When you’re a kid, you like to make up movies, usually starring all of the action figures you’ve played with, and featuring all of the stuff you find cool. It’s very rare, if ever, that such movies are made. Sure, you get comic book movies that feature storylines you’ve loved since you were a kid, or movies based on a line of toys where the right actor is playing the right role, but nobody does a “kitchen sink” type of movie.
Except for American Ninja.
Produced by Golan-Globus for Cannon Films (the same company that gave us classics like Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, and Ninja III: The Domination), American Ninja came out in 1985, right around the time that toys like G.I. Joe were getting very popular among boys. I was about eight at the time and didn’t see it in the theater but wound up renting the film on video and watching it with friends. It was rated R and may have been the very first R-rated movie I saw (or that was Commando). But even though it was a pretty violent action movie, watching it again after 25 years, I can see that the movie was clearly geared towards those kids with permissive parents.
Take, for instance, the opening scene. After some witty banter between a toady-looking Army douche named Charlie and some other G.I.s wherein the star, Michael Dudikoff, stands against a jeep playing with a switchblade and saying absolutely nothing, a convoy gets going. Among the precious cargo that this convoy is hauling is Patricia (Judy Aronson), the daughter of a very influential colonel. Sure enough, the convoy is hijacked by the go-to villians in the 1980s–Latin American guerillas. They rough up the troops but Dudikoff decides he’s not going to take their shit and starts throwing some karate moves about, including throwing a screwdriver so it lands in someone’s carteroid artery, taking someone out with a tire iron, and karate kicking people left and right.
Patricia, who apparently is your typical “Army brat” then decides to commandeer the car that she’s in and promptly drives it into the jungle, where it crashes. This is around the time that a shitload of ninjas show up, led by a super-ninja who has a black star on his face (and actually is known as “Black Star Ninja”, the most deadly ninja in the world).
Seriously, read that back again. I can imagine the people who created this movie sitting around a table with this scene and someone saying, “I know what would make this awesome: NINJAS! And the leader should have a black star!”
Anyway, shit goes down and Dudikoff saves Patricia from certain ninja death (or at least kidnapping), all the while saying nothing for the first fifteen minutes of the film. This isn’t a particularly bad thing, by the way, because it just adds to the “mystery” that is Dudikoff’s character, and it allows the film’s star to show off his James Dean good looks without ruining the moment by actually talking. And Dudikoff isn’t the greatest actor, to be honest. In fact, aside from American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (yeah, add a subtitle to make the sequel sound important, guys!) the only other movie I’ve seen him in is Bachelor Party, which stars Adrian Zmed, Tawny Kitaen, and some random guy named Tom Hanks.
So he and Patricia dive into a nearby river or something to avoid the ninjas and then they strip down so they can let their clothes dry in the jungle (instead of escaping back to civilization and, you know, safety) and while Patricia is hiding her nakedness behind a large leaf, she asks Dudikoff what his name is and he replies “Joe.” Yes, he’s a G.I. and his name is Joe. If they tried to make this movie today with this exact script, it would wind up on Spike or SyFy and Joel McHale would destroy it. But when I was watching this movie as a little kid, this was friggin’ awesome.
This doesn’t go over well with the rest of the G.I.s on the base because a few guys were killed and they blame him. Joe says very little and pisses everyone off, up until he meets Jackson (Steve James) who is familiar with ninjas, to figure out who the mysterious assassins were and who they were working for, and to smack Joe around. He tries to do that, too, talking like Apollo Creed and getting into a street fight that has coreography that lands on the bad side of the WWF. But the fact that Joe kicks his ass makes Joe “all right” and suddenly everyone on base loves and trusts the guy despite the fact that they were just holding him responsible for the deaths of their friends.
Meanwhile, Black Star Ninja is shown to be working for some shady businessman named Ortega, a poor man’s Mr. Rourke, who is negotiating an arms deal, and clearly Joe is a thorn in their side. Black Star has already said that Joe “possess great skills.” Yeah, not “possesses” great skills, but “possess great skills” in a heavy Asian accent (although considering the actor playing Black Star Ninja is Asian, English may not have been his first language; and considering how poofy Black Star Ninja’s hair is, he might not have had a sense of style either … then again, this was the 1980s). All the while, Ortega is showing off his estate/compound/lair to the people he’s selling these arms to, and on the grounds is a ninja training facility.
Actually, it’s more like Ninja Camp. Yes, Ninja Camp.
