American Ninja

April 20, 2012

It had to happen eventually. Oh, the Ninja pictures lighting up movie screens in recent years were popular enough; but think what would happen if, as the ads put it, “The deadliest art of the Orient” fell into the hands of an American.

Apparently Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the two wizards of schlocky, profitable Cannon Films (home stable for Chuck Norris), thought about it for a couple of seconds and decided that the idea would be a box-office bonanza. You put your hero (played by Michael Dudikoff) in front of a big American flag, put a Japanese sword in his hands, and the cash registers start beeping. How about American Ninja as a title?

Here’s a Ninja to identify with. He’s young, he’s clean cut, he’s one of our boys. He’s also a sociopathic psycho, of course, but it’s all in a good cause.

The protagonist establishes his credentials early. As a U.S. soldier in a Latin American country, he’s helping escort the general’s daughter across some tricky country when they’re stopped on the road by kidnappers. The other soldiers surrender quickly, but our man knows that surrender is for sissies—so he grabs a tool box and starts throwing wrenches and screwdrivers, with a Ninja spin, at the attackers. Their machine guns are no match for this, and they quickly disperse.

But some heavy-duty Ninja are watching. They’re the henchmen of an evil landowner who is aiding the right-wing rebellion in the country (and, as it turns out, is also in cahoots with the American military—interesting political stance, for an exploitation movie). The Ninja leader looks at Dudikoff’s martial-arts antics and proclaims, “He possess great skills.” He sense, or senses, a Ninjaness about this young man.

But, as everyone knows, it is impossible for a white man to understand the ways of the Ninja. Ah, but Dudikoff was taught the ways by an aging Japanese master on a remote Pacific Island, when the two were stranded there (don’t ask how, it’s much too complicated).

Funny thing is, Dudikoff doesn’t remember his training sessions. He was found unconscious and amnesiac, and he knows nothing of his past. But put a box of screwdrivers in front of him, and he goes into Ninja action immediately.

The film is a series of action sequences, as Dudikoff finds himself put upon by most of the factions in the country. That Japanese master pops up again, doing some gardening for the evil landowner, but he’s really just waiting for the return of his pupil so they can overthrow the bad forces and make things right for the country. “Your karma and mine—they are connected,” he tells Dudikoff.

Pretty silly stuff, although there is a plot in the movie. That’s more than could be said for Ninja Mission or Ninja III: The Domination. Before we declare a winner, however, we’ll have to wait for Sylvester Stallone to make his Ninja movie—not to mention its inevitable sequels.

First published in the Herald, August 1985

I’ll take Dudikoff and a box of spare parts over a machine gun any day; nothing beats a connected karma. Well, such are the ways of the Ninja. Or is it ninja? I didn’t know then, and still don’t now. Sam Firstenberg directed this one.

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Ninja Mission

April 10, 2012

Even those people (whoever they are) that flock regularly to every new Ninja movie that karate-chops its way onto our screens have a right to be mad about Ninja Mission.

If you’re going to put a Ninja in your title, at least you ought to deliver some fist-in-your-face martial arts action. This movie doesn’t deliver; the Ninja, in fact, look suspiciously like an afterthought.

So much for the consumer report for martial arts fans. For the rest of us, Ninja Mission has even less to offer, unless your idea of fun is counting the number of extras who get wasted in one 90-minute period.

The body count in Ninja Mission, I believe, tops the count in Rambo. But, since most of the dead are Russian Communist pigs, that’s okay.

You see, this film is not a Ninja film set in the Orient, or even transported to America (as in that memorable opus, Ninja III: The Domination). No, this is an Eastern European spy movie, with a few Ninja thrown in to spice things up.

It’s your basic Cold War scenario: bigshot nuclear scientist wants to defect to the West, but he’s intercepted by the KGB, who disguised themselves as Swedes and pretend to take the scientist to Sweden.

But he’s actually still in Russia, see; the KGB want him to think he’s free so he’ll spill the beans about his new improved nuclear formula (and thus, as one character puts it, “the balance of power between East and West will be destroyed”).

This is where the Ninja—they’re on our side—come in. A crack team (led by Christopher Kohlberg) races to the seemingly impenetrable castle (they’re always seemingly impenetrable) where the Nobel Prize-winner is being kept, and promptly tears the roof off that sucker.

This brings about a lot of machine-gunning, as well as weird claw things that the Ninja attach to their hands so they can disfigure people (nasty, but remember, they’re on our side). These Ninja also have a weapon that will inject the victim with a fluid that explodes when it hits the brain. Not very tidy, but effective.

Thrown into the mix is the scientist’s sexy daughter (Hanna Pola), who performs in a German nightclub wearing a see-through fishnet blouse.

