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American Ninja

Since I started Teleport City many moons ago, I’ve gotten a lot of email from people claiming to be ninjas. One was so batshit insane that I had to break confidence and send it around to other people. I’ve since lost it, but maybe someone still has it. It’s the one where a single sentence goes on for a full page. There was also a guy who used to write all the time and tell me about how he was a member of a secret ninja society that guarded Washington, D.C. But my favorite email is probably from a ninja who believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was Jim Kelly. The first time he wrote me, telling me how he loved my movies and wanting to know if I had any merchandise for sale, I did my best to let him down politely and tell him I’m not Jim Kelly without making him feel stupid. Then a few months later he wrote me, addressing me as “Mr. Jim Kelly” again. This time he was asking me what I’d been up to and when I was going to make another movie. For this time, I just didn’t reply, figuring that would cause him to lose interest. It didn’t.

But before all that, before Teleport City and ninjas who prowl the rooftops of Washington, I already had a long and interesting association with the shadowy warriors known as ninja, starting when I was but a young lad. When I was young and interested in karate classes to make up for my rather slight build, I went to a martial arts expo at the Kentucky State Fair. I’d go to the fair every year with my uncle and grandfather, who would enter the various horse shows going on as part of the festivities. It was a pretty slick set-up. You got to sleep in horse stalls out back with the horses and had the run of the fairgrounds and expo center. What could beat sleeping in the dirt and then sneaking onto the midway at two in the morning in hopes of catching gypsy rituals, freaks being lead about on leashes, accordion-playing midgets, and other Something Wicked This Way Comes shady goings-on? I never did see any of that stuff, but I did find my uncle and his friends hunkered down in the shadows smoking doobies (they were doobies back then and forever), and this carny did let me into the inflatable moonwalk once after hours, and he didn’t even try to molest me in return.

Anyway, the martial arts expo that year was part of the big expo where you learn about livestock and jellies and stain removal pastes as you wander the display tables in search of free stickers and patches. You could also buy lots of martial arts stuff, like numchucks (saying “nunchuka” is for suckers and Japanese people), ninja stars, pictures of Bruce Lee, and that poster of the guy raising one arm above his head that was meant to teach you about strike points. And there was always at least one karate school with a name like “Soaring Shotokan Eagle Dojo USA Eagles America…Eagle” putting on a demonstration.

At this time in life, everything I knew about martial arts I’d learned from watching Bruce Lee and ninja movies. That Kung Fu TV show had always been way too boring to hold my attention. But even as a relatively ignorant little kid, I could tell more than half these guys were overstuffed karate hacks who’d had about as much real martial arts training as I’d received by watching Ultraman. But the crowd ate it up, and the more superfluous American flag paraphernalia in which you draped yourself, the more the crowd loved you. That way they could love this crazy “oriental fighting” while still being a proud American. This hit its most illogical and awesome extreme when a dude with a big thick 70s mustache peeking out from the top of his mask came out to do his kata while wearing a red, white, and blue ninja uniform (I think someone probably wore the same thing in Alexander Lou’s Ninja in the USA). When the tubby guy in a gi with a bald eagle and American flag airbrushed on the back came out to do a series of half-assed judo throws and blocks, the place erupted. I’m almost certain he did it all to “Eye of the Tiger.”

Over the years, I had the pleasure of watching a lot of these guys perform, and I was amused and shocked by how similar their presentations always were. All you had to do was have an authoritative delivery of your motivational speech (which was usually better than a middle school gym teacher, if nothing else), and people were ready to throw money at you to train them to be invincible fighting machines. No matter how lame the show of skill, people generally bought it because, well, if you can’t trust a karate guy in an American flag bandanna, who can you trust in this crazy world of ours? Never mind that most of these masters knew nothing, or only knew about bar fights or enough so that when they tried to teach other people, they’d get that other person seriously hurt if they ever tried to whip out their skills.

