The Film (4/5)
In my review of the first American Ninja film, I lamented the fact that the picture is so conventional/pedestrian when lined up against a lot of Cannon’s other output. Director Sam Firstenberg spoke to Yoram and Menahem’s intentions regarding the film on Olive’s stellar Blu presentation. He says that they felt as though the reason the Sho Kosugi Ninja films – while successful – were not runaway hits was because they lacked a white guy protagonist. It seems they believed a less outlandish/foreign film with an American hero could be a bigger success. The Go-Go boys were keenly aware of Americana, even if their attempts to infuse their efforts with American cultural touchstones were often… strained. Making matters worse was the reality that, every time a film hit for them, they got really hands-on with the sequel.
In Mark Hartley’s Cannon doc Electric Boogaloo, dancer Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones explained that the first Breakin’ film was by and large a run-and-gun shoot, and that he was often allowed to recruit street dancers he knew were great. The whole thing was raw, spontaneous, of the time and of the street (Ice-T was about four seconds out of his life of crime, and wouldn’t find himself on a major label for another three years – but there he is, DJing over the finale of the film). The sequel however, is basically the ‘40s musical version of the original film (Menahem Golan is a monstrous fan of the Hollywood musical, having gone so far as to direct one himself with… The Apple). The hand of Golan was all over Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and to say he was “out of touch” is being kind. The film is less a moment frozen in time ala Breakin’ and more like Cannon Film’s Xanadu.
Similarly, Ninja III: The Domination was an attempt to capitalize on what Golan saw as purely “American” trends. Seeing the popularity of… Flashdance (‘cause when you’re constructing a sequel for your successful action franchise, piggybacking on Flashdance is the natural place to start) – Golan decided that the female lead should have a blue collar career – and since “welder” was taken, she’s a telephone company lineman. Instead of a dancer, she’s an aerobics instructor (because it was the only other career choice for which he could justify dressing her in legwarmers and leotards). It seemed that, every time he tried to calibrate for the marketplace in that way, things came out… weird.
American Ninja II came out weird.
Golan was also a student of/fiend for box office – and when he saw a hit picture, he tried to replicate what he felt to be the most commercially viable element of it. It seemed, however, like he wasn’t always entirely sure/right about what that element was.
Take Top Gun, for instance. Most people will concede that Top Gun’s biggest selling point was the aerial combat – in Hollywood’s history, dogfights had never really looked that good before, despite the best efforts of so many great productions.
It would seem that, when Menahem Golan saw the film, his takeaway was less aerial combat and more BEACH VOLLEYBALL.
So while the overall premise of The Confrontation is just a shameless rehash of the first film (Firstenberg admits that “conspiracy on a military base” was always going to be the skeleton, despite his own desire to bring a civilian Dudikoff and James stateside for an urban adventure), the new location (we’ll get to that) means a new base – and the whole thing looks like the beach volleyball scene in Top Gun stretched to feature length. It’s all dudes with perms and frosted tips walking around shirtless in Ocean Pacfic shorts and Body Glove wetgear. The flamboyant commanding officer – “Wild” Bill Hickock (Jeff Weston – looking for all the world like Anthony Edwards’ Goose in Top Gun, with a wondrous ever-changing dye job and frosted tips) – explains that the post is supposed to be clandestine, so it’s meant to look like some bros just rented a beach house for an extended hang. They spend their days shirking responsibility and playing around with dune buggies and Hobie Cats – until some of the undercover Jarheads go missing. Rumor has it they were kidnapped by NINJA – which is why the MARINES put in a call to a couple of ARMY guys – Armstrong and Johnson have a rep for dealing with this whole ninja thing.
And yeah – the Marines were indeed abducted by ninja, because the film’s villain – yet another white guy crime lord in a Wonderful Ice Cream Suit – The Lion, played by Gary Conway of Irwin Allen’s Land of the Giants. The Lion wants to protect his nefarious business interests by creating a ninja army… using… genetically-enhanced Marines… that he has kidnapped… from local dive bars.
