• American Ninja

    Released By: Olive Films
    Released On: August 16, 2016.
    Director: Sam Firstenberg
    Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Judie Anderson, Tadashi Yamashita, Phil Brock
    Year: 1985
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    The Movie:

    It's difficult to measure the importance that Cannon Films, resuscitated by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, had on my childhood in the early 1980's. Breakdancers, treasure hunters, special forces operatives, and ninjas were suddenly available to rent from the local video store (twenty bucks for the player and 3 titles on the weekend); and with a single parent who wasn't quite savvy to the ratings on the back of the boxes, my very young self was exposed to a wack of things that were meant for viewers much older, but nonetheless infected the core of my being with a lifelong dedication to violent action flicks. From the first moment I saw Sho Kosugi on screen, I decided that I was destined not for the IT job that I currently hold, but to be a master of the art of ninjutsu. And if I lacked the skills, I sure didn't lack the ability to compulsively lie to my friends at school, telling them about an ornamental case belonging to my grandfather that I had found in the attic that held his super-sharp sword and throwing stars. Yes, I told my friends that my grandfather was a real-life ninja, therefore demanding that they accept this nine year-old as next in line to carry on the tradition. The fact that I was not Japanese and therefore not eligible was definitely mentioned, and the balloon of imagination deflated; but was then again reborn with the emergence of Michael fricken Dudikoff in 1985's American Ninja.

    Dudikoff plays Private Joe T. Armstrong, an Army man with a strange past. Found on a South Pacific island with amnesia by demolition crews when he was only six years old, Armstrong made his way through a number of foster homes and reform schools before being given an ultimatum...jail or enlist. Stationed on a base in South America and keeping largely to himself, Joe spends his time in the service working on vehicles, staying under the social radar of the other men. All of that changes, however, when the convoy Joe is ordered to escort, carrying military equipment and (for some reason) the Colonel's daughter, Patricia (Judie Aronson) is attacked by rebels. Stepping to the would-be hijackers with a combination of stunning martial arts and vehicle maintenance tools, Joe inspires his Army colleagues to take the rebels to town, kicking ass and taking names. Unfortunately, with the battle almost won by the good guys, phase two begins with the appearance of the menacing Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita) and his ninja cohorts, who slide down the palm trees into battle like multiple David Lee Roths in the Panama video. Though Joe holds his own against the black-clad warriors and escapes safely into the jungle with Patricia, the bad guys slaughter most of his colleagues.

    Back on the base, hero Joe finds himself not a hero in the eyes of the army, as multiple bodies of servicemen are carried through the gates. The top brass are pissed that he's incited the rebels over a convoy worth nothing of value, the Colonel isn't too impressed that the young soldier has been hanging out with his daughter in the jungle, and his largely blank past starts the wheels turning that Joe T. Armstrong may be up to no good. The other soldiers aren't impressed with his heroics, either, convinced that he's responsible for getting their buddies killed, and their hostility comes to a head when Corporal Curtis Jackson (Steve James!) challenges Joe to account for his tough guy actions. Jackson may be a brawler, but he's no match for Joe, who gently beats his ass with a series of throws, a bucket, and a garden hose. Realizing that Joe might not be a bad guy after all, Jackson extends the glad hand, and before long, the two are playfully wrestling and giving each other noogies on their soft, luxurious hairdos. Adding to the newly found warmth in Joe's life is the fact that Patricia, initially angry that Joe dragged her on a wet run through the jungle, can't seem to get the image of his boxer-shorted muscular body out of her dreams, and makes plans to see him again romantically.

    Sadly, the playfulness can't last with the sinister goings-on on the island; A villain named Ortega has seen a business opportunity in the shoulder-launched missiles that the Army is currently transporting, and figures that he can grab them and sell them off to the highest bidder. Ortega is the one responsible for the ninja army, who train extensively at his giant ninja training facility, complete with Oriental writing, giant climbing walls, a big drum, and a swingset with knife-laden bales of hay on chains. With corruption on the inside of the army going up to the top ranks, Ortega devises a plan that will relieve the military of their weapons and place the blame squarely on Private Joe T. Armstrong, the man with the suspect past. Joe may have preferred to keep to himself, but now he'll need the help of Patricia, Jackson, and a mysterious man who holds the key to unlocking the skills of the ninja. Shuriken will fly, steel will clash, shit will blow up, and bales of hay will be dodged as Joe fights to clear his name, save the day, and win the girl.

