Michael Dudikoff is perhaps the most 80s of all the action stars. Despite a fairly steady career up to 2000 or so, the only films anyone remembers, at all, are the “American Ninja” series; although 1998’s “Freedom Strike”, co-starring – I can’t believe I’m typing this – Tone Loc, sounds pretty awesome too. Anyway, Dudikoff is probably feeling a little aggrieved he never got a call from the “Expendables” people, and after taking a decade away from acting he’s been making a mini-comeback over the last few years.
But that’s all a long way away to the world of 1985 and “American Ninja”. Dudikoff (how many times was he called “The Dude”, do you think? I’ll go with 10 million) is Private Joe Armstrong, a guy who was discovered unconscious on an island in the Pacific, with amnesia. He bounced around reform schools for a few years before being offered prison or the army, and he picked the army. Sent to the Philippines, he scowls his way round the base before a hijack attempt on a convoy he’s driving in forces him to use his super bad-ass martial arts skills to rescue the Colonel’s daughter.
This was made during, well, probably a few years after, the American fascination with all things martial arts and Oriental. Joe has to fight one of the other guys on the base, Jackson, because he’s a loose cannon who gets people killed, and he does this by not throwing a punch, just using Jackson’s weight against him in a nice basic kung-fu display. The weird reverence the rest of the guys then have for him is way over the top for what he can actually do, but he’s a pretty good fighter all the same.
If you want something which is thick with good old 80s action cheesiness, then this is the film for you. There’s a plan to steal some stuff from the base which Joe discovers, but who else is in on it? Who can he trust? Why don’t people trust him when, wherever he goes, he kills a few evil ninjas? Was there a reason other than “we need some stuff to crash through” why they had all those fruit stalls on the dock? And how awesome was the scene where the private ninja army was training?
Given that Dudikoff had been acting for a long time before this movie, one would have expected him to be better at it. He stays silent (even when speaking would benefit him) for great periods of the film, and when he does speak he’s got quite a light high-ish-pitched speaking voice, which doesn’t go with his character at all. I mean, it’s not like the rest of the cast is RSC material or anything, but he stands out as weirdly bad. I discover that, far from being a martial artist who converted to acting, he’s a model who converted to acting, his pout at the beginning sort of bearing this out, and then took up martial arts later.
If you think about the ninjas in this film for a second, it gets a bit odd. They wear black to go unseen at night, but if you’re in the jungle in daylight then wearing black is a terrible idea. It’s not a uniform! Chief bad guy ninja has a laser, which is a fantastic weapon but not traditionally part of the ninja’s arsenal; oh, and the explanation for how Joe gets his ninja skills when it’s forbidden on pain of death to teach them to a Westerner is so obvious they might as well have hung a sign round the guy’s neck. There’s a whole thing about ninja magic, and light / dark side nonsense too.
Alright, it’s not very good. Dudikoff looks way out of his depth, the plot is cheesy, the bad guy’s accent is so bad as to almost be a deliberate joke, and the fights scenes aren’t anything to write home about. But…even though this is a thumbs down movie, if you’re in the right frame of mind you might enjoy this. Cannon Films, run by Golan and Globus, specialised in this thing and it all runs smoothly and fairly quickly. Wow, that sounds like damning with faint praise, eh? Picture that DVD cover – “Runs smoothly and fairly quickly” – Mark, ISCFC.
Rating: thumbs down