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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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.