Now one caveat: most of these guys were over six feet tall. They had pretty solid builds in the arms and legs and were, to a man, a little doughy around the midsection. Basically, they were built like Joe Don Baker. And it’s entirely likely that any single one of them could walk up and kick my ass. I might get a lucky blow or two in, but it wouldn’t make much difference. Being well-versed in winning bar fights and street brawls makes you a bad-ass. It doesn’t make you a martial artist, though, and it doesn’t necessarily mean people should be paying you a monthly fee to have you make them stand in the horse stance and punch the air for thirty minutes, twice a week.

These guys, however, were just a primer for later events in my life and my ever advancing experiences with the ninja. Specifically, 7th grade. It was the year 1984. Visions of a soul-crushing totalitarian regime as predicted by George Orwell had not come to pass, though Ronald Reagan did have a fair number of people convinced that we were all going to be nuked by Commies day after tomorrow, or sometime round about then. My friends and I, inspired by Red Dawn, built a bomb shelter in the woods down by Harrod’s Creek (it was a foot deep hole, covered by some plywood, with a rusty canteen full of brackish water in it). The year’s top songs included Ratt’s “Round and Round,” “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger, “Wake me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham, and a little something called “Thriller.” At the roller rink, we held hands with girls and skated to “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins, and at the movies we went to watch a young Kevin Bacon stand up against the oppression of right wing Christianity by dancing in barns. And at night, once a week, the nation gathered around the television set to watch a guy wearing white loafers and pastel t-shirts catch drug dealers in neon-soaked Miami.

It was my seventh grade year, and things were OK. I was head over heels for this neighborhood girl named Dani; I was in the middle of the home economics class we all had to make, where I made green jell-o with Vienna sausages suspended in it; and I was just beginning to discover my knack for math was nearing its end. At my school, inventively named Oldham County Middle School, life revolved around skate parties, school dances, and hanging out in the gym and the hallways before class. They used to make us all gather in the gym in the morning, either so they could keep track of which buses had arrived or so they could keep up out of the bathrooms and hallways before the teachers arrived. Maybe both. Anyway, sitting in the bleachers in the morning is when you made all the plans with your friends for what you were going to do when you got out of the gym and could wander around the halls for twenty minutes before class. Who liked who, who broke up, what you watched last night on television, whether or not you’d been able to find the new Storm Shadow figure at Airway. Or maybe it had become Target by then. Can’t remember exactly, and any time I look up something like “When did Ayrway become Target,” I get lots of information about the effect of bronchial thermoplasty on airway distensibility.

One of the kids that sat with our large group most mornings was named Wojo. Wojo got heavier into the Miami Vice than anyone else, and would often show up to school decked out in full Crockett attire — white blazer, white pants, white canvas loafers with no socks, and of course, some confectionery colored pastel t-shirt. On multiple occasions he’d come in, glance around nervously, and mutter half-audible curses under his breath. He’d continue this until someone else would get fed up, roll their eyes, and despite the fact that everyone already knew what was coming, would have to ask, “What’s going on, Wojo?”

Wojo would glance around a little more, then say, “Well you can’t tell anyone, but last night I found out my girlfriend’s dad was involved in some major shit. Some bad shit with Colombians. One of them found out I knew, and I think they might be trying to kill me.”

“This would be the girlfriend no one has ever met?”

“I told you, she goes to private school. I think she and I might have to run,” Wojo would continue, unfazed. “I heard one of them talking to someone on the phone in Spanish. I think they’re calling in a hitman from Colombia.”

“Wojo, you can’t speak Spanish.”

“Didn’t that happen on Miami Vice last week?”

Wojo’s ongoing shadow war with Colombian gangs running their operation out of LaGrange, Kentucky, stood out even among my friends, which included among others, a guy who had memorized the entire “Robin Williams Live at the Met” stand up comedy routine and constantly tried to pass it off as his own material despite the fact that everyone had already seen “Robin Williams Live at the Met.”

“What?” he’d stammer. “Robin Williams made that same joke? Man, that’s weird, huh?”

