Documentary Review: In Search of the Last Action Heroes (2019)

Release Date: September, 2019
Directed by: Oliver Harper
Written by: Oliver Harper, Timon Singh
Music by: Peter Bruce
Cast: Scott Adkins, Shane Black, Ronny Cox, Steven E. de Souza, Bill Duke, Sam Firstenberg, Jenette Goldstein, Matthias Hues, Al Leong, Mark L. Lester, Sheldon Lettich, Zak Penn, Phillip Rhee, Eric Roberts, Cynthia Rothrock, Paul Verhoeven, Vernon Wells, Michael Jai White, Alex Winter, Graham Yost, various

140 Minutes

Review:

When this popped up on Prime Video, I got pretty excited. Especially, because I had just watched Henchman: The Al Leong Story and felt that ’80s action flicks needed more documentary love.

Overall, this was enjoyable and it covered a lot of ground but it also had a beefy running time. However, I felt like they jumped from movie-to-movie too quickly and nothing was really discussed in depth.

Still, this gives the viewer a good idea of how broad, vast and popular the action genre was through the ’80s and into the first half of the ’90s.

I guess the thing that I liked best was that this interviewed a lot of people that were involved in the making of these iconic films. You had actors, directors, writers and stuntmen all taking about their craft and their love for a genre that hasn’t been the same since its peak, a few decades ago.

Now this was a crowdfunded project and with that, you can only do so much. But I wish that some distributor or streaming service saw this and decided to make it much broader like a television series where episodes can focus on specific films or at the very least, spend more time on each era or topic.

Maybe someone will see this, take the bull by the horns and actually do that at some point. But this could be a solid pop culture documentary series like Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us.

For those who love the action flicks of this era, this is certainly worth checking out. Had I known about it when it was raising funds, I would’ve backed it.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other recent historical filmmaking documentaries, most notably Henchman: The Al Leong Story and Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.

Film Review: Avenging Force (1986)

Also known as: Night Hunter (working title), American Warrior II (Belgium & France)
Release Date: September 12th, 1986
Directed by: Sam Firstenberg
Written by: James Booth
Music by: George S. Clinton
Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, William Wallace, John P. Ryan, Marc Alaimo

Golan-Globus Productions, Cannon Films, 103 Minutes

Review:

“Matt, you don’t have to get involved in this part, this is my fight.” – Larry Richards, “Your fight is my fight. You just remember that.” – Matt Hunter

If you asked 100 people on the street to tell you who Sam Firstenberg is, 0 out of 100 would be able to tell you. Sam Firstenberg is one of the most notable directors from the era that was my childhood, however. He was the architect of several badass ninja movies and also made some good pictures with Michael Dudikoff and Steve James, Avenging Force being one of them.

Fresh off the heels of the original American Ninja, Firstenberg re-teamed with its stars, Dudikoff and James, to make Avenging Force. This was the one and only picture that they did outside of the American Ninja series and frankly, this fits better with American Ninja1 and 2 than part 3 does.

Dudikoff and James are entirely different characters but Dudikoff is essentially the same ’80s blonde badass that he always is. Instead of fighting a ninja horde, he is pitted against a fraternity of racist killers.

The finale of this film is awesome and it sees Dudikoff enter the bayou to fight each member of the fraternity in one-on-one swamp battles. It sort of plays like an ’80s beat’em up action game where each villain in this film feels like a boss from Bad Dudes, Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, Final FightCrime Fighters or Renegade. Every villain has some sort of unique gimmick and style that makes each fight very different and fresh.

This also takes place in and around New Orleans, which gave it a much different vibe than the other Firstenberg movies. Plus, I’ve always loved New Orleans and its culture. This has a pretty fun Mardi Gras action sequence in it.

Now I don’t like this as much as American Ninja1 and 2 but it is certainly pretty close to their quality and it is very enjoyable.

Michael Dudikoff wasn’t the greatest martial arts actor of all-time and I really don’t know if he even practiced martial arts before American Ninja but he holds his own. Besides, his fighting is less flashy and feels more organic and real when compared to the extreme agility and dexterity of someone like Jean-Claude Van Damme or Sho Kosugi.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: The American Ninja franchise, especially the first two films. Also, the Sam Firstenberg Ninja films and really anything by Cannon Films that features action and ’80s machismo.

