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American Ninja...stay away from meee...

Director: Sam Firstenberg

USA - 1985

    Hoff! Hoff! Hoff! Hoff!    


First off, I’d like to acknowledge the fact that American Ninja was directed by Sam Firstenberg; the same gentleman who brought us Breakin’ II: Electric Boogaloo. So, without further adieu, allow me to interject:


And with that out of the way, let’s get back to the business at hand.

While pondering what to review for the ninja roundtable, I initially decided to critique all the American Ninja films in one grand piece. Being a shameless procrastinator, this was setting my sights pretty damn high. I have a hard enough time writing one review in a timely fashion. But what the heck? Three movies, I thought. No big deal, right?


American Ninja has five installments. Not the piddly three I recalled from that unreliable void I call memory. I may be a fool, but I’m not delusional. Not only would it be impossible for me to watch and write about five American Ninja movies in one week’s time (you don’t think I plan ahead, now do you?), but I don’t think I could physically stomach the cinematic endeavor in and of itself. Let’s just imagine that through some act of sheer intestinal fortitude I did, somehow, manage to endure the first four films. I would then be, at the very least, in a considerably weakened state. Alas, there would still be one more American Ninja installment to digest, and said film would feature Pat Morita teaching yet another (karate) kid the mysteries of the Orient!

Now, I credit myself as being pretty damn tough when it comes to bad movies (Heironymous Merkin aside), but I do have standards. I can’t stand the original trilogy with Ralph Macchio  and Hilary Swank. H"Please. No more talky."ow could I possibly tolerate a rip-off of the original? Ancient Chinese Secret my ass!*

Not only does the first American Ninja lack Pat Morita, but it’s a lot of fun to boot.

Michael Dudikoff plays Joe Armstrong; a quiet man with a mysterious past. Joe was found many years ago on a tropical island, knocked unconscious from an excavation’s dynamite blast (there’s gold in them coconuts!). He survives, but now suffers from amnesia (amnesia must be one of the most convenient plot devices ever) . After being dubbed with most generic name possible, Joe spends his turbulent childhood being bounced from one foster home to another. Naturally, this has a rather negative effect on young Armstrong, and it doesn’t take long before he has multiple altercations with the law. Finally, after nearly killing a man during some fisticuffs, a judge gives Joe the option of prison or enlistmen"Of course I'm evil! Look at my white suit!"t in the Army. Faster than you can say “Well, goooo-lly!” Joe finds himself a PFC stationed in the Philippines. 

It’s during a routine convoy when Joe and his platoon are ambushed by Filipino guerillas. At first it seems they only want military equipment, but once they catch a glimpse of the Colonel’s beautiful daughter, Patricia, their monetary desires turn carnal. Naturally, Michael Dudikoff will have none of that monkey business. Joe springs into action with a flurry of kicks, punches and things of that general nature. He rescues Patricia, but all hell breaks loose when ninjas appear from virtually out of nowhere (some just from out of trees). Outnumbered, Joe and Patricia escape into the jungle while the remainder of the platoon is slaughtered by the ruthless assassins.    

Being a stealthy American ninja, Joe returns Patricia back to the base no worse for wear. Unfortunately, the Colonel "Here is bucket." is unimpressed with Joe’s heroics and promises to have him court-martialed; until then, Joe will be forced to take on the more remedial tasks around base: garbage detail, kitchen patrol, and programming the CO’s VCR to catch every episode of Temptation Island.

To make matters even worse for our domestic ninja friend, turns out that the rest of the base is equally unimpressed with Joe’s heroics as well. They resent the fact that a whole platoon of soldiers had to be killed in order to save the Colonel’s daughter. They reason that none of this would’ve happened if Joe hadn’t decided to whup some guerilla tail. Tensions evaporate, however, after Joe is forced into a fight with local tough, Curtis Jackson. Joe spanks Jackson soundly, and immediately afterward everyone decides that perhaps the American ninja isn’t so bad after all. "Go on! Smell it!"

This love for Michael Dudikoff, however, proves not to be universal.

Victor Ortega (Spanish enough for you?), mastermind behind the aforementioned hijacking, has big plans: gun stealing, Patricia nabbing, and finally, ridding himself of that meddling American ninja – permanently (said slow while stressing every syllable for sinister effect).  And who better to eliminate the Caucasian martial arts enthusiast than the lethal Black Star Ninja and his skilled band of (non-American) ninja assassins?