The thing that really made Wojo stand out from the crowd, besides his commitment to every detail of his stories, was that his best friend and running mate was a kid named Sean who was a total freak about ninjas. I mean a total freak. We all loved ninjas, and the coolest kids in the group were the ones who had seen movies like Enter the Ninja or, even better, Revenge of the Ninja. I remember the first time I saw it. I was at my grandparent’s house for the weekend. They just got cable TV, and I was up late watching HBO, hoping to catch a glimpse of some boobs or something. Revenge of the Ninja gave me that and so much more. I was going wild, and although I didn’t go out and buy a headband that said “Ninja” on it in that jagged “oriental” typeface, I was definitely hooked on gory ninja films. I might have even bought a couple throwing stars at the state fair one fall, but I stopped short of owning a full ninja uniform.

Not only did Sean own a ninja uniform, he frequently wore it to school, tabi boots and all. The school wouldn’t allow him to wear the hood since it covered his identity — as if there were other kids walking around the halls gussied up in full ninja regalia and talking about sai and bo staffs in a lilting Southern accent. Like his friend Wojo, Sean would often come into the gym in the morning and sit down ready to tell a story about how the Black Dragon Ninja Society was after him for revealing their secrets to the White Heron style or something like that, but Sean had betrayed the Black Dragons because, although they may have trained him, their leader had turned his back on what it meant to be a true ninja and was now in league with villains, presumably the same Colombian drug cartel that was gunning for Wojo (remember — Edward James Olmos’ character in Miami Vice was always alluding to his own spooky ninja past, so the pieces all fall into place).

Suffice it to say, the sight of Wojo and Sean, the ninja and the Miami Vice cop, prowling the halls of the middle school was enough to strike most people dumb. Who knew that beneath the veneer of cows, grain silos, and Future Farmers of America champions, Oldham County was a seething cauldron of murderous South American drug cartels and ancient ninja secret societies. Sean was often asked by classmates to demonstrate his ninja prowess during gym class, and though he’d favor us with a stance or two, he’d never show off any of his true skills.

“Maybe when you’re better prepared,” he’d admonish us in his spooky ninja talk. Then he’d strike that weird “one finger upraised on one upraised hand with arms folded in front of my body” stance that so many ninjas do. Sadly, he never disappeared into a puff of multi-colored smoke.

The first ninja exploitation films out of the gate were pretty fun, but the problem with banner ninja movie star Sho Kosugi was apparent: he was kind of, you know, not white. And the 80s were the decade of the big, tough, white action hero, with Action Jackson sort of hanging out on the corners, depressed that he missed the more colorful and diverse action decade of the 70s by a few years. Sure, Enter the Ninja starred a white guy, but that was a foreign white guy, and foreign white guys were even worse than black American guys, who were perfectly acceptable second bananas. What we really needed was an American white guy ninja, someone who could wear an American flag bandanna and pose in front of a big-ass American flag while wearing his ninja uniform. Someone that the guys at the state fair could rally behind and model themselves after.

In 1985, Cannon gave these guys their hero: American Ninja, a movie that exists in that cultural limbo that exists in every culture: that stuff from someone else’s culture is cool, but it’s even cooler when someone from my culture does it. That’s why there are so many movies where American guys emerge as the absolute best martial artists in the world. Yeah, all that Asian stuff is pretty bad-ass, but it’s even more bad-ass when Americans do it, probably whilst accompanied by that military marching band drum music. I suppose there are a lot of Chinese and Japanese movies where Asians kick the ass of Americans at traditionally American things, like…I don’t know. Eating hoagies and suing each other.

So yeah — there are racial and cultural issues that can be addressed via an analysis of a movie like American Ninja, but some things are just too silly to warrant serious discussion, and Lord knows this is one of them. Besides, the flip of the “Americans are more awesomest” jingoism is always that, misguided though it may be in many places, these movies also increase awareness and appreciation of other cultures, even if it’s somewhat silly aspects of other cultures. Since the silly parts of other cultures are usually the most fun parts, I have no beef with this. So with that brought up and off-handedly dismissed, it’s time to take a closer look at American Ninja and see what I’d been missing. What I discovered pretty much from the very first couple of minutes is that American Ninja is undoubtedly one of the all-time greatest movies ever made, ever. It wastes absolutely no time, getting to the black-clad ninja madness almost immediately.