Film Review: American Samurai (1992)

Release Date: December 22nd, 1992 (Germany)
Directed by: Sam Firstenberg
Written by: John Corcoran
Music by: Craig Stuart Garfinkle, Robbie Patton
Cast: David Bradley, Mark Dacascos

Cannon Films, 94 Minutes

Review:

“Why couldn’t we just be brothers?” – Drew Collins

The poster for American Samurai has the tagline “…Bloodsport with blades”. That is an incredibly accurate description. Although, this pales in comparison to the awesome Bloodsport.

However, many fans of Cannon’s various ninja films see Sam Firstenberg as the premier 80s ninja genre director. Also, Firstenberg left the American Ninja series after part 2 and fans never got to see him work with the second star of that series, David Bradley. This film, however, teams these two guys up and gives you a taste of what American Ninja 3 could have been if Firstenberg stayed on to direct the debuting Bradley.

That being said, this is nowhere near as good as the two Firstenberg American Ninja movies or his two films before that, when he was working with Japanese ninja actor Sho Kosugi. This is better than American Ninja 3 and 4, however. But I would put American Ninja 5, slightly ahead of this.

This film brings back John Fujioka, who was Joe Armstrong’s ninja master in the first American Ninja. Also, it is the first major film role for martial arts bad ass Mark Dacascos. The film actually pits Bradley against Dacascos, who plays his jealous foster brother but legitimate son to his father’s samurai legacy. Dacascos wants to prove to his father that he is superior to his adopted son. He leaves his father and foster brother behind, becomes yakuza and forces his brother to eventually fight to the death in the climax of the movie.

American Samurai actually plays like a live-action version of an arcade fighting game from the early 90s. It predates the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat movies but definitely takes its inspiration from those franchises and the Jean-Claude Van Damme movies BloodsportLionheart and Kickboxer.

Filmed in Turkey, you don’t get to see too much of the geography, as most of this takes place indoors and on confined sets. The arena is pretty drab but then so are the fighters that populate it. You didn’t have a cast of cool and unique fighters like you saw in Bloodsport or Lionheart.

American Samurai is entertaining enough if you are into 80s and 90s martial arts pictures. It certainly isn’t exceptional in any way but David Bradley gets to work with a better director and it opened some doors for Mark Dacascos.

Rating: 5/10

Film Review: American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)

Release Date: May 1st, 1987
Directed by: Sam Firstenberg
Written by: James Booth, Gary Conway
Music by: George S. Clinton
Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Larry Poindexter, Gary Conway

Cannon Films, 90 Minutes

Review:

“I don’t like that tiny maggot, I don’t like him at all. I mean what is this? Ninjas? Drug pushers? My men being kidnapped and murdered? This is really beginning to get on my tits.” – Wild Bill Woodward

When I reviewed the first American Ninja I said that the films got worse and worse. I was wrong on one account, this film. Truth be told, while I watch the original every couple of years, I haven’t seen this one since I was a teenager. Back then, I didn’t like it as much as the first. Now, I think it is pretty equal, if not slightly better than the original. Things do go downhill after this one though.

The plot is a little wacky but the action and the setting are much better than the first picture. The story sees our heroes Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) and Curtis Jackson (Steve James) arrive on a Caribbean island (actually filmed in South Africa) to investigate why some Marines have gone missing. As the film progresses and ninjas keep trying to capture Armstrong and Jackson, we learn that some villain is making mindless super soldier ninjas out of the elite soldiers he captures. The end goal is to sell super ninja armies to other villains with large bank accounts. So we get a big finale of Armstrong and Jackson against an army of super ninjas.

Compared to the first film, Dudikoff is much better on screen in the action sequences. James also puts down the big machine gun and fights ninjas with a couple machetes. The film has a lot more hand-to-hand combat and the skills of the actors and the stunt work is just more refined and fluid in this movie. The main evil ninja isn’t as cool as the Black Star Ninja from the first movie but he’s still a solid baddie.

Unfortunately, Dudikoff left this series after this film except for a fairly brief appearance in the fourth film. This was also the last time we got to see the duo of Dudikoff and James on screen together, following the original American Ninja and Avenging Force, which came out between the two Ninja movies.

