Long before the FAST AND FURIOUS series did it (better), the AMERICAN NINJA series pulled the power move of doing a part 3 with a new lead, only to combine the casts in a later sequel. AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION starts with part 3’s Sean Davidson (David Bradley) and later brings back part 1-2’s Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff). The bad news is this is the first one not to include the character of Curtis Jackson (Steve James), so it almost feels like less of a real sequel than part 3.
The dilemma: American servicemen abducted overseas again. Ninja related again. This time it’s worse, because the crazy British Colonel Mulgrew (James Booth, writer of part 2 and AVENGING FORCE and this one) and terrorist Sheik Maksood (Ron Smezarack) plan to burn the four captured Delta Force commandos at the stake and nuke New York City with a suitcase bomb if they aren’t paid $50 million. (It seems like either threat would be enough though, right?) I know that sounds like a boring useless couple of loser villains with nothing to contribute, so fortunately they are also training an army of super ninjas, one of whom wears a silver helmet and mirror eye patch. So they check out.
The brass call in Sean and his best friend Carl (Dwayne Alexandre I think?) while Carl is getting married. Like, he has to leave the actual altar while they’re saying the vows. Didn’t something like this happen in NAVY SEALS? And shouldn’t it really preoccupy him for the whole rest of the movie? It’s never mentioned again.
Sean wants to know why they don’t send Joe for this job. It’s because Joe quit. He’s in the Peace Corps now. Sean also thinks Carl isn’t ready to be in the field. Obviously this is gonna lead to something all dramatical and shit, like he gets killed, never to return to his fiancee/wife, and Sean blames the system and decides to quit. Or he proves himself through uncommon valor and Sean has to admit he’s ready, or he sacrifices himself bravely so he has proven himself but also is never to return to his fiancee/wife… something like that? Surely they have something big like this planned, otherwise they wouldn’t bring it up.
Nope. Never becomes relevant that anyone questioned his readiness.
Their local asset is a child taxi driver named Pango (Jody Abrahams). He’s just like Part 2’s Toto and even has similar taste in hats. He takes them to a bar where they get threatened and prove themselves by beating everybody up and then leaning casually on the bar again like it’s no big deal.
They end up chased by the authorities and hide among dead bodies with the help of a Peace Corps doctor named Sarah (Robin Stille, SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA). Eventually Sean, Carl and Sarah all get captured and strung up in a dark storage room.
(Earlier there was a part where Pango was being threatened and the guy touched him in a sexually harassing sort of way. In this scene a similar thing happens to Sarah. These fuckin bad guys need to learn about personal bubbles.)
Remember in part 2 some guys went in and got captured by ninjas, so Joe went in and the ninjas tried to capture him, and he beat them all up on the beach? I think that’s what they were going for here, sending in Sean, but instead of doing the beating them up part he also gets captured. So the only thing they can do to make up for this fiasco is go back to the original American Ninja and beg him to come in and be the American Ninja again.
A couple things part 3 never mentioned about Sean:
1) He’s in Delta Force
2) He’s even in the military at all
3) He’s good friends with Joe. Maybe in between 3 and 4 Curtis introduced the two?
Joe is in RAMBO III style peaceful self imposed exile, teaching children about the environment:
But they convince him to go save Sean’s dumb ass. Joe goes and meets with Pango, and instead of going to talk to the bar toughs he goes to some kind of pre-post-apocalyptic tribe who live in an abandoned mine or something with lots of studded leather and scavenged cars and stuff. Just like Sean at the bar or himself with Curtis in part 1 he has a fight (one against three) and proves himself, so the leader laughs and decides they’re friends now.
I mean, these guys are pretty impressive though. Much better backup than his previous army grunts or beach bums.
So Joe provides the traditional American Ninja rescue, but with these marauders coming in for the late assist instead of the U.S. Army. It’s pretty cool to see a bunch of punks rolling up Lord Humungus style on some ninjas. That’s two great tastes that taste great together.
And it’s a nice twist on the series formula because usually it’s the U.S. invading a foreign country. This time it’s a rebellion. Joe sneaks into a fancy party at the mansion where the hostages are hidden by disguising himself as a priest. When one of the villains catches him sneaking into the building Joe barely touches his neck and knocks him unconscious. When the guy wakes up he’s mad at the priest who he thinks did this to him. (Not real quick, this one.)