American forces in the Philippines are being preyed upon by slobby rebels who keep hijacking their arms shipments and CO’s daughter shipments. Despite this, no one higher up in the army thinks that maybe something is wrong, like that trained American soldiers should be able to whoop ass on anyone who attacks them whilst wearing a sweat-stained Aloha shirt. Or maybe that if armament shipments keep getting stolen, we should take a different route, or quit stopping for obvious ambushes. I mean, in the history of action films, when your convoy gets held up by unexpected road work, that road work has never been anything but an ambush. The only legitimate road work that happens in action films happens at the very edge of an interstate ramp that drops off into nothing but affords you a chance to jump the chasm and land on another section of road beyond the gap.

Also, you would assume that American soldiers getting attacked by an army of ninjas would be the sort of thing that makes the news. Usually, when one American soldier gets killed somewhere, it at least gets a mention. Now if several are killed, and killed by ninjas no less, I’m saying that it should attract at least a little attention. No one at the base seems to mind much, though. Nor does anyone think that the commanding officer’s policy of “just let them take what they want and go,” is anything out of the ordinary. Why the hell send an armed escort if you are going to forbid them to defend the thing they are there to defend? You might as well have your convoy driven by Eddie Deezen. I know the military has all sorts of screw-ups, but I think even at its worst point, someone would still have taken notice of the commanding officer who routinely hands all his weapons over to ninjas without so much as a fight.

That is, until mysterious loner G.I., Joe (Michael Dudikoff, in his first starring role), shows up and starts kicking hijacker ass and throwing screwdrivers and tire changing tools at them, which results in ninjas positively pouring out of the jungle to jump on trampolines and do cartwheels over trucks! Although the commanding officer urges his men to stand down and just let the ninjas take what they want, Joe is unwilling to stand by and let these ninjas get away with highway robbery — especially when they start menacing the colonel’s hot daughter (Judie Aronson). That calls for some kungfu bad-assery, followed by a long trek through the jungle, during which the chick will go from bitching about her hair and Gucci shoes to falling in love with stoic man of action. Joe, for his bravery in the face of attack, finds himself ostracized by his fellow soldiers, hated by his superiors, and marked by the mysterious ninja leader named Black Star Ninja, who wants to kill Joe…permanently! This also means that Joe will have to fight ninjas pretty much every scene.

It turns out the hijacking is facilitated by the corrupt base…guy (John LaMotta). The chain of command here seems pretty questionable and includes the colonel’s hot daughter in a position of significant authority, as well as a chauffeur with big poofy 80s hair. But the base commanding guy is dastardly and working with the even more dastardly French terrorist, Ortega. Judging from his name, bad fake accent, and line of do-it-yourself taco making kits, I’m pretty sure Ortega is just a Mexican guy pretending to be a French guy in order to mess with people. His chief weapon in the fight against, well, no one really, is the mysterious Japanese guy named Black Star Ninja. Anyway, I think his name is Black Star Ninja. Maybe that’s his rank. Similar confusion arose in Commando, when the head ninja was named Ninja. Black Star Ninja kills a lot of his own ninjas, which is common among evil villains but never makes much sense. for starters, who is going to want to work for you if they know you kill your own people for no reason? And second, I assume that, even though there are like eleven million ninjas in this movie, ninjas are actually hard to come by, and if you have an army of them, you should practice ninja conservation and try to conserve the ones you’ve found.

Anyway, thus the whup-ass begins, and it doesn’t really end until the final credits roll, unless Joe is stopping to cut some chick’s dress shorter so she can more effectively run through the jungle with him. Along the way, we will spend a bit of time exploring Joe’s mysterious past he can’t remember but is somehow responsible for him being well-versed in the craft of the wily ninja. Here’s a hint: he’s a ninja. A mysterious Japanese dude (John Fujioka) will wander in from time to time and yammer on about the truth being revealed when Joe is ready — much like Sean the Middle School Ninja.