It’s a Swedish-made film, although why the Swedes would want to make a movie about Ninja is beyond me. The oddest thing is, although the movie is dubbed into English, everybody speaks with a fat German accent. If they’re going to go to the trouble of dubbing, why not just get non-accented voices? That doesn’t make much sense—but then what in this film does?

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1985

The film appears to have been released as The Ninja Mission, so I’m missing a word. I remember nothing about this film, not even an image. Director Mats Helge made a series of action pictures during this era, and appears to be a subject for further research, perhaps the Uwe Boll of his time.


American Ninja II and Creepshow 2

November 21, 2011

If you recall American Ninja, you’ll remember that our hero (Michael Dudikoff) is an American Army man, trained in the ways of the mysterious, black-hooded ninja. This makes him all but indestructible. If you think about it, this removes a considerable amount of suspense, since the guy can’t possibly be threatened by any conventional opposition.

Nevertheless, he’s back in American Ninja II, again victorious over insurmountable odds. Joined by his Ranger buddy (Steve James, who has become a kind of black Chuck Norris), Dudikoff travels to a tropical island to solve the mystery of disappearing Marines. As the plot unreels—or, rather, unravels—it turns out that a batch of the ninja are carting away American military men to be cloned in experiments to produce a race of “SuperNinjas.”

In other words, “Karate Theatre” meets The Island of Dr. Moreau. Very strange story. However, director Sam Firstenberg, who has made a lot of weird stuff for Cannon Films, keeps this one lively for at least its first two thirds (there’s a barroom brawl about every five minutes). Then the SuperNinja business gets out of hand, and the movie grinds down.

Creepshow 2 is another sequel, but this time spun off from an original film that was quite watchable. The first Creepshow had the indefatigable Stephen King writing a screenplay, directed by George Romero, that paid affectionate homage to pulpy horror comic books. It wasn’t too scary, but it was stylish and fun.

For the sequel, Romero has adapted a trio of King short stories, but the directing reins are held by Michael Gorlick. King’s actual participation is limited to an acting cameo, as a dimwitted truck driver, that is actually one of the sharpest performances in the movie.

The first story is called “Old Chief Wood’n Head,” and it’s a snoozer that wastes Dorothy Lamour and George Kennedy in a tale of Native American justice. The second, “The Raft,” is somewhat better, if only because King’s idea is basically scary. It’s about a quartet of teens trapped on a raft, in the middle of a lake, by a huge gloppy thing that slides across the surface of the water.

The film is rounded off by “The Hitchhiker,” about a woman (Lois Chiles) who runs over and kills a hitcher, only to have him disconcertingly return. It’s the best of the lot, directed and acted with some intensity and black humor, with some of the creepiness inherent in spooky stories about hitchhikers. But it’s not quite enough to justify sitting through the previous tales, brief though they are.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1987

Creepshow 2 was a bum deal, even if “The Raft” sticks in the mind as one of King’s effective stories. I have forgotten AN II, but the plot sounds agreeably deranged. Firstenberg (I don’t need to tell you) managed a few outrageous Cannon titles, including the stupefying Ninja III: The Domination. The real title of this Firstenberg effort is apparently American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, but I guess I didn’t know that at the time.


Ninja III: The Domination

December 16, 2010

I’ve got a little confession to make: This film is the first of the Ninja series I’ve seen. Don’t ask me how I managed to miss the two preceding segments; I have no good excuses. All I know is, now that I’ve seen Ninja III: the Domination, I’ll never miss another one.

It’s just great. Well, maybe I should clarify my terms: “Great” is an overused word these days, as we all know, and I don’t mean to compare Ninja III with Citizen Kane or Birth of a Nation. In fact, cinematically, it’s abysmal.

But I don’t think I’ve seen another movie that was so weird in so many ways—and with such verve. For the first fifteen minutes, we watch this guy wipe out about two dozen people, destroy a helicopter, and crush a golf ball with one bare hand (this one-man ambush begins on a golf course). You never find out why any of this happens, but that doesn’t matter. You get used to that in this movie.

So, then, the cops pump him full of lead, but they can’t kill him (because, as we later find out, he can only be killed by another Ninja). So he drags his body to a girl (Lucinda Dickey) who works as a telephone lineman and gives her this sword.

The gag is, his spirit (which, as you’ve probably gathered, is none too chipper) enters her body. Okay. She can still lead a normal life as a telephone lineman and part-time aerobics instructor, but every once in a while, she gets the urge to crush a policeman’s noggin.

Perfectly normal, of course, but sometimes she—possessed by the bad Ninja, of course—carries through with it. Once she even crushes a billiard ball with her bare hand (this is clearly an important stylistic motif).

Sometimes at night, her closet starts to glow, and the sword gives lifts itself up and gives off some kind of heat. (This may be symbolic.) Also, the video game in her apartment comes alive and zaps her with a laser.

