I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

American Ninja

This review is dedicated to Ryan Kenner, who’s been bugging me to see this for almost a year, and to the soldiers and planners of the American Revolution, especially if any of them were ninjas (not sure)

AMERICAN NINJA is not something I consider a classic, but it is a solid, enjoyable b-movie and it finally made me understand the Michael Dudikoff phenomenon. When I saw him in a much later movie, BLACK THUNDER (a Stealth bomber thriller remade as Seagal’s FLIGHT OF FURY) I was surprised at his lack of fighting. I assumed he was some karate champion or something like most of the ’80s action stars, but when I looked him up I found out he started as a model. No wonder.

But in this movie wouldn’t’ve noticed, because he does do plenty of fighting and makes it convincing. His line deliveries are sometimes bad but they manage to make him not talk very much. In fact, he doesn’t speak for the first 15 minutes of the movie, it almost seems like he’s mute.

American NinjaDudikoff plays Joe who, like Jason Bourne, has amnesia and doesn’t remember why he has extraordinary fighting skills. Unlike Jason Bourne he does not try to avoid fighting, he joins the army. While a new recruit he saves the colonel’s daughter from guerillas who are trying to hijack a shipment of weapons, and in true ’80s action movie fashion this gets him labeled as a troublemaker.

It turns out some of the higher ups are involved in the illegal arms trade, getting weapons to some criminal dude who has a private army of ninjas. He even has a ninja training camp where ninjas of all colors (black ninjas, blue ninjas, even yellow ninjas, who I guess would be good at hiding in a banana tree or in a field of dandelions) practice swords, flipping, climbing, and running between spiked punching bags. They have a giant, maybe ten or fifteen foot tall diagram of the human skeleton, maybe in case they have to fight a giant some day.

At the evil mansion where this training takes place there is also a Japanese gardener who looks kind of like Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. It is heavily hinted and later revealed that this is actually the guy who trained Joe. This is kind of cool because it’s a nod to the original ninjas (O.N.s) who were the shogun’s gardeners so nobody knew they were the security. While he gardens he overhears all the criminal plots and uses his inside knowledge to help Joe “fulfill his destiny” of putting on a ninja costume and fighting the bad guys.

This is from our friends Golan and Globus, and the director is Sam Firstenberg who also did NINJA II & III. It’s a full-on ’80s ninja movie with stars, daggers and smoke bombs, but they combine it with the Rambo era military movies. Joe actually spends most of the movie in uniform and although he does use his ninja skills, he also rides motorcycles and shit like that that was not necessarily used in the protection of the shogun, in my opinion.

One funny part in the movie is when an asshole named Jackson (Steve James, Kung Fu Joe from I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA) starts bullying Joe, calling him “karate boy” and challenging him to fight. Of course Joe ends up tossing the guy all over the place, but as soon as he whoops his ass he decides Joe is all right, and for the rest of the movie they’re best friends. Even at the end when Joe’s in his ninja costume Jackson shows up with a headband like Rambo, driving around in a jeep firing a mounted machine gun. Remember, back then we always liked that kind of shit to be in movies.

Another favorite scene is when Joe meets up with the Gandhi gardener and starts to remember his past, there is a training montage where he’s a little kid learning to shoot arrows, use a bamboo sword and fire blow darts. You don’t see little kid training montages too often. His origins are left mysterious, at least in this chapter, because the guy just found him as a baby. So either he was an abandoned orphan or the stork brought him. Later, he and the old man were “separated by the explosion.” It shows somebody detonating some TNT, possibly for construction purposes, and somehow this caused the Japanese guy to not see li’l American Ninja for years. It’s a good reminder to parents that they should always tell their kids a meeting place to go to in case of an explosion.

One reason why Dudikoff works in the movie is because his character almost seems like Robert Patrick in TERMINATOR 2. He just has a cold, blank stare and he barely talks. He doesn’t remember who he is but he has the ninja instinct, so he’s kind of a heartless killing machine. He has alot of good moves and old fashioned stunts like hanging onto the bottom of a moving truck. It’s actually kind of disappointing when he finally puts on the ninja costume, because now only his eyes are showing and he might as well be Franco Nero. I liked him better when he just looked like a soldier but he would hide around the corner in a ninja pose or would spiderman to the ceiling above the entrance to his jail cell and then run out when the guard opens the door.