Dudikoff and Bradley don’t actually have much screen time together, they’re pretty much in separate movies most of the time, but they do get to fight each other. Somebody must’ve felt the fans would want to see that, but it doesn’t technically settle which American Ninja would win in a fight (a hot topic of debate all around the world, no doubt) because “Sean” turns out to be fighting not due to mind control but due to being another dude wearing a realistic Sean mask. Still, it’s funny that Dudikoff gets to win, because he’s not a veteran martial artist like Bradley, and his moves are generally slower and stiffer than in the earlier installments. I’ve read that this caused some tension between them on set, too, even though they had been friends before either of them were American Ninjas.
But Dudikoff is still pretty cool in this. I really like that he goes back to Part 1’s nearly mute characterization. At the end, when Sarah asks, “Why did that ninja untie you?” Sean says, “Oh, that’s a friend of mine. He’s not much for words, but he comes through in the end.”
Like Antoine and Christine in BED AND BOARD, the two American Ninjas fight and then ultimately get back together.
In my opinion this one feels a little more slapdash than parts 1-3, but I like the whole “sequel guy fails, original guy saves his ass” structure, and the Road Warrior guys, of course. More importantly it’s got some pretty good ninja shit in it. There’s a part where Joe looks out a car window and sees a ninja standing on a rock in the distance. Then all the sudden the ninja has disappeared and then he drops onto the hood of the car. It’s like he’s the monster in JEEPERS CREEPERS or something.
Sean uses a bow, a staff, a choke wire that comes out of his watch, and nunchakas. Joe uses ninja mountain climbing claws and catches an arrow in his mouth. Before the final duel with the mirrored-eyepatch-ninja he changes into a yellow MORTAL KOMBAT type outfit, and then changes into jeans and t-shirt before leaving. I suppose they must have a locker room in there.
In my opinion the main appeal of Cannon ninja movies is the intrusion of dudes in full ninja gear into the modern world, and the extravagant operations of ninja armies. So I can’t front on the rotating helicopter shots of this red, yellow and blue ninja squad training on the edge of a cliff. That goes a long way.
In fact, I just have to give straight up kudos to this ninja army. This is a very handsome ninja army. They have that cliff, they have the flags, they have the most different colors of any ninja army I’ve seen, and they know how to position themselves symmetrically to look intimidating. If you have any kind of interest in evil ninja armies whatsoever you can’t help but admire their work.
And I’m kinda into this red-masked henchman on the right here. Look at this dude!
I suspect he was late for work and he hadn’t had a chance to do laundry and his ninja suit smelled like ass so he threw together the closest thing he could come up with from what he had in his closet. It works for him, though, it’s kinda creepy.
Kely McClung plays the lead ninja as well as one of the Delta Force guys in the opening. He’s a martial artist who was discovered by fight choreographer Mike Stone (see my part 2 review for details on Stone’s interesting background) after winning the International Full Contact Stickfighting Championships. He later became a writer-director and tried to get Dudikoff to star in his horror movie ALTERED, as he explains in a good interview on an AMERICAN NINJA blog.
Part 3’s South African director Cedric Sundstrom returned, having done the Oliver Reed movie THE REVENGER in between.
In the tradition of blood hunts and confrontations, I’m not sure where the annihilation is in this movie. Obviously they come up with the titles and sell the movies, then come up with the ninja logos, then eventually coming around to giving any thought to what maybe the movie could be about when they write it eventually. But it’s weird that that they never, ever match the subtitle to the movie. I respect consistency, though.
This is the AMERICAN NINJA that takes us into the ’90s, so they go all out on the fonts for the title. They have the stencils to represent ’80s action but then they got some different unexpected design elements like some kind of crayon scribbles behind the subtitle. And the interesting thing is, remember when the Nicolas Winding Refn movie DRIVE came out, it had kind of a retro thing and people were really into the pink title font? And I remember it reminded me and others of PURPLE RAIN. But it turns out actually it was based on AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION. Now we know the truth.
THE ANNIHILATION’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t have very strong parallels to BED & BOARD. I mean, at the beginning of that Antoine is in a totally different work situation, and same with Sean here. But there’s nothing about fatherhood, or affairs or breakups or even chopping through a wall.
BED & BOARD does have the relationship with Kyoko, an illustration of white people’s fascination with aspects of Japan’s culture, another example of which is the AMERICAN NINJA series itself. It’s too bad AMERICAN NINJA 4 doesn’t have a model city in it. That would’ve been pretty easy to fit in.
I believe this movie was considered a flop, and I think to this day it’s not as widely respected as the other fine AMERICAN NINJA installments, but I feel I have presented enough evidence here to prove that it is worth your time.
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.