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.


April 4, 2012

Is the sleeper success of Dirty Dancing going to prompt a wave of dance movies? Could be, and Salsa is an early imitator, but with a Latin beat.

Actually, Salsa resembles Dirty Dancing only insofar as it contains a lot of sweaty limbs, a score of gyrating torsos, and pelvic thrusts a-plenty. (Both films were choreographed by Kenny Ortega, who clearly has his meter set on high.)

The story of Salsa, if it can be called a story, concerns a young garage mechanic (Robby Rosa, formerly a member of the prefab pop group Menudo) who supports his mother and sister while he dreams of winning a salsa dance contest that would send him to a big competition in Puerto Rico.

In a way, the movie is a Latin version of Pal Joey. The hero’s a bit of a cad, and he’s torn between two other dancers—his sweet, simple girlfriend, and an older, wealthier dancing master who’s something of a witch. Which will he choose? Will he jeopardize his chances of winning the competition? Will he resist the temptations of yet another romantic interest, the obligatory curled-lip spitfire? Will he allow his willowy younger sister to date his best friend?

The answers to these and other questions are pretty easy to guess, and director Boaz Davidson tries to distract from the formulaic nature of the script by finding as many excuses for dirty dancing as possible. In some cases, Davidson and Ortega conjure up settings for dances that recall the classic Hollywood musicals, such as a duet that takes place in front of a tropical-island billboard. But the explicit nature of the dancing detracts from the charm.

The steamiest number takes place inside the hero’s garage apartment, when he and the aforementioned spitfire engage in some heavy pawing. The guy even has a glittery silver ball that hangs and rotates from his bedroom ceiling, which is a new wrinkle in personal make-out accessories.

It shouldn’t take long for other Dirty Dancing clones to arrive. For that matter, Dirty Dancing II, which will pick up the story of the original film’s bump-‘n-grinders a few years later, is already in the works. While we wait for that, a selection of unauthorized substitutes will doubtless be available.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Who can forget Salsa, or the Dirty Dancing follow-ups? I can, of course—I’m not an idiot—but it’s harder to forget the feeling of sitting through this phase of cheap moviemaking. Another knock-off from the Cannon Group.

Over the Top

December 7, 2010

Winner takes it all, loser takes the fall: this is Over the Top

Over the Top is distinctive in that it gives Sylvester Stallone more dialogue to wresle with than his previous three films combined. But, it stands to figure that with something in the neighborhood of $13 million in his paycheck, Stallone could bloody well be induced to contribute something more than just his physique.

The people behind the $13 million are Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the owners of Cannon Films (the former also directed this outing). Cannon, which has produced a torrent of movies in the last couple of years (mostly of the exploitation kind) has lately found itself in financial trouble, and it desperately needs a hit. So the money is a tribute to Stallone’s track record.

I’ll be surprised if Over the Top is a monster hit, however. It’s just enough of a departure from Stallone’s formula to displease his fans, but it’s not interesting enough to find a different audience.

He plays a footloose trucker who left his family some time before. Now his wife (Susan Blakely) is dying of an unnamed disease. We can tell she’s dying because she wears no makeup.

Which means that the couple’s 12-year-old son (David Mendenhall) needs care. But he hasn’t seen his father in years, and is used to being pampered by his rich grandfather (Robert Loggia, a fine actor trying his best not to look embarrassed about collecting a good fee for a nothing part).

Stallone picks the kid up at an exclusive Colorado military academy, in order to get to know the boy as they truck to the mother’s hospital in Los Angeles. This sets the scene for plenty of cute exchanges. The kid pointedly tells his father that, “There’s a lot more to life than muscles, y’know.” Sly responds by teaching the lad how to find self-worth by challenging loiterers at a truck stop to an arm-wrestling match.

See, the movie is mostly about the relationship between father and son—a Kramer vs. Kramer on 18 wheels—but there’s this arm-wrestling thing mixed in. This insures that the ending, on which Stallone gambles everything, will involve a sporting competition a la Rocky. In this case, it’s a glitzy Las Vegas arm-wrestling championship.

Now, the art of arm-wrestling may have its attributes. Its proponents may be fine people, although the participants in the film are bellowing walruses, one of whom drinks motor oil to rev up for a match.

But there’s something about arm-wrestling as the big event that seems fundamentally giggle-worthy. I mean, arm-wrestling?!? Say what you will about the boxing in the Rocky movies, as least it’s cinematic. The sport here is heavy and static.

The mishmash script is credited to four writers, including Stallone (as usual) and veteran Stirling Silliphant. The most dishonest thing they have done is to have Stallone repeatedly tell his boy that winning isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, etc. Of course, son, that applies everywhere except Sylvester Stallone’s movies, which make victory the only option.

First published in the Herald, 1987.

Having consumed my own fair share of motor oil before matches, the sanctimonious tone I took in my review here seems hardly sporting. Anyway. Just typing the words “Cannon Films” brings back the cheesy aroma of about half the movies of the 1980s, that bizarre Golan-Globus mix of grindhouse fodder and arthouse experiments. I spent so much attention on Stallone’s price tag because it was much-remarked on at the time, and because well before the movie opened it was clear that this was one of those stupid ideas that wouldn’t have happened if an actor hadn’t decided to cash in and take a giant, absurdly-inflated payday.

For Sammy Hagar’s theme from Over the Top, which reminds us that “Winner takes it all/loser takes the fall,” click here. But hey, possible spoilers.


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