One thing that would make this movie more entertaining would be if they got excited about the title and tried to work a bunch of patriotic shit in there. I would like if American Ninja was the Captain America of Ninjas, and had stars and stripes on his costume. Or at least there should be a part where he does some ninja shit in front of an American flag. Actually, there is a trailer on the DVD where he does that, even though it’s not in the movie. But at that time the movie was called AMERICAN WARRIOR. In the movie he actually is referred to as “the American ninja” at one point, which is good. Always good to have the title in the dialogue.

They do have some good silly stuff in the climax, too. The main evil ninja keeps escalating his ninja tricks, he even has a four-barreled ninja gun built onto his knuckles. At one point he shoots fire balls from his hand, which looks like ninja magic but I’m gonna assume it’s sleight of hand. You figure that’s as far as it could go but then in one part he actually fires a laser! It blows up a potted plant and then he doesn’t use it again. I guess it is one of those laser guns that has to charge for an hour between each shot. I hate those.

Most of all, what AMERICAN NINJA reminds us is that core American principle that we are a land of immigrants. People can come from anywhere and become American. Even if you were raised under the Bushido code in Japan before the explosion, you can come here, and you will be an American, and America will combine with the power of Bushido. We certainly have problems with xenophobia and what not right now but what America is truly about is this melting pot idea, we need to accept ideas from all different cultures and use what we like. That was Bruce Lee’s idea too, that’s why he could come from China and go to school in Seattle and become an American (I still think him and Jimi shoulda been on the Washington State quarter instead of a damn fish). So whether you are bringing your food or your philosophy or your music or your deadly art of stealth and assassination, you are bringing what you love and it becomes America. God bless AMERICAN NINJA.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Friday, July 6th, 2007 at 11:27 pm and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews, Sport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

33 Responses to “American Ninja”

  1. Cool review. I just recently saw American Ninja for the first time, and I really enjoyed it. I also watched American Ninja 2 and I liked it almost as much as the first. It has a lighter tone and its set during a tropical vacation for the american Ninja Dudikoff. It had a cool, almost universal soldier-esque genetic-superninja solider angle to it. I recommend it if you liked the first one.

  2. Bryan, you’re absolutely right. American Ninja 1 and 2 are both very rad. Dudikoff is such a weird hero, I mean sure he looks the part and does relatively convincing karate moves, but when he opens his mouth he sounds like Mike Tyson or something. Dudikoff’s sidekick, Steve James, is who really made the movies for me, at least as far as actors go.

    But the best thing about the American Ninja movies isn’t any actors, it’s the ridiculous atmosphere, premises and fights.

    The first big battle in part 1, where we first see the ninjas, was the shit. We have super-loud punch/kick noises, trucks slowly rolling over for no apparent reason, unnecessary diving, our hero throwing a tire iron and other tools at ninjas and I think he caught an arrow out of the air at some point. The crazy fighting scenes throughout the A. Ninja series are outstanding.

    Other touches like the color-coded ninja factories are really fun also.

  3. I watched this yesterday for the first time and I kinda fell in love with it and its sincere but goofy 80s Cannon Films badassness. Glad to see that there is a review for it. But I just finished part 2 and damn, I hope you review this one at some point too. It’s just an all around weirder and more entertaining movie.

  4. AMERICAN NINJA 2. is superior in every way.

  5. AMERICAN NINJA must be in the air. I will have a major AMERICAN NINJA related series in the near future. It won’t be quite what you expect though.

  6. We will expect the unexpected!

  7. Well, you know what they say: “Spring is the time of the American Ninja kicking ass”.

    And a new Vern series is always a welcome thing.

  8. Are there any German ninjas about, CJ? I don’t know if you’ve seen them, but there are som Norwegin and Swedish ninjas lurking in the bushes.

  9. Never heard of German Ninjas, but maybe they are just so good at Ninja stuff, that nobody knows that they exist.

  10. But there are swedish ninjas. Just look at THE NINJA MISSION.

  11. The Original Paul

    March 26th, 2016 at 4:53 am

    I bought the original but haven’t watched it yet. Maybe it’s time to give the Dudikoff a go.