With so many ninjas and so much ninja action crammed into this film, the story is easy to ignore. It’s also easy to ignore because it’s pretty dumb. I said when I reviewed Commando — which again, is almost a shot-for-shot remake of American Ninja, only with the added bonus of a finale featuring dudes in Michael Jackson jackets shooting grenade launchers — I find it hard to believe that ninjas and greasy thugs in Hawaiian shirts routinely rob American military convoys, and no one thinks that’s a bad thing. But since we’re quickly up to our armpits in ninjas, who really cares about the plot, which is really more of a series of loosely connected action scenes strung together haphazardly by some scenes of the bad guys talking and hanging out at the ninja training camp, which is one of those training camps like Al Quaeda uses, all full of monkey bars and flaming hoops and trampolines. At least the ninjas will use the Gymboree skills they acquire. I’ve never understood the Al Quaeda training video where the guys are doing monkey bars and jumping over stuff and doing kickboxing. Dude, you assholes strap bombs to yourselves and blow up innocent people. When are you going to need your monkey bar skills? When has Al Quaeda ever battled anyone in a kickboxing fight? If this was 1985 and we weren’t as sensitive, you know that shit would be a movie, where the only way to beat Al Quaeda is to send Michael Dudikoff deep into the heart of Afghanistan to fight the supreme Al Quaeda kickboxer in a deadly underground martial arts tournament.

American Ninja features more ninjas per minute (NPM — you can immediately tell whether or not a movie is any good if it has high NPM) than probably any other ninja movie ever made — a claim I do not make lightly. If anyone can think of a movie with more ninjas in it, let me know. It also has a colossal body count, in the gloriously violent grand tradition of 80s action films. These days, the carnage is largely property-related, with a few token deaths here and there. But American Ninja kills like a hundred dudes, no exaggeration. Only Arnold in Commando kills more (as opposed to Mithun in Commando). Leading the ninjas into battle, and occasionally killing them for no real reason, is Tadashi Yamashita as Black Star Ninja. While watching Commando, I kept thinking that Danny Dengpongza looked a lot like Tadashi Yamashita. In fact, at first I thought Ninja the ninja actually was being played by Yamashita. I didn’t even know at the time that Yamashita played the exact same role in American Ninja, which means the producers of Commando probably combed India looking for a guy who looked like Tadashi Yamashita, which is probably the first and last time anyone anywhere in the world has combed a country looking for a guy who looked like Tadashi Yamashita.

Yamashita — who was also known for a brief period as Bronson Lee (Champion!) — was the go-to guy whenever an American movie needed an Asian ninja guy and Sho Kosugi was nowhere to be found (which was often, as finding a ninja is hard, and Sho had to finish Black Eagle). Yamashita did an episode of Knight Rider (where he starred as “Ninja Assassin”), which is probably an episode I’m going to have to track down and see. And although Edward James Olmos’ captain dude in Miami Vice never fully copped to his secret ninja training background (no wonder Wojo and Sean got along so well), I think we can assume that, if they’d ever followed through with it, he would have ended up fighting Tadashi Yamashita at some point.

Yamashita’s most recognizable, at least to people like me, for his appearance in a holy trinity of American martial arts movies. He’s the “Eastern Trainer” in Gymkata, where he taught Kurt Thomas the ultimate martial arts skill (walking up stairs on your hands — we know this is the ultimate skill, because Chiun made Remo Williams do the same thing, though thankfully Fred Ward was not wearing the same microshorts as Kurt Thomas). Then he’s the treacherous Sakura in Chuck Norris’s The Octagon, where the ultimate ninja skill is thinking to yourself in loud whispers (and where he runs a ninja training camp that is, I assume, very similar to the one run by Grandmaster Phillip Holder). And then there was American Ninja, where he runs another ninja training camp and helps a French guy named Ortega steal weapons from the U.S. military, which doesn’t seem to bother anyone except for Joe. And eventually Joe’s buddy Curtis, played by bad action movie stalwart Steve James.