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation is a good sequel to the original. The series tanks after this installment but at least we got two good chapters before the breakup of Dudikoff and James and the introduction to David Bradley, who took over the series in American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: American Ninja (1985)

Release Date: August 30th, 1985
Directed by: Sam Firstenberg
Written by: Paul De Mielche, Gideon Amir, Avi Kleinberger, James Silke
Music by: Michael Linn
Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Judie Aronson, Guich Koock, John Fujioka, Don Stewart, John LaMotta, Tadashi Yamashita, Phil Brock, David Vlok

Cannon Film Distributors, 95 Minutes

Review:

“These symbols will give your mind ultimate purpose. Gin, Retsu, Zai, Zen.” – Shinyuki

American Ninja is a movie that I rented so many times as a kid in the 80s that I probably single-handedly warped the tape into oblivion by the time the 90s rolled around. For those who rented a very choppy copy from Citeo Video, Movie Van, Curtis Mathis, Pix N Picks, American Video, Reel Image Video or any other video store in southern Florida circa 1990, I apologize.

Why did I love this movie so much? Well, it had friggin’ ninjas. Lots and lots of mother friggin’ ninjas! So many that it made all the ninjas in all those 80s Sho Kosugi movies combined, look like a small army by comparison.

The film also features Michael Dudikoff, who may not have been as big of an 80s action star as Stallone, Schwarzenegger or either of the two Chucks, but he was somehow cooler. It’s like he had this James Dean quality and as a kid, I probably even had a major man crush on him even though I’m not gay and I was too young to realize what any of that meant. There was just something about Dudikoff. He spoke very little, looked like the coolest guy in gym class and killed ninjas by the gallons.

However, it doesn’t end with Dudikoff. We also get the always awesome Steve James, who plays Dudikoff’s awesome sidekick and bad ass friend. When this dude comes rolling into the ninja compound on the back of a jeep firing a massive machine gun, we, the audience, truly understand the meaning of bringing a knife to a gunfight. Plus, the chemistry between Dudikoff and James was great. They felt like real friends ready to bust up any ninja clan moving in on their island paradise.

Did I mention that this film also has Judie Aronson in it? While she is no Phoebe Cates (my first love), between this film, Weird Science and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, she was certainly on my radar and the apple of my eye after Ms. Cates. Granted, she is kind of a stupid damsel in distress in American Ninja but she didn’t write the script and she did well acting like a spoiled yuppie and mindless doofus.

American Ninja doesn’t have the best plot but it is the least ridiculous of all the films in the series. Essentially, Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) is a low level Army grunt that is too cool to fit in with the others. On a convoy run, he finds himself in the middle of a hijacking. He fights back but his actions get a few soldiers killed and puts the Colonel’s daughter in danger. Why she is even there, I can’t begin to guess. Ninjas show up, Joe whips ass and then hides in the jungle with the Colonel’s daughter who is more concerned about her designer shoes and skirt than running away from a horde of killer ninjas.

Joe is punished for thinking he’s John Rambo but he befriends Jackson (Steve James). They discover that there is a conspiracy going on between the military and the evil rich guy on the island who is hijacking their weapons to sell on the black market. The evil guy has a ninja army that trains 24/7 at his tropical mountain mansion. One thing leads to another and we got Dudikoff and James’ machine gun versus a gazillion ninjas. But it’s all about the final showdown with the master ninja, simply called Black Star Ninja.

The action in this movie is stellar. Sure, some of the obviously staged shots are a bit hokey but they still look cool. Who doesn’t love synchronized ninja flips? While Dudikoff isn’t the physical specimen that Sho Kosugi is, he still holds his own and was good enough for Cannon Films to move on from Kosugi and turn American Ninja into a franchise that found a long life on the shelves of every video store throughout the United States.

It would have been a lot cooler had Sho Kosugi played the villainous Black Star Ninja but Tadashi Yamashita did a fine job and frankly, he’s got skills too.

American Ninja was a film that was loved by many young boys and teens in the 1980s. It set the bar higher than what its sequels could live up too but that doesn’t mean that my friends and I didn’t rent the hell out of those movies too. We loved the franchise and many of us still do. In fact, I still watch this film every couple of years.

I just wish that Michael Dudikoff would’ve stayed past the second film. Although, he does have an expanded cameo role in the fourth film. Regardless, each movie gets worse and worse and the only other Dudikoff outing that can hang with American Ninja is Avenging Force, which came out a year later and also co-stars Steve James.

Rating: 7.5/10

Film Review: Ninja III: The Domination (1984)

Release Date: September 14th, 1984
Directed by: Sam Firstenberg
Written by: James R. Silke
Music by: Udi Harpaz, Misha Segal
Cast: Lucinda Dickey, Sho Kosugi, Jordan Bennett, James Hong

Cannon Film Distributors, 92 Minutes

Review:

Ninja III: The Domination is the final chapter in the loose trilogy of ninja movies put out by Cannon Films. People typically refer to the series as The Ninja Trilogy, even though the films are unrelated other than all of them feature Sho Kosugi, the greatest ninja actor of all-time. Cannon would follow this series up with the American Ninja franchise a year later. That one spawned five American Ninja films and two quasi spin-offs.