    I’m always careful of what I say about the ninja, because there could be five hundred of them in my room right now watching me type, and how would I know? They’re ninja! I do not take the name of ninja in vein, lest I be struck down by a shuriiken to the neck. Now you may scoff at this. You may say: “Paul, you’re insane. You’ve never even seen a ninja. Why bother about them?” Well let me tell you, friends, the basic fact is that there may or may not be at least one ninja watching me right now. Now I’m not an idiot. Since there are two possibilities (at least one ninja, or no ninja), this means that there is a 50% chance that at least one ninja is lurking back there, shuriikens poised, ready to cut my head off if I say or do something he doesn’t like. Why take the risk? I choose to live my life as though the ninja are always watching… because they just might be.

    (Also I should point out here that I’ve now been up for about 34hrs straight without sleep. How much this influences what I’m writing right now is up to you guys. I may be a little too tired to call it.)

  12. CJ I must warn you that if you make it to AMERICAN NINJA 3 it could seem jarring. To me it was a disappointment back when it first dropped. Specifically because Dudikoff was replaced with David Bradley. However I enjoyed it for Steve James’ awesomeness just like many a Cannon film and I also appreciate it more now for having one of the most hilarious end credit tracks I’ve ever heard (The Cobra Strikes).

    AMERICAN NINJA 4 is like the HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME or STAR TREK: GENERATIONS of the AMERICAN NINJA saga in that the previous franchise star teams up on screen with his successor. Like Shatner and Lambert you have Dudikofd receiving top billing even though I remember him barely being in the thing like….Shatner and Lambert. I recall it being pretty dull for the most part like ENDGAME and GENERATIONS and it didn’t even have Steve James around anymore to liven things up a bit.

    No comment on AMERICAN NINJA 5 since it’s the only one I never bothered with. I do remember reading that even though it stars David Bradley it’s not even as his character from 3 and 4 anyway so I don’t really sweat missing out on that one too much.

  13. And of course we have KOMMANDØR TREHOLT OG NINJA TROPPEN, or NORWEGIAN NINJA as it’s called everywhere else.

    DER SOMMER DES SAMURAI from ’86 has some ninjas in it, hasn’t it?

  14. “No comment on AMERICAN NINJA 5 since it’s the only one I never bothered with. I do remember reading that even though it stars David Bradley it’s not even as his character from 3 and 4 anyway so I don’t really sweat missing out on that one too much.”

    yeah, when they don´t bother with the much beloved characters which makes AMERICA NINJA so special, why should anyone want to watch another ninja movie with different and less beloved characters? They really blew it.

  15. Broddie, AMERICAN NINJA 4 has a Mad Max type warrior who looks and sounds like one of the Weather Girls and paedophile hizbolla ninjas with nukes…how can that be boring?

  16. American Ninjas are the best type of non Japanese ninjas. That is a fact. :)

    Also, Hard Target review before major Vern series unless it is a part of said series. Thanks.

  17. Broddie, after the unexpected awesomness of the first two AMERICAN NINJA movies, I already suspected that the rest of the series might not be that good. But since only the first two were available on one of my streaming services, I will have to stop for a while after part 2 anyway.

    Pegsman, damn, I’ve never heard of that movie before, but apparently there is at least one Ninja in it. Although he is most likely not German.There might be a good chance of any German Ninjas in one of those crazy ACTION CONCEPT TV shows, like DER CLOWN or LASKO – DIE FAUST GOTTES.

  18. Shoot I know you’re just taking the piss and generally I agree that something about ninjas is worth watching alone just based off the fact that it’s about ninjas. However I hold the first 2 movies in such high esteem that watching the AMERICAN NINJA name get branded on to something that is essentially THE NINJA KID (it even had Pat Morita) would’ve probably given me a stomach ache.

    Besides I doubt they had anybody as wickedly sleazy as Martin Kove in THE KARATE KID or Thomas Ian Griffith’s Terry Silver from THE KARATE KID PART III.