Steve James — has this guy ever NOT been enthusiastic? Steve James was awesome. I don’t think he was in a good movie his entire career, with the exception of I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka, but you’d never know that from the amount of zeal and energy he maintained no matter how awful the cinema surrounding him. James is one of those actors where whether he’s good or bad becomes moot, because he seems to naturally adapt to the one role he always plays, sort of like Fred Williamson or Patrick Swayze. Say what you will about Swayze, but it’s rare you ever find him not fully committing himself to a role. In a movie where main villain Tadashi Yamashita speaks in stilted, stammering English and main star Michael Dudikoff shows all the emotion of, well, an emotionless ninja killing machine, the job of turning in a performance actual humans can relate to falls on the square shoulders of James, who is up to the task, as he always was. Bad action movies lost a great asset the day he passed away.

As goofy as American Ninja’s plot may be, that didn’t stop it from needing four writers. Seriously? Four people to write American Ninja? I mean, I love American Ninja, but this is the sort of concept movie a producer tosses off to a writer to start and finish in a single coke-fueled weekend. “Hey buddy, Globus wants to make a movie called American Ninja. Have the script on my desk by tomorrow.” Done deal. Instead, we have four cats putting their two cents in: Gideon Amir, Paul De Mielche, Avi Kleinberger, and James R. Silke. Of those guys, only Silke had any actual writing credentials. The other three were Israeli television producers, and American Ninja is the first and last writing credit for all of them, except for the guys who also get credit for American Ninja II. Silke, on the other hand, is not only named Silke, but he also wrote Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination, so you know the man is a solid source of verified lore when it comes to ninjas. Plus, later in life he went on to write Barbarians, a documentary about twin barbarian bodybuilders who defend jugglers from an evil warlord. I think it was made for Discovery Channel.

Anyway, I assume that Silke did all the writing, and those other jokers leaned in to his squalid Tijuana hotel room (because I assume all movies are written while drunk in a squalid Tijuana hotel room with a passed out, possible dead, hooker in the bed) from time to time and said something like, “I think he should put a bucket on his head. Now give me writing credit,” while Silke was busy trying to write gold like American Ninja throwing a screwdriver through a guy’s sternum. Anyway, the story isn’t all that great, but whatever. It’s not like Silke probably didn’t know that, and to make up for it, he crammed his movie to bursting with ninja action and trucks knocking over fruit carts.

Bringing to life Silke’s bold vision of a world chock full of ninjas running around in multi-colored ninja outfits in the middle of the day is our good buddy, director Sam Firstenberg. Firstenberg was the go-to guy whenever Cannon Films needed a cheap action film or movie about plucky, neon-clad breakdancers saving the community center. Firstenberg directed two of the best ninja movies ever made — this one and Revenge of the Ninja. He also did Ninja III: The Domination, but honestly, all I remember from that movie is Lucinda Dickey straddling some dude while she pours V8 juice down her chest, a scene that is grosser than it is sexy, possibly because although I love Lucinda Dickey, I don’t like V8 and feel that she should have just stuck with the more traditional champagne. Granted, the scene happens at the end of her work-out, but who hasn’t drunk champagne during their work-out? I know I have. Seriously. I have.

Oh, and a ninja kills a telephone pole repairman in the movie. It was probably the son of the telephone repairman who got killed in Assault on Precinct 13. And didn’t someone kill a telephone pole repairman in Ninja III: The Domination?

Firstenberg also gave the world Breakin’ II: Electric Boogaloo with Lucinda Dickey in a tasty array of neon leotards (Lord, the debt I owe Firstenberg is huge), American Ninja II (not Electric Boogaloo), Delta Force III, and a couple Cyborg Cop movies, so if you’re guessing he’s a director I approve of, then you know me well. And I am not ashamed that I know far more about Sam Firstenberg’s directorial career than I do that of Luis Bunuel. Maybe if Bunuel had been making movies like Breakdancing Barbarian Cyborg Ninja, I’d have been more interested in him. Instead, he wasted his career making movies about, you know, whatever the hell The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was about. Leprechauns, maybe? Firstenberg’s direction is, as with pretty much any Cannon Studio production, competent without standing out. He shoots martial arts action better than most modern directors, primarily because he sets a camera up a slight distance and lets guys fight, rather than shaking the camera around and doing lots of fast edits and close-ups of Jet Li’s ear.