That’s a plot point in a feature film. ‘Cause… you know – “sci-fi.” Menahem knows Americans LOVE sci-fi – so why not throw some of THAT stuff in there…?
To create these mutant ninja… ninjas, The Lion has abducted the world-renowned cancer research scientist Professor Sanborne, and the scientist’s daughter Alicia (Michelle Botes) has been frantically combing the island looking for him (though a few characters mention she’s being HELD by The Lion to insure her father’s continued complicity. It’s kind of a vague plot point). She runs into Armstrong at a party (where Armstrong and Jackson are getting a closer look at The Lion), and he hatches a plan to accompany her to The Lion’s island fortress under cover of darkness to liberate her dad.
Meanwhile, at Beach Volleyball Base, Jackson is trying to convince the Marines to quit playin’ with the boys and rescue Armstrong from the island… that he’s… not actually been to… yet. The movie is a tad confused. Like the Lord John Bloom used to say – “there’s no story to get in the way of the plot.”
What there IS, however – is PANACHE. At about the half-hour mark, there’s a bar fight that tosses aside any and all pretense that The Confrontation should be taken seriously (granted, with a subtitle like “The Confrontation” I can’t imagine the goal was ever to be taken seriously, but you know what I’m talking about). Suddenly, the film starts to feel less like a low-budget action flick and more like a broad, Hot Shots-style parody of the form – when multiple enemies are dispatched simultaneously, it’s accompanied by the sound of bowling pins being knocked down. The movie gets all kinds of gloriously dopey.
We’re suddenly attacked with all sorts of comic book-style goofiness – mystical cheesiness, bullshit science, superhuman combat, and ludicrous set-pieces – at one point, The Lion assembles a group of business associates to show off his crack squad of genetically-enhanced high-tech ninja (Universal Ninja? Uninja?). His demonstration involves sending his right hand man – a sinister ninja played by Mike Stone – into an arena to single-handedly dispatch upwards of fifty of them – which he does with brutal efficiency. Why are these genetically-enhanced superninja supposed to be such a big deal again?
Jackson and the Marines storm the beachhead to rescue Joe and Alicia, and it’s truly a blast to see the late, great Steve James in full-on Black Dynamite mode – wasting ninja like a madman. Meanwhile, Dudikoff slips into something a little more ninja, gains magic powers, and carves up every stuntman in South Africa. It all starts to feel like a Loger Moore Bond flick – without the skiing – though it probably would have been too much for Dudikoff to strap a couple of shinobigatana to his jika-tabi to hit the powder.
Or would it?
I love the look of this film. Everything is four-color vibrant, and the transfer looks great. The varied graininess evident in a few shots of the first film is not an issue here. Audio is a DTS 2.0 stereo track, and it works exactly as it should. It’s tough to write a whole lot about something that looks so fine.
Once more, Olive goes above and beyond expectations for these films. We get another great-looking trailer, a moderated commentary with Sam Firstenberg, whose voice now has a calming effect on me, and Drenner returns to produce a retrospective piece about the filming of The Confrontation, and it’s definitely interesting – and a great reminder that producer Avi Lerner is a creep of the highest magnitude, as he brags about finding a tax loophole which allowed him to make movies on the cheap.
In South Africa.
Firstenberg recalls that Steve James was concerned about even going there – but the filmmaker went ahead of the cast on a scout, and reported that the first film had played really big there, and it turns out that James was treated like a hero in the streets. It’s another well-crafted piece, even though it’s a disconcerting discovery that Golan and Globus had no problem playing Sun City.
In my review of the first film, I wrote that, “It’s sort of a shame that, after producing such vibrant, violent, and… absolutely batshit ninja films, the Go-Go boys decided to turn down the volume for this first installment in their attempt at another franchise.”
This time, they turned the volume up and ripped the knob off, producing a film every bit as ludicrous as the title would suggest. I had a surprising amount of fun with the film, and I recommend checking it out with your tongue firmly in cheek.