Starring: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Yes, it’s raining ninjas, as the first four films in Cannon’s all-action (sort of) franchise are collected together in this Blu-ray box set. Ready for some black pyjamas and ninja magic?
American Ninja. This is where it all started. A US army base in the Philippines is having its shipments stolen. The culprit, a slimy French arms dealer named Ortega who has set up his own ninja camp – and very camp it is too, with people in colour-coded outfits doing synchronized somersaults. Who can stand against them? Why, surly new recruit Private Joe Armstrong, that’s who! Now, he might seem like a pouting James Dean wannabe, but as a youngster, Joe was marooned on an island where he received training in the ways of the ninja. Handy!
Padded out as it is with male-bonding banter (Joe learning values and teamwork from his army buddies) and a romantic subplot (Joe falling for the colonel’s whiny daughter), this first entry is a bit low-powered plot-wise, and the action isn’t exactly fast and furious – Michael Dudikoff had a background in dance and mime, and the result is more jazz hands than fists of fury. Still, there are compensations. Sam Firstenerg directs vigorously, there are some solid stunts involving motorbikes and trucks, and best of all, there’s Steve James as Joe’s best bud Corporal Jackson. As for Dudikoff himself, some critics have made fun of his perpetually stony expression, but there’s actually something quite compelling about his eerie stillness and thousand-mile stare. 6/10
American Ninja 2: The Confrontation. This time round, Joe and Jackson are assigned to a US embassy in the Caribbean to investigate the disappearance of some American marines, and an orgy of evidence points to a nearby island where some baddies are trying to cook up an army of bionic super ninjas. Summed up in a sentence, it sounds corny, but it’s actually a distinct improvement on the first film, full of high spirits, humorous touches and attractive local colour (with Cape Town standing in for the Caribbean). Well-scripted early scenes sketch in the holiday atmosphere at the embassy, with the men taking advantage of their easy assignment to surf and sunbathe. The action scenes are more ambitious, and Dudikoff looks impressively buff in a wetsuit. It still has its rough edges, but this is a very likeable film, one of the best in the action adventure mould that Cannon made. 7/10
With the franchise having really hit its stride with AN2, you’d have thought Cannon would have upped the budget for the third instalment. But no, they gave us the penny-pinching American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt instead. Steve James is back, but there’s a change of director and star, with a new American ninja, David Bradley, taking time out from a karate tournament to avenge his murdered father and save the world from terrorists. This threequel is so cheaply made, it makes the previous two look positively luxe by comparison, but on the plus side, Bradley is a dab hand (or should that be foot?) at a high kick, and there’s an underwater martial arts fight, which is something you don’t see everyday. 4/10
American Ninja 4: The Annihilation. It had to happen! Yes, the two American ninjas team up! … Eventually. Actually, to begin with, it looks like this fourth entry in the franchise is going to go the same way as the third, with Bradley straining his double denim to take on an evil cartel consisting of cowardly Saudis, a slimy, sadistic Brit and something called the Japanese Red Faction Army. But when Bradley gets ignominiously chained up in the evil Brit’s dungeon, Joe Armstrong puts aside his important job teaching third world children to spell the word environment (like this: “EN-VI-RO-MENT”! Uh, are you sure, Joe?) to come to the rescue. At this point, the whole film perks up considerably, with some Mad Max-style outlaws in jalopies entering the fray as well as, in what is no doubt an homage to the first film in the franchise, a whole host of colour-coded ninjas. 6/10
American Ninja: A little soft and grainy at times, but the brightly lit exteriors (and there are a lot of them) come up crisply, skin tones are subtle and varied, and the bougainvillea and other tropical flora pop vividly. 7/10
AN2: A slight improvement on AN1. Touches of grain in some of the interiors, but the sun, sea and rocks blaze nicely; the sequences with Joe and Jackson on the speedboat and at the governor’s mansion are all very sharp and attractive. A nice-looking film well-served. 7/10
AN3 & AN4: A notch down. A scattering of grain and occasional artefacts, although once again the exteriors come up OK. 6/10
Accompanying American Ninja is a nicely made feature-length documentary about the franchise, mainly focussing on the first movie, and with contributions from Firstenberg, Dudikoff and from the Black Star Ninja himself, the very cool Tadashi Yamashita. We learn that Chuck Norris was originally slated for the role, and that they shot in the Philippines with a local crew who has just worked on Apocalypse Now. Dudikoff reveals that he was suffering from malaria during the shoot and especially his big fight with Steve James. ~ A nice, chatty audio commentary to AN2 by the director and stunt coordinator. They talk about the South African locations, the various stuntmen they employed, the success of AN2 and the chances that Cannon made for the sequels, and point out a scene in the captain’s office where you can clearly see it’s not Dudikoff but a double. 7/10