Speaking of the martial arts, you can’t really review a ninja film without mentioning the stunts and fight choreography. Stunts and fights here were coordinated by a guy named Steven Lambert, who still gets work as a stuntman and choreographer for some pretty huge movies. But back in American Ninja days, he was fresh off Revenge of the Ninja and Tuff Turf, where he had the unenviable task of making James Spader seem like a street wise bad-ass. Lambert works in conjunction with fight choreographer Mike Stone, a regular fixture in Cannon’s ninja movies despite the bad blood that arose between the would-be actor and studio heads Golan and Globus. Stone was the guy who developed the Enter the Ninja project that launched the entire ninja craze of the 1980s. Mike Stone brought them the project with a lead actor already in mind: Mike Stone. He was already an accomplished martial artist and understood how to adapt actual martial arts to movie martial arts choreography. I mean, he was no Sammo Hung, but he was all right. Cannon was excited about the project and threw the full force of their mighty cinematic empire behind the project — oh, except they fired everyone they hired.

It was standard operating procedure for Cannon to hire a crew, then immediately fire them all and replace them with cheaper labor and nepotistic associations from Israel. If you look at the credits for American Ninja, you’ll see that it looks like pretty much the same thing happened. Among the Enter the Ninja casualties was Mike Stone, who was bumped from the lead in favor of Italian tough guy actor Franco Nero. Stone’s consolation prize was that he was kept on as the movie’s martial arts choreographer and as the ninja double for Nero, who may have been able to box in the ears of young Italian street punks but was hardly passable as a martial artist. In order to soothe Stone’s bruised ego, Cannon promised him the lead in their next ninja movie, which would also feature Enter the Ninja co-star Sho Kosugi, who swore he would not do the movie unless Cannon made good on their promise to Mike Stone. That movie was Revenge of the Ninja, and you might notice that it stars Sho Kosugi, but Mike Stone is nowhere to be found. Even if he’d been relegated to supporting star status, Stone could have played the role of Kosugi’s martial artist cop buddy, but that role went to Keith Vitali (who squared off with the big three in Jackie, Sammo, and Yuen Biao’s Wheels on Meals). Lambert was back as stunt choreographer, but the fights themselves were coordinated by Sho Kosugi, which means after promising Stone he wouldn’t do the movie without him — according to Mike Stone, mind you — Kosugi went on to take both the lead role and the fight choreography from Stone.

Much of this story depends on earlier stories told by Mike Stone, so true accounts may vary. And since Sho Kosugi is meditating in a mist-filled temple built deep within an active volcano until mankind needs him once again, we may never know or really care. For all I know, as bad as much of the acting is in Cannon films, Stone could have been that much worse, and it was for the best that he was never the lead. Whatever happened between Stone and Cannon couldn’t have been that awful, because Stone was back in action, if not on the screen, for American Ninja, and he stuck around for American Ninja II and American Ninja III. Since then, he’s gotten bit parts here and there, usually sans spoken lines, and still does stunt and choreography work from time to time. Guys like Stone are the types of guys I wish more people interviewed. Stars and directors have their experiences, but these dudes, working in the trenches often in bizarre circumstances, always have the best stories. Hey Stone, if you are out there searching Google for your own name and you run across this review, get in touch. I won’t promise to cast you in the lead of my upcoming ninja film, though, because that role is already reserved for Rosario Dawson. Since the screenplay is tentatively titled Sexy Ninja Shows Her Big Boobs Often (it sounds more elegant in Japanese), you probably don’t want the lead anyway.

And I’d bet good money there is already a Japanese movie called Sexy Ninja Shows Her Big Boobs Often.

Anyway, Stone’s work here ain’t half bad, which is something, considering Dudikoff is barely passable as a martial artist. Luckily, Stone gets the services of Steve James and a whole slew of stuntmen who had nothing to do but wear ninja outfits and do somersaults, so there’s plenty of stuff to help carry Dudikoff. Fights are better than average for an American martial arts film, and American Ninja proves that sometimes quantity can be better than quality. The final duel between Joe and the Black Star Ninja (who probably gave himself that name because his real name was Corey or something — no one is afraid of Corey the Ninja) is pretty awesome, because rather than just fight each other, they first run through the entire gauntlet of toys at Black Star’s ninja camp. And then Black Star starts whipping out all sorts of crazy ninja gadgets, culminating in his deft employment of a ninja laser! I mean, it’s not as cool as the brightly colored smoke bombs ninjas disappear into all the time, but a ninja laser is pretty good.

