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
“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.