The Film (2/5)
I love martial arts films. I was spoiled early in the ‘80s by late-night UHF station broadcasts of Jackie Chan’s early work (I actually still have the VHS tapes I made of those movies). By 1989, I was combing nerd convention dealer room floors for prime examples of action cinema from Hong Kong – and, as such… American productions left me really cold.
Guys like Pat Johnson and Mike Stone were insanely gifted and impeccably skilled martial arts practitioners, but their efforts designing Hollywood movie fights lacked the fluidity, pace, and panache of what was happening in the one-time British protectorate.
Chan himself would explain the reason for this very simply with an anecdote from the production of his Battle Creek Brawl (aka The Big Brawl) – he tells a story from the set wherein he dreamed up a flamboyant, acrobatic entrance into a scene. When he enthusiastically shared his idea with the director, the hack (that would be Robert Clouse, who lucked into a few too many martial arts movie gigs through his early association with Bruce Lee) sighed and basically told him to just walk into the shot. “Nobody pays to watch Jackie Chan WALK,” Sing Lung thought to himself, and he has said that the exchange was the dawn of his realization that his time in Hollywood was up (one more film – 1985’s The Protector – would be directed by yet another guy poorly suited for the task, Exterminator director James Glickenhaus, who made an attempt to reinvent Chan as a Dirty Harry-style badass cop).
It would be nearly twenty years before American filmmakers would catch up to what Chan (and many other H.K. filmmakers) were doing.
And in the interim… we got American Ninja.
If you’re here, then chances are you know at least a little about Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’s Cannon Films. They made cheap, formulaic exploitation and action flicks starring boring Chuck Norris and elderly Charles Bronson and awesome Sho Kosugi… then they made some moderately-priced formulaic exploitation and action flicks starring Jean Claude Van Damme… then they had delusions of grandeur and made really expensive formulaic exploitation and action flicks starring Sylvester Stallone. Somewhere in there, they made a couple movies about breakdancing. Then their company died.
But before it died… we got American Ninja.
American Ninja isn’t REALLY an action movie. It’s a movie about love. The entirely unmotivated love of a cute, spoiled little brat for a sullen Army private… the love of a gregarious Army Corporal for that same sullen Army private… and the love of an enigmatic Japanese gardener for… that same damned private.
The private is Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) – a squinty, sullen dick forced to join the Army to avoid jail time. Joe’s been a bit of an attitudinal delinquent since losing his parents and finding himself stranded on an island in the Pacific with no one but a wise old Japanese gardener to teach him the mystical, magical arts of the Ninja. Joe can fight bare-handed or with traditional Ninja weaponry – and he can disappear at will. Why didn’t he use THAT skill to avoid jail time instead of being railroaded into the Army? No one knows…
Joe is part of a convoy driving through a swatch of jungle overrun by vague “rebels” – who attack the caravan with the intention of jacking the contents. Sergeant Rinaldo (John LaMotta) tells his men to comply with the rebels, as he claims nothing in the convoy is worth dying for – but since we just saw Colonel Hickock (Guich Koock) entrust his DAUGHTER (Judie Aronson of Friday the 13th The Final Chapter – she was also the Patti Hearst knockoff heiress in the pilot of Alan Spencer’s groundbreaking Sledge Hammer!) to the unit, we know that can’t be right. It definitely doesn’t sit right with Joe, who disobeys the Sergeant and begins assaulting the rebels, which encourages the rest of the unit to take ‘em on. As the Army boys turn the tide on the guerillas, a group of ninja appear on a ridge above. Led by the malevolent Black Star Ninja (so named for the black SHURIKEN TATTOO on his FACE. Yeah buddy – they’ll never figure out your secret!), they flip into battle on the side of the guerillas.
As his unit gets torn apart, Joe and Patricia escape into the jungle.
Patricia hates Joe and says she can take care of herself – but that’s demonstrably false, as her escape from the rebels prior to Joe’s intervention amounted to hopping into a car and promptly flipping it over. Joe seems to be aiding her out of obligation, not affinity, so we know that the two will eventually come to care for one another as they trek through the jungle one step ahead of the guerilla forces, as Joe uses his Ninjutsu to dispatch the troops until the sinister ninja force enters the fray – at which point Joe will be hopelessly outnumbered, yet prepared to die to defend Patricia – who has found deep inside her pampered being the will to fight and survive…
Except that’s not what happens AT ALL. That might have been an awesome flick.
Instead, Joe takes his shirt off in the jungle, and now Patricia thinks he’s FANTASTIC. He gets her safely to the American embassy, and is subsequently called out on the carpet for his recklessness by Colonel Dad and ostracized from his unit for trying to fight off the guerillas. The other guys blame him for the deaths of four G.I.s (which is a bullshit contrivance in no way justified by the narrative, but whatever) – and they intend to take it out on Joe vicariously by goading Corporal Curtis Jackson (the immortal Steve James) into kicking Joe’s ass. This does not go as planned, as Joe is actually such a supernaturally splendid martial artist that he starts smugly showing off during the fight, demonstrating that he can counter Jackson’s attacks with a bucket over his head. Jackson is amazed by Joe’s prowess, and in true fourth-grader-on-the-playground fashion, the fight makes them fast friends. Whether wooing the Colonel’s daughter in clandestine fashion, or attempting to get to the bottom of the ninja attacks, Armstrong and Jackson have each other’s backs.
