Tuesday, October 13, 2015

American Ninja

One of Cannon’s most successful action films made a B-movie star of Michael Dudikoff and spawned a franchise. Dudikoff, who had bounced around Hollywood for several years without ever distinguishing himself (he’s one of Tom Hanks’ buddies in BACHELOR PARTY), stars in AMERICAN NINJA as Joe Armstrong, an amnesiac in the United States Army and stationed in the Philippines (where the film was shot). He rescues Patricia (FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER victim Judie Aronson) from an army of ninja kidnappers, which angers the Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita) in the employ of gunrunner Ortega (Don Stewart).

Director Sam Firstenberg cut his action chops on REVENGE OF THE NINJA and NINJA III: THE DOMINATION and teams up with stunt coordinator Steve Lambert and fight coordinator Mike Stone to create a steady stream of exciting chases, fights, and shootouts. With a nine-week shooting schedule and a decent stream of funds coming from Cannon, Firstenberg crafts an old-fashioned martial arts thriller that eschews the more lurid aspects of exploitation movies (there’s barely a drop of blood, despite a massive body count) to focus on clear-cut good-versus-evil tropes.

While AMERICAN NINJA certainly gave Dudikoff a big break, it also propelled the charismatic Steve James to a bigger profile. Cast as Joe Armstrong’s rival and eventual sidekick Curtis Jackson, James blends actual martial arts skills, a sense of humor, and a strong screen presence to create a heroic persona that, unfortunately, Hollywood never took advantage of. James played sidekick again to Dudikoff in AVENGING FORCE and AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION, as well as AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT opposite David Bradley, but deserved to star in bigger pictures.

Written by the credited Paul De Mielche as a Chuck Norris vehicle (Norris decided to make INVASION U.S.A. instead), AMERICAN NINJA was almost released as AMERICAN WARRIOR (the trailer bears this title) before wiser heads prevailed. Four sequels followed with Dudikoff starring in the first and making a cameo in the third opposite Bradley.

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