    Pegsman admittedly it’s been over 20 years since I last saw it. I just remember being really let down and enjoying the other Ninja movies I watched that year (TMNT II and 3 NINJAS) which was unexpected. Especially since Joe was back in the game after taking down bionic ninjas. I really thought it was gonna be ULTIMATE AMERICAN NINJA pretty much but it was just “eh”.

    This thread has inspired me to see if I find a 4 disc collection of the first 4 available for purchase. Clearly I probably should revisit 4 since you made it sound more awesome than I recall it being. Which isn’t much recollection at all except I remember it being very similar to KICKBOXER 4: THE AGGRESSOR.

  19. Also gonna track down NORWEIGAN NINJA. That sounds a title to something worth my time.

  20. Great theme song, too.

    Norwegian Ninja (Cosmic Disco Version) Music Video

    Music video from Norwegian Ninja / Kommandør Treholt & Ninjatroppen Norway's first ever Ninja feature film! The true story of how Commander Arne Treholt and ...

  21. The Original Paul

    March 26th, 2016 at 11:17 am

    Ok… that trailer / music video looks absolutely freaking awesome… by which I mean it looks like the kind of film that has the best highlight reel ever, but is completely unwatchable if you actually try and sit through it. (Think MERCENARIES FOR JUSTICE.) Can anybody confirm that this thing might be worth looking for as an entertaining film, rather than just an entertaining piece of marketing?

    Can I also say that that still image from the link – with Scandinavian Ned Beatty undergoing some kind of horrible trauma at the hands of the Jolly Green Giant – is simultaneously one of the funniest and most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen.

  22. I think maybe this guy’s opinion might be relevant to this discussion:

    Norwegian Ninja - Vern's Reviews on the Films of Cinema

    I forget who it was that put this on my radar a while back when it was a big deal in Norway, but they were right, this is an interesting movie. NORWEGIAN NINJA is hard to describe. You'd kind of need to see it for yourself to understand. So I'll try to explain it... #ninjas #norway #whiteninjas

  23. Also, I can say from personal experience that the movie is pretty great. It’s not what you think at all.

  24. How I ever missed that review is beyond me. That theme is quite inspiring in all it’s funky glory. Like something out of a Sega Genesis game. It’s definitely superior in every way to the theme from AMERICAN NINJA 3 (THE COBRA STRIKES). Thanks on both counts Mr. M.

  25. I think I wrote a little essay at the time of who Arne Treholt is, but if anyone needs a reminder just ask.

  26. AMERICAN NINJA 3 popped up on TV last night and I wouldn’t call it bad. Weaker than part 2, but still full of the glorious Golan/Globus Saturday Morning Live Action Cartoon goofyness, that made the first two so enjoyable.

  27. Can we get…what? Some fanfic, a funny little short film or faux trailer, a Fox series, something, anything…wherein Bruce and Jimi team-up to kung fu/El Kabong some motherfuckers?

  28. I’ve wanted to do something like that for years, it would be called PURPLE DRAGON and Jim and Bruce would both come back to Seattle and team up, maybe to stop a serial killer. But the timeline doesn’t quite work out for it to be Ted Bundy.

  29. Ancient Romans

    May 17th, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    I totally support this, except for the fact that the title ‘Purple Dragon’ makes me picture an alternate version of The Last Dragon starring Prince (with Morris Day and Jerome as Sho’nuff and his main henchman).

  30. I just want to say a HUGE thank you to Vern for releasing the Hard Target review before he did started with the latest series of movie reviews. He really does listen to the fans.

  31. After re-visiting the glorious NINJA trilogy and then AMERICAN NINJA. I surprised myself how dull I found AMERICAN NINJA is compared to the Kosugi vehicles. Part two is more enjoyable with a real goofy villain scheme ( switching research for an almost complete cure for cancer to cloning the worst ninjas in history )and the calypso music making the experience way more fun.

  32. I revisited all the AMERICAN NINJA movies last year, and I must say that the main question I have is; If you produce/smuggle dope, why have an enormous ninja army in red, yellow and blue outfits?

  33. The color coordinated ninjas informs us of rank. Clearly black ninjas are the Generals while yellow and red are the disposable grunts.

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