    Let's talk first about what's wrong with American Ninja. The answer is...nothing, really. Let's be clear, though. This is not high art cinema. In a perfect world, Dudikoff and James would've cleaned up at the Oscars, but that's not the way things go. American Ninja, while I consider it to be THE Cannon film, is not a film that functions within the realm of reality. Monstrous plot holes abound, far too many to count. There are so many instances in this film of events that would just not ever happen, EVER, it's absurd to watch it with any rational thought; ninjas with hand-mounted laser beams??? American Ninja requires you to shut down your brain to its lowest functioning level and soak in the awesomeness that happens when you throw Dudikoff, James, Firstenberg, and Golan/Globus into a mixer. What emerges is the purest form of entertainment.

    To be fair, though, and to prevent anyone from thinking that this is a "so bad it's good" flick, American Ninja hits a number of the right marks. Dudikoff and James are both great in this. As a matter of fact, it's hard to find a bad performance in the entire film. Sure, some of the dialogue comes across as suspect...James asking his superiors what they know about ninjutsu borders on hilarious...but it's really hard otherwise to figure out why these guys weren't huge, as their acting chops and dynamic together carried on into other films with equally solid results. Some of the characters, such as Ortega, hit the level of caricature/cartoon, but the actors bring their A-game and deliver their roles with conviction. Cannon originally presented American Ninja as a Chuck Norris vehicle when they were raising funds for it, but it's hard to imagine it being anywhere near as good with Norris and his beard in the lead role.

    Director Sam Firstenberg (Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo) brings his talented eye for action to the screen here, the secret cherry on the sundae. It's impossible to describe Firstenberg's influence on this film, but his formidable style, well-established and later stamped on flicks like American Ninja II and Avenging Force, pretty much define the Cannon ethos and remain secure in the minds of those lucky enough to see them during their first run in that glorious time. Paragraphs could be written about the man, but they would be repetitive; he's just an amazing talent. Combined with Steve Lambert (stunt co-ordinator), Firstenberg and the rest of the cast and crew of American Ninja have made a thoroughly action-filled and entertaining film that not only stands the test of time, it serves as a reminder of a wonderful era in cinematic history.


    Olive brings American Ninja to Blu-ray in North America (finally!) in a 1.85:1 AVC-encoded transfer that reportedly uses the same MGM master that 88 Films had access to, and is also (reportedly) quite similar. Though the picture does fall short of pristine, there is still plenty of detail to behold here, a giant step up from the MGM DVD. Some scenes do come across as softer than others, and there are mild occurrences of dirt/damage, but the grain structure is largely healthy, and black levels are good. This enhanced detail will also allow viewers to pay close attention to that motorcycle jump scene and marvel in the awesomeness of Dudikoff's stunt double.

    Olive has provided and English DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack for the film that does a pretty stellar job of conveying dialogue, sound effects, and the bitchen 80's score that permeates the film. As is the case with the picture, there are some scenes that fare better than others, but only one jarring instance...the sudden jump in audio when the warehouse fight starts...occurs. The spoken word is coherent and clear throughout, and for a stereo track, it's perfectly suited for the film with no crackles or distortion.

    English Subtitles are available.

    Even more amazing for fans of the film and those accustomed to Olive discs being barebones are a few excellent supplements included on this release. First up is A Rumble In The Jungle: The Making of American Ninja (22:48) a brand-new look at the film with participants Michael Dudikoff, Sam Firstenberg, Judie Aronson, Screenwriter Paul De Mielche, and Stunt Co-Ordinator Steven Lambert. Though the focus starts out documenting the influence and interaction that Menahem Golan had on the various participants, it spreads out to include talk of the stunts and the screenplay, filming in the Philippines, and includes a brief nod to the late Steve James and a look at the promo material involving Chuck Norris. Dudikoff also reveals that he contracted malaria in the Philippines, and did a portion of the shoot while dealing with the extreme illness.

    Up next is a new commentary (exclusively for Olive and different from the one found on the 88 Films disc) that features Director Sam Firstenberg and the producer of A Rumble In The Jungle Elijah Drenner that covers just about every aspect of the film you could want. Firstenberg expands more on the material found in the above featurette, talking extensively about Dudikoff's audition and how he was the perfect fit in Firstenberg's opinon, and also talks a bit more about the rumour that Chuck Norris was originally involved but wouldn't do a film where he had his face covered. The pair also talk about the stunts in the film and the incentives for shooting in the Philippines, as well as Firstenberg's take on the "Rated PG" type of violence that he feels is cartoonish. There's a bit in there about Cannon's business practices that is also interesting, and the commentary is wordy and informative throughout, with Firstenberg's jovial self occasionally being prodded along by Drenner. As far as commentaries go, it's a great one.

    A Trailer for the film rounds out the extras.

    The Final Word:

    Am I looking at this film through nostalgia-tinted graphics? Who knows? Who cares? Cannon's American Ninja is every bit as exciting and awesome as it was during that first viewing over thirty years ago.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Ian Jane's Avatar
      Ian Jane -
      Fuck yeah!
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      This flick is harder than Chinese arithmetic.