There are black ninjas! Red ninjas! Green ninjas! Blue ninjas! Orange ninjas! Yellow ninjas! And they’re doing really cool ninja moves and using really cool ninja weapons and climbing all over ninja obstacle courses that make the one that I used to do in elementary school gym class really weak. They’re all training to … hijack things, I guess. There’s never really much of a reason for Ortega’s keeping a small army of ninjas (ninjae?) around because it’s not like he’s Dan Hedaya in Commando, who keeps a small army around because he wants to use that small army to successfully pull off a coup. No, Ortega’s just got Black Star Ninja and a lot of other ninjas, and in case you didn’t know how powerful Black Star Ninja is, he participates in an exhibition where a group of red ninjas attacks him and he takes them all out.
So the repeated hijacking of arms trucks is the reason for the entire plot, and we get some hints that Joe is secretly an “American Ninja” (which is what Black Star Ninja says, oh, about 100 times in the movie), except that he doesn’t know it because he had his memory wiped out when he was younger and only gets flashes of being trained in the art of the ninja by some bald Japanese guy … who happens to be Ortega’s gardener. Oh, and he’s got it for Patricia and Patricia has it for him and they’re in looooooooove. But they never get naked in some long, sweaty sex scene, something that’s pretty rare for an R-rated 1980s action movie, although boobies weren’t my priority at eight or nine years old so it was pretty cool. Although, quite frankly, Judy Aronson is actually attractive, even for the 1980s and transcends the blown-out, feathered hair and Eighties clothes, kind of in the same way that Can’t Buy Me Love‘s Amanda Peterson is still smokin’ more than 20 years later.
Anyway, if you’re still watching at this point, you can see where the film is going. Just about everyone in charge of the Army base is in on this arms deal, but when the colonel confronts Ortega and backs out of the deal, he has Black Star Ninja kidnap Patricia. So it’s up to Joe to go to the compound and rescue her by stowing away on a truck, only to get spotted. He escapes, though, and runs into his old master, who sits down with him and apparently jogs his memory instantaneously and convinces him that the fact that the woman he loves is being held hostage and might get killed is secondary to performing some ancient Japanese tea ceremony in preparation for his showdown with Black Star Ninja, who has “taken a dark path.”
You know, because ninjitsu=The Force. Shit, this movie has everything!
With the shipment of guns–which Ortega, who is rockin’ some awesome gold chains at this point, has asked his buyers to pay COD–having arrived, Joe emerges from his master’s house all ninja-ed up and ready to kick some serious ass. He scuttles the deal and just as he’s about to be outnumbered by a group of black ninjas (the other colors of the rainbow were apparently not ready to fight him), his master comes out of nowhere all ninja-ed up as well and they fight until Ortega brings out Patricia and slaps her around and Black Star winds up killing the master, who takes a knife to protect Joe. And Joe gets this look on his face like, “Okay, I’m done fucking around.”
Oh, and so is this movie, because who shows up on cue but Jackson, looking like Roadblock, with a huge gun mounted on the back of a jeep, wearing the bullets, and screaming at the top of his lungs. In fact, all of the army guys are screaming “AHHHHHHH!” and shooting everything in sight. And while Jackson’s men kill all of Ortega’s goons, Jackson has a fist fight against some huge guy, Joe faces off against Black Star Ninja at Ninja Camp. Oh, and Ortega and the guys buying arms just stand there, not realizing that they can take advantage of this chaos by either: a) sneaking all of the arms out of the compound and successfully completing the deal; or b) simply getting away.
Black Star Ninja and Joe chase one another, throwing every weapon possible around–at one point, Black Star Ninja shoots a freaking laser from his wrist–and wind up where they started, fighting in a pool in front of the chopper that is going to take Ortega, his boys, and Patricia off of the compound. He kills Black Star Ninja and then jumps onto the helicopter as it’s taking off, finally rescuing Patricia before Jackson takes out the chopper with a surface-to-air missle. And the final shot of the movie is not Joe and Patricia kissing or people celebrating, but Joe staring blankly off into the distance, obviously accepting his role as … THE AMERICAN NINJA!!!
I think that even at a young age I understood that this was an R-rated movie for young kids. The best characters in G.I. Joe were Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, who were ninja-based characters and if you were reading the comic books in the time, Snake Eyes’s best friend was Stalker, a black Vietnam vet who Jackson obviously is playing. So that this began my friends’ and my obssession with ninjas makes total sense: I went as a ninja for Halloween the year after I saw this, had a plastic ninja weapons set, and wound up renting just about any other ninja movie I could get my hands on. Because ninjas? Were awesome.
That probably lasted for a year or so, as I shifted from ninjas to Schwarzenegger-like military heroes to professional wrestlers to superheroes in my popular culture fixation. But it’s amazing to see that even so many years later, the movie is still at least entertaining, if not a bit formulaic, and would make an excellent cornerstone for a Golan-Globus ’80s action marathon.