I could go on and on. She visits the doctor for a check-up, and the doctor says (this is the gospel truth): “Nothing very wrong with you, outside of your preoccupation with Japanese sculpture.” Gad! Maybe that’s not wrong, but it sure isn’t right.

To the rescue: a friendly cop (Jordan Bennett), who takes her to a backroom somewhere and pays an old Japanese gentleman to tie her up with chains and try to exorcise the demon out (it doesn’t work); and the nemesis of the bad Ninja, a fellow named Yamada (Sho Kosugi), apparently a familiar figure in the Ninja series.

He doesn’t really play a big role here, but he does come in at the end, in an unlikely Japanese temple nestled in the Arizona hills, to do final battle with the bad Ninja. This is a doozy—the bad one twirls himself down into the sand and starts an earthquake, so the actors get to move back and forth and wave their hands while the cinematographer jiggles the camera around.

Tremendous stuff. And I left out the massacre at the cemetery and the hot-tub murder. I just hope that, for Ninja IV, they make it even weirder. But how can you top a film that’s a cross between Enter the Dragon, Poltergeist, and Flashdance? My hope is that, if anyone can, it’s Kosugi & company.

First published in the Herald, 1984.

Sometimes sheer recitation of a plot, with appropriate annotation, is fitting, and obviously I thought that was the case with this movie. It conquered me. Lucinda Dickey had an abbreviated career, with this film and Breakin’ and its notoriously named sequel, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo her main credits. I have not revisited the world of Ninja III or its predecessors, but I’m fine with keeping it that way: one memory, kept pristine, untouched by time or age. And here it is.


Gymkata

November 28, 2010

Sometimes we have to wait all year long for the one movie that distinguishes itself above all others—or is it below all others?—well, at any rate, beyond all others for the honor of being the biggest howler of the year.

We’re not talking about simple bad movies here—they’re a dime a dozen. No, these movies are so wildly (and sometimes imaginatively) mind-boggling in concept, plot and characterization that they earn your respect just by their very existence—because you can’t imagine anyone in his right mind spending money to make them.

In 1984, I think my pet film was Ninja III: The Domination, with its delirious mix of genres and its karate-chopping aerobics instructor heroine.

This year is not half over, but I think we may be able to call the contest closed for ’85. Gymkata is here, and it sweeps all the competition aside.

Here are the unadorned facts: A government agent contacts a gymnast (Olympic medalist Kurt Thomas, in his, uh, acting debut) about a secret mission. He wants the gymnast to go to an imaginary Third World nation called Parmistan and take part in the annual survival games, which involve a brutal obstacle course that sometimes ends in death.

Somehow—and I’m not too clear on this—his victory will help America’s efforts to establish a satellite base in Parmistan from which the “Star Wars” defense system will be run. Well, since every right-minded citizen wants that, we’re behind Kurt all the way.

He’s a little wary, though. “Why don’t we just send in the troops?” he wonders. Who says there are no more Renaissance Men?

Kurt gets trained in the martial arts and falls in love with a princess from Parmistan. Then they’re off to her country to join the games, in which international competitors scale cliffs, shinny across gorges, and make a hair-raising trip through “The Village of Crazies,” where Parmistan’s criminally insane are sent.

It’s pretty incoherent. The film (especially the first third) seems to have been edited with a blunt instrument of some sort—when the scene changes, characters are all but cut off in mid-sentence. This is a blessing, of course.

The emphasis is on the martial arts action, and there’s plenty of it—but with a peculiar gymnastic slant. If there’s a metal bar attached to a wall, you can be sure Thomas wil grab on and go into one of his Olympic routines—except every time he extends his leg, he’s taking out somebody’s face. And it’s all accompanied by those great sound effects from kung fu movies: the unnatural whooshing when Kurt goes somersaulting through the air (which he does a lot) and the thwack! when somebody gets punched. It’s the same thwack! you hear in every Bruce Lee movie, and I sear it’s left over from an old Three Stooges short.

I have only one serious problem with considering Gymkata the goofiest movie of 1985. Oh, it’s stupid enough, but, unlike Ninja III, it’s just not much fun. However, it is fundamentally reassuring. A subtitle at the end tells us that the “Star Wars” satellite station has indeed been established in Parmistan. So, the world can sleep in peace at night—and, presumably, Kurt Thomas can go back to being a gymnast. So we hope.

First published in the Herald, 1985.

There are worse movies and weirder movies (I will post my Ninja III review soon), but somehow Gymkata says “Eighties” in spades. The idea of an SDI outpost being established in Parmistan is perfectly fitting, and “Village of Crazies” could be the title for a website devoted entirely of reviews of 1980s movies. But no, I had to go with “What a Feeling!”