“The deadliest art of the Orient is now in the hands of an American.”
Directed by Sam Firstenberg
Starring Michael Dudikoff, Steve James and Judie Aronson
In the Philippines, surly amnesiac former delinquent loner Joe (Dudikoff) is serving as a private in the US Army. He leads an attempt to fight off hijackers attempting to steal army gear and kidnap the Colonel’s daughter, Patricia (Aronson), but when ninjas appear and massacre the rest of the convoy, the Sergeant blames Joe.
Joe’s standing with the rest of the company gets a boost when he beats martial arts instructor Corporal Curtis Jackson (James) in a fight, but his continuing relationship with Patricia and eagle-eyed alertness set him against his commanding officer and local businessman and arms dealer Ortega (Don Stewart), who has an army of ninjas, because what else would a non-specifically Hispanic arms dealer operating in the Philippines use for a private army?
With the aid of Ortega’s gardener, a secret ninja master, Joe recovers his memories of training in the ninja arts in time to bring his ninja magic to bear on Ortega and his Black Star Ninja, rescue Patricia and clear his name.
What’s wrong with it?
See that poster? Do you know who isn’t on it, neither a picture nor a name?
The film is pretty typical of the eighties ninja boom, featuring a white guy who trained in ninjutsu one time effortlessly defeating armies of lifelong ninja through his superior accent.
While we’re dealing with the whole issue of representation, between Ortega and his ninja and the US Army, I’m pretty sure this Philippines-set film features no Filipinos of any kind.
Our heroes are less than appealing. Jackson is okay, and at least has an arc, but Joe is a surly, standoffish jerk and I spent the bulk of the opening action sequence desperately hoping that he would get Patricia to her flight and we’d get someone less irritating to be the love interest. The scene where Joe takes the heels off her Italian shoes as they flee through the jungle just gives one more respect for the partnership of Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas when they did the exact same bit in the previous year’s Romancing the Stone.
The action is often very static, and waves of enemies come in one or two at a time in the classic style.
What’s right with it?
Once the film finally gets past its attempt to be a serious exploration of military hazing, corruption and arms trafficking, the finale is balls to the wall crazy ninja action, and that’s great.
Jackson’s willingness to change his mind about Joe makes him hands down the most interesting character in the film, and he is notably neither the first to die (indeed, he survives) nor defined by his race. He doesn’t talk jive, shoot hoops or listen to whatever the music was the white folks thought all black folks listened to before hip hop was a thing.
And then the sober military martial arts instructor swaps his uniform for a vest and crossed bandoliers, because what worked for Rambo can work for Curtis Jackson.
The martial arts scenes are okay, but the crazy ninja magic at the end, with Joe and his sensei apparating all over the shop like crazy Hogwarts graduates, is some next level shit.
How bad is it really?
American Ninja – a title that I can not not sing in my head to the tune of The Guess Who’s ‘American Woman’, and now neither can you – is a glorious little slice of the 1980s, with its misanthropic hero, shrieking love interest, hokey plot and simultaneous fetishisation of American manhood and oriental martial arts. It’s not good by any stretch of the term, but it’s a lot of fun once it gets past the set-up and establishing the dull love interest, and by the time Dudikoff is slaughtering waves of ninja in a warehouse with his unorthodox underhand shuriken technique, it’s hard not to be on board for the ride.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Gardener Shinyuki (John Fujiyoka) reveals to Joe his forgotten past, in which Shinyuki trained him as a ninja, by sitting him down surrounded by the signs of the ninja. These ‘signs’ are an arsenal of weapons that Q would struggle to fit into James Bond’s car, although in the final showdown it’s implied that Joe has all of them in his pockets.
What’s up with…?
- Joe? I mean, what’s his deal? I know he was forced to join the Army, but what the hell, man? Do you have to be such a tool about everything? I think hackysack is lame as well, but there’s a special kind of dedicated fuckwittage required to not throw someone’s ball back when it lands practically at you feet.
- Joe’s underarm shuriken throw? I’m just not sold, although for all I know it could be authentic.
- The Sergeant’s attempts to have Joe killed on Ortega’s orders? If the Colonel is in on the crimes, why not just have him transferred to a transport depot in Stuttgart?
Production values – It was the eighties, and Western fight choreography was not what it is now. The locations are picturesque, although alas years of doubling up for America’s favourite historical wallow means that the Philippines now looks confusingly like Vietnam. The ninja vanishes are hilarious. 11
Dialogue and performances – Dudikoff is so-so, Aronson is annoying as hell and most of the rest of the performances are only so-so. James is the stand out, giving an assured and muscular performance. 12
Plot and execution – There is a plot in here, but it’s overpowered in the third act and suddenly it’s all ancient ninja magic and who cares why we’re fighting. Jackson’s sudden departure from uniform code makes it feel like the denouement was originally shot for a whole different version of the movie. 12
Randomness – Ninja magic! Joe’s former sensei works for Ortega as a gardener. The Colonel and First Sergeant of a US Army base can’t ship one troublemaker out without cack-handed assassination attempts. 8
Waste of potential – There’s plenty to like in this rich slice of eighties cheese, but the ninja connection in the main plot is less organic than in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and that’s saying something. 10