American Ninja: the greatest ninja movie ever made? I guess I still have to give the edge to Revenge of the Ninja, but American Ninja runs a pretty damn close second. Dudikoff may not be much of an actor, but he’s not so bad that you’d be shocked by how bad he is. He’s well-suited for the role, and he has Steve James on hand to provide some actual charisma. Anyway, you hardly need to worry about character development and such when your characters are attacked by armies of ninjas like every thirty seconds. How Cannon never got around to pairing American Ninja with Sho Kosugi, I do not know. American Ninja — man, I can’t believe I waited so long to see this movie, but I’m glad it was out there, crouched in the shadows like Sean the Middle School Ninja, waiting for the time when I was ready.

11 thoughts on “American Ninja”

  1. Wow Keith, what did you do to make this guy think you’re Jim Kelly? Spend $200 a month on Afro-Sheen?

  2. The thing about tuff turf is that he actually transformed spader into a reasonable semblance of a street-wise badass. well, as long as you stipulate a street in a gated community where the thugs all use bb guns, but still . . .

  3. I guess the Nineties equivalent of the caucasian ninja trend were those American Yakuza movies. Never really caught on, did they?

  4. Entertaining as always! The anecdotal middle school and karate master stuff is priceless. Reminds me of the character played by the Drew Carey sidekick in the overrated Napoleon Dynamite. If you have seen that movie, how accurate was that movies karate master? Not enough of a gut? I was a bit too young at that time period to remember American martial artist outside of Karate Kid.-Suto The reason you couldn’t find info about the store is it is spelled Ayr-Way. from Wikipedia (sorry):In 1980, the Ayr-Way chain, consisting of 40 stores and one distribution center, was acquired by Dayton Hudson Corporation, now known as Target Corporation. The stores were remodeled and reopened as Target in 1981.Me, I was more of a Gold Circle guy myself.

  5. I used to have the first three movies recorded on tape, but I recorded over them when I started getting into HK movies. I kind of what to revisit them again.

  6. Actually, the guy in Napoleon Dynamite inspired the first part of this review. He’s disturbingly accurate, and the quote on his commercial “…and the wisdom…of a man,” cracks me up every time.I dub you from this point on, Teleport City’s Ayr-Way advisor. We used to go there to buy star wars Dixie Cups, because for a while, kids collected Dixie Cups. What the hell?

  7. I thought you’d like that Rex Kwon Do part in Napoleon. There’s also some good faux martial arts skits from In Living Color and Mad TV.”When has Al Quaeda ever battled anyone in a kickboxing fight?”There is a crappy FPS game called Fugitive Hunter where instead of shooting the main guys you’re after, one of which being Osama bin Laden, you get into a terrible hand to hand fight.

  8. This is my favourite of your reviews yet. Priceless… I’m bookmarking it to come back to it and pore over it in more detail. I’m from a different generation and a different continent… my own bad ninja movie memories come via the work of one Godfrey Ho, and my knowledge and experience of the genre doesn’t really expand much beyond his stuff, but I identify somewhat with your enthusiasm for these movies! Must track down American Ninja for myself…

  9. Back in the halcyon days of the T.C message board, this review was legendary, and several people thought that Sean and Wojo should have had their own series. (in which they did actually fight ninja clans and brutal Central American drug lords in rural Kentucky.)

    I finally tracked this film down a few years ago, and it is brilliant. If I remember, it actually has the “if you fail me….YOU DIE!” line, even though the guy hasn’t actually failed at anything. It has a new martial art based around socket wrenches. It takes perfectly seriously the idea dressing as a ninja would be a good disguise in the jungle, and it has an MBB-BO-105 in it. And the fights look pretty good, too.

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