This is the most bizarre of the Cannon Ninja pictures by far. The story sees a young woman become possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja. A good ninja has to help her separate from it before destroying it in an epic eyepatch ninja vs. zombie ninja battle.

Lucinda Dickey is great in this as the lead. 1984 was also a huge year for her as she starred in this as well as the hugely successful Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo for Cannon Films.

Sho Kosugi doesn’t have as much screen time as he had in the superior Revenge of the Ninja but all of his scenes were good. He was a better-than-decent martial arts star and the perfect ninja on screen, every time he appeared.

Compared to the two films before this, Ninja III is campy as hell but also incredibly fun. It is a different film entirely and I almost wish this spawned a series of its own. I don’t know if the formula could have carried over beyond one film but there was some serious magic here.

I love genre crossing movies and this one does it in the right way. It is a violent ninja movie mixed with 80s comedy, horror elements and fantasy elements. It also features the strangest product placement moment in the history of motion pictures. Go to YouTube and search “Ninja III V8”.

Ninja III is fantastic and it still plays great. Actually, it probably plays even better now as there is a high emphasis on 80s style and humor that any nostalgic for that era would find satisfying.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Revenge of the Ninja (1983)

Release Date: September 7th, 1983
Directed by: Sam Firstenberg
Written by: James Silke
Music by: W. Michael Lewis, Laurin Rinder, Robert J. Walsh
Cast: Sho Kosugi, Keith Vitali, Virgil Frye, Kane Kosugi, Professor Toru Tanaka

Cannon Film Distributors, 90 Minutes

Review:

Any motion picture that starts with a kid getting a Chinese star to the face is my kind of movie!

Now I have probably seen this thing a dozen times but the last time I watched it was in the late 90s. In the 80s though, my cousin Billy and I used to rent this movie from the Movie Van all the time. He was way more into martial arts than I was. At least, he stuck with it long enough to actually compete. He even had a wall of trophies. I bet he could’ve beat that little twerp LaRusso!

As kids, this movie was great. One, it had friggin’ ninjas! Two, it had really violent ninjas! Those two things will make any red blooded bacon eating American boy jump for joy while fist pumping to Def Leppard tunes!

They don’t make pictures like this for kids anymore. Granted, it was rated R but it was a movie all the boys in the 80s couldn’t get enough of. Besides, our parents didn’t care what we watched, as long as we weren’t putting shuriken through grandma’s cats.

Watching this film now, I still feel the same way. Revenge of the Ninja is a bad ass film. In fact, it is so bad ass that it physically hurts. But it hurts in a good way, like when you wake up with your arms aching because you power-lifted the day before and it’s been six years since you’ve even seen a gym.

The film stars Sho Kosugi, who is the greatest ninja actor of all-time. It also stars his tiny son, who is also capable of kicking the bejesus out of anyone… and he does. Kosugi starred in a string of ninja movies in the 1980s. This is actually the second film in a loose trilogy referred to as The Ninja Trilogy, unofficially. The first film being Enter The Ninja, which also stars Django himself Franco Nero, and Ninja III: The Domination. All three films star Kosugi and were produced by the awesome Cannon Films.

The plot to this thing is interesting. Kosugi’s movie family is murdered by ninjas except for his mom and his baby. His American friend convinces him to go to America to sell Japanese dolls. Kosugi does this but we learn that the dolls are used to smuggle heroin into the States. The baby, who is now a bit bigger than a toddler, finds this out, even though he doesn’t know what the mysterious powder is. Kosugi has to fight thugs, then a mysterious silver-faced ninja shows up and we get a big ninja versus ninja finale on a downtown rooftop.

One of the coolest things about this movie is the action. Kosugi is a master of execution in both the delivery of his sweet moves and how he takes out the baddies. Also, the film features a car chase where one of the cars is Kosugi on his feet! A ninja on foot is just as effective as Steve McQueen’s car from Bullitt!

I was worried that this film would play like crap, all these years later. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I still love it. In fact, I’m pumped to watch the other two films in the Cannon Ninja Trilogy.

Rating: 8/10