Love them or hate them Cannon Films’ head honchos Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus, set the charge for the 80’s Ninja explosion in cinemas and on video shelves. After their successful “Ninja trilogy” those ‘go-go boys’ revisited the occidental character learns an ancient martial art premise of “Enter the Ninja” and gave martial arts fans a bigger, badder and more explosive ninja adventure.
Former fashion model Michael Dudikoff makes his leading role debut here as Private Joe Armstrong. The late Steve James is Corporal Curtis Jackson, a wise-cracking soldier whose one liners are matched by his overwhelming need to kick ass.
Don Stewart plays Victor Ortega a vicious gun runner behind the series of co-ordinated attacks on the US military transport packed with armaments that make up his stock. Ortega’s raids and protection are carried out by a group of ninjas led by the enigmatic Black Star Ninja played by Tadashi Yamashita.
Making an appearance as Shinyuki, Ortega’s unassuming gardener who might be the missing link to Joe’s past, is Hawaiian actor John Fujioka (“American Samurai”, “Mortal Kombat”).
Amnesiac Joe Armstrong enlists in the army to avoid prison and is stationed in the Philippines. In no time at all he falls foul of his army buddies, the local rebels and a band of ninjas. As a conspiracy is unravelled Joe’s memories start to surface unveiling the mystery behind his formidable fighting skills and a destiny that will pit him against a deadly adversary.
Although considered by some to be poor quality fare in comparison to modern ninja films, this is an action-packed, barrel-load of fun from start to finish. Karate champion Mike Stone’s (“Enter the Ninja”) martial arts choreography on closer revision is actually cleanly staged and smoothly executed. Stone also trained the genre’s newest star Michael Dudikoff resulting in some pretty decent ninja-fu and other hallmarks of 80’s action.
Dudikoff impresses in his first action role moving like an American warrior delivering killer kicks and powerful looking punches in the film’s opening scene. Things really pick up when the ninjas arrive for which Stone arranged some excellent ninja formation movement and intricate killing methods with military style precision – one scene has two ninjas trip up a soldier from underfoot whilst a tree top ninja fires an arrow into his chest.
From the start though this screams star vehicle accentuating both Dudikoff’s athleticism and charm as Joe romances Patricia. This doesn’t distract from the action and Dudikoff is given plenty of it including jumping from moving vehicles and skilfully wielding a ninjato against ninjas in a warehouse.
By contrast his co-star Steve James (a Fu Jow Pai proponent) sadly gets little in the way of fight-fu action instead getting beaten by Joe. Tadashi Yamashita is perfectly cast as the evil Black Star Ninja, and gets a proper introduction at the ninja boot camp with a skilful Karate display before killing one of his students with a chilling glare.
If there is a flaw, it has to be that the excitement level of the action segments never quite surpass each other, probably due to a hasty production schedule.
The excitement factor is initially raised with the finale at Ortega’s compound. Dudikoff swaps army fatigues for a ninja gi as Jackson wades in with the cavalry. Explosive shoot-outs and faster-paced sword fights reminiscent of a James Bond film ramp things up but the inclusion of ninja magic and far-fetched ninja weaponry (lasers anyone?) feels out of place.
The film is saved by a breath-taking helicopter stunt and Joe’s showdown with Black Star Ninja is still a thrill to watch with Yamashita displaying his legendary Kama skills.
Critics and fans have not been kind to this film over the years picking faults with its plot, characters, fight action and even the star, and it’s now deemed a nostalgic guilty pleasure. Yet “American Ninja” was an iconic and fun film in its day and has since achieved cult status, it’s as enjoyable an action romp as the “A-Team” and “Rambo”.
Although at times it lacks any breath-taking quality, on the whole, this Cannon classic is unadulterated action-packed fun; gun battles, car chases, some nifty looking ninja-fu, plus more NPF (Ninjas per Frame) than any other martial arts film at the time, what is there not to love here?
- Chuck Norris was considered for the role of Armstrong but declined as he did not want to cover his face.
- During an interview in 2012 Dudikoff stated he contracted malaria during filming hence why he is seen excessively sweating after many of the fight scenes.
- “No Retreat No Surrender” star Kurt McKinney auditioned for the lead but was considered too young.
- Dudikoff had no martial arts experience prior to filming and underwent training with Mike Stone.