So, with a vast array of kung-fu prowess at his disposal, Joe has his work cut out for him: uncover Ortega’s dastardly pWhee!lot, find out the truth behind his own shadowy past, and finally, come up with legitimate reasons to doff his shirt and flex his two sweet pecs.

Now I’ll admit, the plot to American Ninja sucks eggs. But despite a complete lack of creativity, Sam Firstenberg has ingeniously crafted a masterpiece: improbable action; bad dialogue; gratuitous explosions; grown men putting water buckets over their heads for no apparent reason. American Ninja has it all.

Have you ever rented a ninja film only to be disappointed by a distinct lack of ninja goodness? Trust me, my friends, we are in the same boat. There have been several instances where I rented a movie based solely on the fact that the word “ninja” was displayed prominently in the title. I take the movie home, pop it in, and get ten minutes of ninja mayhem. Tops.

I think I speak for everyone when saying that when I’m in the mood for ninja carnage, I demand at least 80% of the film to feature some form of ninja tomfoolery. Exposition? Character development? A freakin’ love story?! This is a ninja movie! I want pointy projectiles. I want merciless skewering. I want absurd ninja underoos. Wheee, again!

American Ninja has ninjas coming out of the woodwork (sometimes literally)! They’re jumping out of trees! They’re bouncing off random jungle trampolines! They’re wreaking havoc with those little sticks with the curved knife-thingy on the end! They’re flipping out!

And during those rare circumstances when there isn’t a ninja present, Michael Dudikoff is doing cool stuff like jumping his motorcycle over the base fence. And did I mention he puts a bucket on his head? How cool is that?!   

So, again, allow me to reiterate that American Ninja is as dumb as a box of rocks. Seriously. Check your brain at the door. But what this films lacks in brains it more than makes up for in fun. American Ninja should be a staple in every self-respecting ninja connoisseur’s library.  

Chronic heartburn got you down?



These are the times of which to cherish...

- Music straight outta Simon and Simon. Or perhaps Riptide.

- Michael Dudikoff’s staunch refusal to play Hacky Sack with some Army dorks. This occurs in the beginning of the film, thus establishing Joe Armstrong as a true tough guy. Tough guys don’t Hacky Sack.

- One ninja takes a shot at Dudikoff with his bow only to have the arrow deftly blocked by a shovel handle. Joe then plucks the projectile from the shaft and breaks it in half, much to the ninja’s dismay.

- Traipsing about the Filipino jungle, trying to stay one step ahead of the ninjas in pursuit, Patricia, exhausted and panicked, asks Joe if he’s a “jungle baby.” Unfortunately, Joe doesn’t dignify the question with a response. Too bad. I really wanted to know just what the hell a “jungle baby” is.

- After running through the jungle and jumping in a river, Joe and Patricia strip down to their skivvies to let their clothes dry. They even manage to straighten out and style their jungle-tossled coiffures. My guess is that Joe managed to produce some mousse from a rare tropical plant. Or perhaps a coconut.

- I have never understood the rationale behind criminals getting the choice of jail or enlistment in the Armed Forces. Do we really want these people defending our country?

- At one point, Curtis Jackson, local tough and friend to the common recruit, explains to his men that morale is low, so they should “hit the showers.” Let’s just leave that up for interpretation.

- What is it with villains who kill their own? Be it a demonstration of power or punishment for incompetence, I think the turnover rate for villains who kill their own would be astronomical.

- When Curtis Jackson asks Joe about his mysterious past, Joe is, at first, a bit reluctant to get into details. Apparently, it’s a long story. Once Jackson finally convinces Joe to spill the beans it takes approximately thirty seconds for the complete autobiography. Perhaps attention spans were shorter in the 80’s.

- When Joe and the Black Star Ninja have their inevitable confrontation in the film’s finale, Joe chases his nemesis onto the ninja training grounds where they proceed to run through every obstacle possible before they finally go mano-y-mano. Is this like a requisite Ninja Decathlon, or something?

- I love saying “mano-y-mano.”



-- Copyright © 2002 by J. Bannerman





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* Yeah, yeah. So he’s Japanese! It doesn’t lend itself to my lame joke.