The highlight of American Ninja is a fight between Michael Dudikoff and Steve James that sees the Dude choking Steve out with a garden hose before putting a pail on his head and urging Steve to try to hit him with a stick!
It’s a great scene made even greater because it concludes with Steve gaining a grudging respect for the Dude, what with the Dude being able to beat him down even while doing an impression of erstwhile Guns N’ Roses guitarist Buckethead. But it’s not so great a scene because it also happens to be the best thing about a movie that features the Dude battling endless waves of evil ninjas!
To its credit, the film technically delivers everything you expect and it promises. The Dude constantly battles ninjas decked out in their black pajamas and the Dude himself puts on a ninja costume at the end of the movie to fight the ninjas at their training compound, delivering the expected coup de gras to that most evil ninja of them all, Blackstar Ninja! (He has a little black star tattooed on his face so that it shows even when he is wearing his ninja mask!)
The story is both standard with its tale of corrupt army officials facilitating illegal arm sales and full of pointless nonsense and coincidence with the Dude’s mysterious origin and reunion with his sensai. Though director Sam Firstenberg gave us solid efforts with Revenge of the Ninja and the Dude’s own Avenging Force, American Ninja falls into that bland misfire category like his Operation Delta Force. Both weren’t truly over the top enough to be great mindless entertainment or bad enough to be memorable either.
Having seen American Ninja several times now, I think I’ve pinned down why I found my attention drifting even during the fairly competent action scenes. It’s the Dude himself!
I know every Dude maniac will be chucking shuriken at me when I go to the store and dropping out of the trees in my backyard to slice my poor innocent family to shreds with their katanas for uttering such heresy, but if you are honest with yourself, the Dude isn’t very compelling in this film.
This is a young Dude without the gravitas we would see in less well known, but more entertaining efforts like Strategic Command or The Human Shield. As Private Joe Armstrong, the Dude is forced to stand around with a sneer on his face some of the time and a look of glazed indifference the rest of the way.
Nothing happens in the entire movie that seems to raise the Dude’s blood pressure one iota. Whether he’s being wrongly threatened with a court martial, set up for the tenth time to be killed by ambushing ninjas, or watching his mentor killed protecting him, the Dude’s attitude seems to be “hey, it’s just a movie, so who gives a shit?”
If he’s too busy trying to affect a James Dean surly kid expression to care about all the carnage and danger around him to care, why should I? (He is ten times better the next year in Avenging Force so it may be that he was still trying to figure out how to convincingly play an action hero since American Ninja was really his first time as the star of such a flick.)
The character he plays is also saddled with a ridiculous back story that feels even more completely made up and fake then you would expect in a cheap Cannon Films ninja movie. The Dude was discovered on a Pacific island by an old Japanese soldier who didn’t know World War II was over so he did the obvious upon finding a little white kid and taught him everything about being a ninja! Then a construction crew blew up part of the island, found the Dude who got a dose of amnesia and is sent to the States where he is in and out of trouble until he is forced to join the army to keep out of jail.
Now the Dude doesn’t know how or why he is the first American Ninja ever, but instinctively knows all the tricks to kick ass ninja-style. Even worse from a tortured story standpoint is that the Japanese guy who taught the Dude all this stuff, just happens to be the landscaper at the compound where the arms merchant with all the ninjas lives! And he immediately recognizes the Dude after all those years and helps when it is needed most! Perhaps sensing how silly it all is, maybe director Firstenberg and the Dude intentionally made things so unremarkably bland so that no one would pay close attention to how dumb everything truly is.
Still, there’s stunts and violence aplenty to satisfy the most undemanding of serviceable 1980s action movie fans, though predictably things bog down to a crawl whenever people stop killing and start talking about various illegal deals and the need to eliminate the Dude. That said, trucks explode, there’s some cool motorcycle stunt work, a billion ninjas are killed, and Steve James even uses a shoulder fired missile on a helicopter!
Four sequels followed so it may be that they were trying to work the kinks out with this one. (The Dude also appeared in American Ninja 2 and American Ninja 4 and one can only hope he brought a couple of facial expressions and an emotion or two with him back to the role!)
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