American Ninja

Director: Sam Firstenberg
Screenplay: Paul De Mielche (story by Avi Kleinberger & Gideon Amir)
Stars: Michael Dudikoff (Joe Armstrong), Steve James (Cpl. Curtis Jackson), Judie Aronson (Patricia Hickock), Guich Koock (Col. William T. Hickock), John Fujioka (Shinyuki), Don Stewart (Victor Ortega), John LaMotta (Rinaldo), Tadashi Yamashita (Black Star Ninja), Phillip Brock (Pvt. Charley Madison), Tony Carreon (Older Colombian), Roi Vinzon (Younger Colombian), Manolet Escudero (Bodyguard), Greg Rocero (Bodyguard)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1985
Country: U.S.
American Ninja Blu-ray
American Ninja

By the time American Ninja was released in 1985, the silver screen ninja craze was already showing signs of exhaustion, which is why the idea of plugging a traditional reluctant western hero into the central role was such a canny idea. Cannon Films, which had been pumping out profitable B-action movies under the direction of Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, was largely responsible for the omnipresence of the black-clad stealthy warriors at the multiplex and (especially) on video and pay cable, having started and sustained the trend with their loose trilogy Enter the Ninja (1981), which, ironically, starred Italian actor Franco Nero; Revenge of the Ninja (1983); and Ninja III: The Domination (1984), which is surely the only sequel to bear a roman numeral 3 with no predecessor bearing the number 2. The only thing those three films have in common is actor/martial artist Sho Kosugi, whose fierce presence and genuine martial arts prowess is decidedly missing in American Ninja.

Instead, we get Michael Dudikoff as Joe, a brooding, amnesiac Army private stationed at a U.S. base in the Philippines. With his James Dean mug and well-toned muscles, Dudikoff was certainly an inspired choice, even if his relatively flat performance and clear lack of genuine martial arts skills hamstring the movie in two different ways. The plot involves a generic European baddie named Victor Ortega (Don Stewart) who is causing trouble on the island with his illegal gun running, which is oddly protected by a small army of ninjas directed by a leader known only as Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita, a martial arts expert who had previous starred in a number of Bruce Lee rip-offs and The Octagon, a non-Cannon-produced Chuck Norris film from 1980 that also featured ninjas). Early in the film Joe saves Patricia (Judie Aronson), the daughter of the base’s commanding officer (Guich Koock), from an attack by rebels, which earns him a romantic subplot and the ire of his various superiors who feel that his heroics put them in danger. Joe also strikes up a friendship with Curtis Jackson (Steve James), a corporal whose respect he earns by besting him in fisticuffs, a time-worn device for developing true bromance in the action genre.

Director Sam Firstenberg, who stumbled into a long-term working relationship with Cannon Films, had previously helmed Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III, so he was a natural choice to extend the series (like Golan and Globus, he was born in Israel and went to film school in the U.S.). Firstenberg makes the most of what is clearly a relatively meager budget, and he choreographs the action sequences with enough panache to elevate them beyond the simply prosaic, but never to the point of being particularly memorable. The action sequences are frequently forced to work around Dudikoff’s minimal martial arts skills, which means a lot of cutting where longer takes might have been more effective. Dudikoff certainly has some moves and he performs a number of stunts (including a Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish moment in which he climbs underneath a moving truck from the front), but his work pales in comparison to what audiences had grown used to seeing from the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sonny Chiba, and Chuck Norris, the latter of whom was apparently the first choice for the role, but turned it down because he didn’t want to play a character whose face is covered for much of the film. The irony is that Joe, the American ninja, doesn’t don ninja garb until the final 15 minutes of the movie.

There is certainly payoff at the end of the movie in terms of ninja action, enough for audiences at the time to turn it into a moderate hit that led to three diminishing sequels, two of which also featured Dudikoff, who became a fleeting B-movie star in disposable action flicks like Avenging Force (1986), Platoon Leader (1988), and River of Death (1989). It is tempting to write American Ninja off in a similar manner, but there is something about it that has maintained interest for all these years. Perhaps it is the novelty of seeing an American hunk in the midst of all the martial arts action, although Chuck Norris had arguably cornered that market years earlier. More likely it has persisted because it so perfectly encapsulates in a single film the beloved cheesiness of a bygone era, when low-budget action fare still had a theatrical presence and ninjas still had an air of mystery.

American Ninja Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steven Lambert
  • Audio commentary by Firstenberg, moderated by filmmaker/editor Elijah Drenner
  • “A Rumble in the Jungle: The Making of American Ninja” featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorKino Lorber
    Release DateOctober 31, 2023

    Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray of American Ninja appears to have the same high-definition transfer that originally appeared on the now-defunct Olive Films’ 2016 release (which marked the film’s high-definition debut in the U.S.). I can see why they left it alone, since it is solid in terms of maintaining the look of a low-budget mid-’80s action movie shot on film. The image is clear and generally pretty sharp, with only a few minimal signs of age and wear (although it feels like just yesterday I was watching this movie as a teenager on cable, it has been 38 years since it was released in theaters). Colors look good and the image has robust detail and contrast throughout, although most scenes are shot in a relatively flat manner. The disc features a DTS-HD Master Audio monaural soundtrack that sounds quite good despite the inherent limitations of the monaural mix. Michael Linn’s jazzy orchestral score sounds rich and full (some of the trumpet notes hit a pretty high pitch), and the soundtrack manages all the familiar sounds of martial arts battle quite well.

    Kino has also included all of the supplements from Olive’s release, two of which were new at the time. “Rumble in the Jungle: The Making of American Ninja” is a highly entertaining 22-minute look at the film’s production, with Firstenberg, actors Michael Dudikoff and Judie Aronson, screenwriter Paul De Mielche, and prolific stuntman/stunt coordinator Steven Lambert spinning all kinds of stories about their involvement in the film (Firstenberg gets the most face time, but Aronson wins the award for most amusing story when she talks about how she almost ate dog with the Pilipino crew members). If you don’t get enough Firstenberg there, the disc also includes an audio commentary in which the director is interviewed by “A Rumble in the Jungle” producer Elijah Drenner. Firstenberg is energetic and engaging as he talks about making the film, sometimes waxing philosophical about things like cinematic violence, at other times just talking nuts-and-bolts of low-budget action movies. It’s a really good listen, arguably better than the movie itself. Kino has also added a second, new commentary track, this one again featuring Firstenberg and also stunt coordinator Steven Lambert, who adds additional insight into the film’s production and stuntwork.

    Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Kino Lorber

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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