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Tuesday, August 23, 2016
If movies like DIE HARD, RAMBO, and LETHAL WEAPON are the filet mignon of 80s action flicks, then movies like 1985's AMERICAN NINJA (Olive Films, Blu-ray and DVD) are the Hungry Man TV dinners. Cheaper and not as fancy, perhaps, but tasty and filling nonetheless.
That pretty much describes most of the Cannon Group's output at the time, with producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus filling a definite niche audience's needs with low-budget action blockbusters such as ENTER THE NINJA and its sequels, with the occasional breakdancing comedy thrown in for good measure.
Here, we get the saga of a mysterious young soldier named Joe (Michael Dudikoff, BLOODY BIRTHDAY, TRON), stationed at an American army base in the Philippines, who springs into action when his convoy is attacked by ninjas and he must defend the colonel's daughter Judie (Patricia Hickock, WEIRD SCIENCE, F13: THE FINAL CHAPTER), resulting in his being blamed for the deaths of some of his fellow soldiers.
At first ostracized by his own platoon, Joe gains their respect when he defeats another private named Curtis Jackson in hand-to-hand combat. Curtis is played by my man Steve James who would take on Willem Dafoe the same year in William Friedkin's renegade-cop classic TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.
With Jackson's help, Joe goes on to get the goods on a conspiracy between certain military officers and a local crime kingpin named Ortega (soap opera star Don Taylor, "The Young and the Restless") to supply stolen weapons to local rebels for a big profit.
As you might guess, this endeavor will result in frequent bouts of intense action, and lots of it. The likable Dudikoff isn't the most expressive of actors but this seems to fit his withdrawn and socially awkward character (Joe doesn't remember his childhood or how he learned his ninja skills) and his considerable physical prowess fully compensating for any shortcomings. The same goes for Steve James' "muscular" performance, which adds zing to every scene he's in even when the script gives him some pretty silly lines.
Of course there's the standard romantic angle when the initially bitchy Judie (I really wanted her to get blown away by the bad guys during her more insufferable early scenes) warms up to her rescuer Joe and eventually falls for him. Judie will keep the plot interesting by continuing to get kidnapped throughout the film, making it necessary for Joe and Curtis to rescue her repeatedly.
But what really makes AMERICAN NINJA so watchable are the many action sequences, which are fun and exciting despite the fact that the low budget necessitated a very quick shooting schedule with less rehearsal time than was needed to fine-tune the stunt choreography and other action elements.
Still, Polish director Sam Firstenberg--who also gave us the dual Lucinda Dickey classics NINJA III: THE DOMINATION and BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO--overcomes his limited resources and packs the story with as much martial arts mayhem (ninja battles abound), shoot-em-up scenes, and vehicular destruction that we could hope for.
The DVD from Olive Films is in 1.85:1 widescreen with mono sound and subtitles in English. "A Rumble in the Jungle: The Making of 'American Ninja'" is a fascinating featurette that recounts the making of the film in detail with several of its cast and crew members on hand. A commentary track with director Firstenberg and the featurette's co-producer Elijah Drenner of Olive Films is just like I like them--scene specific, enthusiastic, and loaded with information and anecdotes. The film's trailer is also included.
A final free-for-all battle between the good guys and the ninjas tops off AMERICAN NINJA in relatively grand style as this Golan-Globus production pushes its modest budget to the limit. It may not be filet mignon, but it is a heaping helping of meat and potatoes with all the trimmings.
Buy it at Amazon.com: