e-mail:Smokey X. Digger
1985, Dir. Sam Firstenberg
I was 2 years old when Ronald Reagan took office, 10 years old when he left. My clearest memory of Ron was watching that fateful morning when he woke up, pushed the wrong button and blew up the world. What? That was a music video? Genesis ... oh, ok.
Trying to put a schlocky ‘80s action movie in any kind of political or social subtext is like crediting the last few lines of a Godzilla movie with being the driving force behind the creation of the film (“Maybe Godzilla’s mad at mankind for treating the world like shit.”). The message may appear to be there, but what it usually manifests itself in is a reviewer putting more thought into the film than the filmmakers ever did. Which isn’t a bad thing; movies are made to be analyzed, dissected, and discussed (except for Pearl Harbor). Like any art form, each individual receptor takes from the viewing experience what he or she will, making it a unique, yet universal, experience.
That all being said, on to American Ninja and it’s political subtext. To be brief, American relations with the east were rocky in the ‘80s. Japanese products were steadily encroaching on our markets; Ron retaliates with a 100% tariff on American exports to Japan. China of course, was full of red stinking Communist dogs (If this seems broad, I learned all I know about American politics in the ‘80s from the comic strip Bloom County). So, what better way to throw it all back in their faces than to have the most ancient, sacred forms of martial arts mastered by an American soldier? It’s a basic message that’s not too hard to grasp, one need only look at the cover art: the American soldier confidently brandishing a sword while a submissive ninja takes a defensive stance. But don’t think I’m crediting American Ninja with being a cleverly subtle bit of propaganda. It’s nowhere near good enough for that.
Maybe it seemed fresh in 1985, but in 2001 American Ninja is thoroughly predictable. Every character seems to have his or her stereotype stamped clearly on his or her forehead and events are telegraphed well before they happen. For example, in the opening sequence as a convoy is about to escort the Colonel’s daughter Patricia out of the base, the Colonel warns the head officer about “how important she is to me”. If you translate the B movie jargon into layman’s english, that means “She’s going to be kidnapped. Be careful”. When she is saved by Joe, the titular ninja, you know that she’s the “awkward love interest”, that status being solidified by the brewing conflict between Joe and her father. When said convoy is attacked by ninjas and the head ninja carefully observes Joe’s skills, you know there’ll be a showdown.
So there’s good guys and bad guys. Michael Dudikoff, the least exciting martial artist I’ve ever seen, plays Joe. His repetoir seems to consist of punching, kicking, and jumping and rolling more than that guy in The Green Slime. He’s also an amnesiac who can’t remember how he became a ninja master. Steve James as Jackson is the “super-militant African American comrade” (otherwise known as the Carl Weathers Prototype) who stands a 90% chance of dying valiantly; and the higher-up military officers are so clearly evil that we’re just counting down the minutes until they turn heel. The actor who plays the Colonel’s name is Guich Koock, I just thought that deserved mention. The real evil bad guy’s name is Ortega, even though he occasionally lapses into French and continually speaks in a heavy French accent. His henchman is the unintelligible Black Star Ninja.
So what do good guys and bad guys do? They plot, double-cross, ambush, discover each other’s plots, and kick each other’s asses. And that’s exactly what happens. All that would make for an interesting movie, but here it’s hampered by half-assed acting and shoddy writing. As previously noted, every major plot shift is telegraphed well in advance, from the attempted kidnapping to the evil double-crosses of the Colonel. When Ortega’s gardener is introduced as an old Japanese soldier who didn’t know that the war was over until they dragged him out of the jungle, a big flashing neon sign appears over the guy’s head that says “JOE’S SENSEI”. Well, not really, but it might as well.
No actor throughout the entire film registers an emotional reaction more extreme than “huh?” or “oh well”, except for Judie Aronson whose acting is execrable and deserves no further mention. Perhaps a combination of these two strikes can be seen in how little anyone cares about death. When four soldiers are killed during the opening battle with the ninjas, it’s all blamed on Joe’s bravado. His fellow soldiers are understandably miffed at him, and anti-Joe sentiment comes to a head when Jackson challenges Joe to a fight. After he gets tossed around for a while, Jackson extends the handshake of male bonding to Joe and all is forgiven. So much for dead buddies. At the conclusion of the film, after Joe’s sensei dies in his arms, Joe pretty much tosses him to the side and keeps fighting. It’s only the result of typical B movie problems, but it gives the film a really weird feeling.
IN CLOSING: Everything in American Ninja happens pretty much as it’s supposed to. It’s a very cookie cutter script, from the ostracism of the hero right down to the bad guy trying to get to his helicopter with a briefcase full of money, a gun, and a female hostage. The fight sequences aren’t all that wild and don’t provide an adequate excuse for watching this movie, unless you have a thing about watching real awful things happen to male genitalia. Some bad martial arts flicks at least have a charismatic star to keep you interested, but Dudikoff doesn’t cut it. American Ninja is just a totally underwhelming film.