The Black Star Ninja sees Joe as an unexpected danger, and thusly warns his boss – a fey underworld character in a Tom Wolfe suit named Victor Ortega (Don Stewart – who could not look less like a character named “Victor Ortega”) – of the mysterious new threat. Ortega is a drug runner who employs Tadashi Yamashita’s Black Star Ninja to train a private army of Ninja assassins to ensure his various criminal enterprises aren’t met with resistance or competition. The Army’s supply lines are of special interest to him for reasons both mysterious and painfully obvious – and the more Joe and Jackson dig, the closer they come to ripping the lid off of a sinister conspiracy.
A movie this rote is saved by its fights and stunts – and frankly, there’s just never been enough of either here to register for me. It doesn’t help that the American Ninja doesn’t actually know any martial arts.
Michael Dudikoff plays Joe Armstrong like a petulant adolescent who just got told he has to stay inside for recess after getting caught carving profanities into the inside of his school desk (this is owed, I think, to the revelation that Golan and Globus were looking for a “James Dean type” in Dudikoff, and so it’s entirely possible/probable that the actor was directed to a sullen characterization ala Dean’s Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause). In point of fact, the whole film is crafted with an adolescent’s view of the military, women, human interaction, and ninja. Maybe this was intentional, and the filmmakers were just trying to engage their target audience with vigor.
For someone with no martial arts training, Dudikoff acquits himself as well as can be expected (with the help of Aussie fighting legend – and Fury Road fight coordinator – Richard Norton), but his fights are staged in a stilted fashion, and the action blocked to cover for him – which means he’s only throwing a couple of punches in a given shot, which interrupts the flow of the action and slows too many sequences down.
Luckily, Steve James is there to pick up the slack. James is an imposing physical specimen, a legit martial artist – and a great actor. As soon as he enters the film (spitting out an absurd chunk of hilarious exposition with earnest aplomb) the whole endeavor becomes a great deal more fun – just not quite fun enough for me. It’s not inept enough to be so-bad-it’s-good, nor is it bad enough to be truly bad. It just is – which is likely exactly what Yoram and Menahem wanted.
Judie Aronson is given a thankless role that borders on offensive – but that smile just lights up a room. She’s had a long career doing the most with the least, and it’s a testament to her that her little brat of a character is remotely appealing.
Olive comes through with a clean, unmolested transfer from a master that is a touch rough in spots. Some sequences seem like they were shot yesterday – and a few are gray and grainy. Often, these are shots with obvious low-light issues – and sometimes they just… are. I’d imagine that this has less to do with the mastering or the transfer, and more to do with Cannon buying whatever film stock they could get their hands on for cheap. I’m a fan of the fact that no one seems to have artificially boosted the film’s color or sharpness. Any wrongdoing here comes from the source, and it’s very minimal. If you’re a fan of this film, this is as good as it’s going to get, and it’s not bad at all. The well-constructed DTS 2.0 mix does some surprising separation, and it pushes music to the fore while maintaining the clarity of dialogue. Good stuff.
I can’t imagine anyone thinking, “You know what – let’s pull out all the stops for this American Ninja Blu-ray. I want ALL the features” – but Olive takes us to the limit once again. We get a hilarious theatrical trailer that looks absolutely pristine. So often anymore, the trailers on home video releases for catalog titles look like terrible YouTube videos – if they’re included at all – but I was surprised by how sharp the clip looks, especially since there’s material in it that was shot specifically FOR the trailer.
“Rumble in the Jungle” is a well-crafted, twenty-two minute Mark Hartley-style look back at the production featuring all of the notable participants, and I actually enjoyed viewing it more than the film. The principal players are engaged and forthcoming, and they have a few fantastic tales of working for Menahem and Yoram.
Finally, there’s a director commentary moderated by the producer of “Rumble in the Jungle,” Elijah Drenner. Firstenberg comes off as friendly and intelligent, and Drenner picks his brain in all the right ways.
It’s sort of a shame that, after producing such vibrant, violent, and – in the case of NINJA III: THE DOMINATION – absolutely batshit ninja films, the Go-Go boys decided to turn down the volume for this first installment in their attempt at another franchise. The plot is thin and trite, the action is pedestrian, and the performances (save for Steve James) run the gamut from disinterested to hideous. That said, the film has its following, and I think Olive has done right by them. If you’re a fan of American Ninja, this release comes highly recommended.
If you’re not… then check out the sequel. Seriously.