninja.  Sean is an American ninja, even if he’s not the American Ninja.

He also happens to be best friends with Jackson (Steve James), who previously appeared in the first two films and who never comments on the coincidence of having two best friends who both happen to be American ninjas.  Jackson, along with sidekick Dexter (Evan J. Klisser) and lady ninja Chan Lee (Michele B. Chan), team up with Sean after Sean’s sensei is kidnapped by a terrorist known as The Cobra (Marjoe Gortner).  The Cobra, who has a team of his own ninjas, has developed a poison that he wants to test on Sean.

The plot makes as much sense as the previous two American Ninja films and, somehow, everyone forgets about finding the sensei before the movie ends.  As an actor, Doug Bradley is no Michael Dudikoff (which is saying something) but he’s good in the fight scenes and that is the only thing that really matters.  The whole film is nearly worth it just to see former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner in the role of The Cobra.  Dudikoff is missed but at least his absence meant that Steve James got to do more in American Ninja 3 than he did in the first two films.  Sadly, just three years after this film’s release, James died as the result of pancreatic cancer.  He was 41 years old.

A Movie A Day #133: American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987, directed by Sam Firstenberg)


Duuuuuuuuude!  The American Ninja is back!

In this sequel to the first American Ninja, ninja Joe (Michael Dudikoff) and sidekick Jackson (Steve James) are now Army Rangers.  They have been assigned to provide security at an embassy on a small Caribbean island.  At first, it seems like an easy gig but then Joe discovers that a large number of Marines have recently vanished.  According to the only witness, they were abducted by men dressed in black.  Joe and Jackson know what that means!

The Marines are being set up by a traitor in their own ranks, Tommy Taylor (played by Miguel Ferrer look-alike Jonathan Pienaar).  Taylor is being blackmailed by a master criminal known as, I kid you not, Leo the Lion (Gary Conway, who also co-wrote the script).  Leo is brainwashing the Marines, shooting them up with all sorts of drugs and transforming them into zombie-style ninjas.

Doing away with any pretense towards reality, American Ninja 2 is pure comic book action.  A bad guy even says, “It’s the American Ninja!” when he sees Joe.  It’s a strange film.  On the one hand, it is full of goofy humor and it even has a streetwise kid sidekick, all things that would indicate that it was made to appeal to kids.  On the other hand, the first cut was reportedly so violent that it got a dreaded X-rating.  The final version still has enough impalings, decapitations, and throwing stars to the head to earn its R.

With its combination of nonstop action and Steve James one-liners, American Ninja 2 is both a worthy sequel and a worthy addition to the Cannon library.  Still, it bothers me that at least a few of the ninjans that Joe and Jackson killed were probably just brainwashed Marines.  That amounts to a lot of innocent victims being killed by our heroes.

The life of an American ninja is never an easy one.

A Movie A Day #132: American Ninja (1985, directed by Sam Firstenberg)


Hell yeah!

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.

A Movie A Day #131: Rich Girl (1991, directed by Joel Bender)


Courtney Wells (Jill Schoelen) is a rich girl (hence, the title).  Realizing that she is 21 years old and has yet to really experience life, Courtney declares her independence.  She breaks up with her cheating fiancée and tells her industrialist father (Paul Gleason, of course) that she no longer wants to go into the family business.  When her father responds by cutting her off, the rich girl becomes a poor girl.  Though she struggles at first, Courtney eventually trades her Ferrari for a reasonable car, finds a cheap apartment, and gets a job working as a waitress at a trendy Los Angeles nightclub, which is owned by Rocco (Ron Karabastos, of course).  She falls in love with aspiring musician Rick (Don Michael Paul) but he is already involved with his cokehead lead singer (Cherie Currie) and Courtney’s father will do anything to keep her and Rick apart.

In the early 1990s, Rich Girl was a late night HBO mainstay.  There is nothing surprising about the movie and Rick’s band has a sound that was already dated by 1991.  (While the rest of America is learning to love grunge, Rick and his band are still playing Bon Jovi cover tunes in the garage.)  However, Rich Girl does star the always gorgeous Jill Schoelen, which makes it a hundred times better than every other low-budget film that showed up on HBO in the early 90s.  Whatever happened to her?

Look familiar?

Here’s why.

A Movie A Day #130: Doc (1971, directed by Frank Perry)


No, this latest movie a day is not about Lisa and Erin’s cat.

Instead, Doc is yet another retelling of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Most cinematic depictions of that event present Wyatt Earp as being an upright hero, Doc Holliday as being his roguish friend, and the Clantons as being black hat-wearing villains.  Doc takes the opposite approach.  In this one, Wyatt (Harris Yulin) and his brother are sociopaths whose feud with the Clantons comes down to Ike Clanton’s (Mike Whitney) refusal to bow to their authority.  Wyatt is a coward and a physical weakling, who gets beaten up by Ike and is only saved when his friend, Doc Holliday (Stacy Keach), steps forward to protect him.

In this film, Doc is clearly dying from the minute he first appears.  Not only is Doc so thin that his bride actually carries him over the threshold, he is also constantly coughing.  His misery is only relieved by opium, herbs, and the love of Katie Elder (Faye Dunaway), the prostitute that he wins in a poker game at the start of the film.  Doc would rather just spend his remaining days with Katie but, because of his friendship with Wyatt, he is dragged into the Earp/Clanton fight.

Like most revisionist westerns of the early 1970s, Doc is a heavy-handed metaphor for the Vietnam War, with Wyatt Earp serving as an LBJ/Nixon stand-in and Doc Holliday standing in for all the leaders who enabled them.  It sounds interesting and Stacy Keach gives a good performance but Doc is glacially paced and Harris Yulin is thoroughly miscast as Wyatt.  It takes forever to get to the gunfight and the Doc is so determined to be revisionist that it forgets to be interesting.  Doc is an unfortunate misfire.

A Movie A Day #129: Tim Richmond: To the Limit (2010, directed by Rory Karpf)


Tim Richmond was not the typical NASCAR driver.  In a sport that was largely dominated by blue-collar “good ol’ boys,” Richmond was from a wealthy Ohio family and considered himself to be a “cosmopolitan.”  Unlike many of the drivers, he was not a car expert but he still instinctively knew how to handle a 200 mph turn.  A charismatic showman, Richmond spent a few years as one of the sport’s rock stars.  Along with co-starring with Burt Reynolds in Stroker Ace, Richmond was also the basis for the character played by Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder.  Tragically, one the way to becoming the best, his career was sidelined by health problems, starting with a bout of double pneumonia.  When he was returned to the sport, he was sidelined again when a drug test came back positive and rumors of his hard-partying lifestyle made it difficult for him to find a sponsor.  Even as he fought to get the drug test overturned, he was hiding a bigger secret.  At a time when the merest rumor of having the disease could ruin someone’s life, Tim Richmond was battling AIDS.

Fans of NASCAR might enjoy this documentary, which was produced as a part of ESPN’s 30 For 30.  It is mostly made up of talking head interviews and archival footage of Richmond both racing and being interviewed.  I had never heard of Richmond before I watched this documentary but his charisma is obvious in the clips shown of him and those interviewed speak of him with enough awe that it is easy to believe that, had he not died, Richmond would have become one of the greatest racers of all time.  Mostly, this documentary serves as a reminder of the fear and paranoia of the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  Long before Magic Johnson famously announced that he was HIV positive, Richmond died isolated and fearful that the world would learn the cause of his condition.  This documentary serves as a reminder of who Tim Richmond was and who he could have been.