Thursday, July 2, 2015

American Ninja (1985)

Mysterious private Joe T. Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) has just barely arrived at an US Army base on the Philippines, and already gets into a whole load of trouble. First, he uses his mysterious (he’s a childhood amnesiac, of course) ninjitsu training to save Patricia (Judie Aronson), the daughter of the base’s commander, and perhaps the most insipid creature on Earth, from being kidnapped by the ninjas supporting a mysterious group of rebels, leading to everyone around, including said commanding officer, being very angry with him in a way every twelve year old will understand. Then more ninjas try to kill Joe T., a romance develops between Patricia and our hero, and after that, even more ninjas try to kill him, his co-soldier Corporal Jackson (Steve James) needs to be kicked by him until they become fast friends, and yet still more ninjas attempt the killing. Why, it’s as if nefarious things were going on in the Philippines.

I have to admit, I consciously left out the whole angle of what the bad guys in Sam Firstenberg’s American Ninja are all about here during the synopsis, and even that one of them is called The Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita), but the film itself seems so disinterested in giving its bad guys a plan that’s vaguely sensible even for action movie plans, I’m just finishing what the film starts. Sure, there’s also the thing where Joe finds out why he has ninja super powers, but that is dramatically so disconnected from the rest of the plot it’s not all that interesting to learn that John Fujioka taught him.

Of course – and fortunately, seeing as how little the film cares about these other things – this is one of the core texts of not only the not so short infatuation of Western filmmakers with ninjas – preferably Caucasian ones, unless they are called Sho Kosugi – but also of Golan, Globus and Cannon Films, and as such it just isn’t about giving a damn about its plot. If there’s some interest to find in the plot of a Cannon production, that’s more of a happy accident. What it is obviously all about is the action (yes, I’m a genius, why do you ask, dear reader?), and Firstenberg’s film delivers quite a lot of that here. Well, the fights are rather slow when you’ve seen comparable Asian films from decades earlier, a comparison that is rather inevitable when you encounter a film containing as many ninjas as this one does, the choreography is not particularly inspired, and while Michael Dudikoff isn’t as improbable a ninja as Franco Nero, nor is wearing a headband declaring him to be a ninja, he’s also not as convincing as one would like.

Dudikoff isn’t much of an actor here, either, mumbling his dialogue, emoting awkwardly, and more often than not making the impression he’s not at all happy being in front of the camera. Even though he never really became a great on-screen charismatic, it’s rather astonishing when you see him here and then compare with his efforts in 1986’s Dudikoff/James/Firstenberg film Avenging Force, where he has very quickly gotten a lot more present and willing. That film is actually superior to American Ninja in pretty much every aspect, now that I think about it – the action is tighter and more interesting, the acting better, Steve James shirtlesser, the villains more interesting and lively, and there’s even something of a plot.

But I digress, quite badly even, particularly since, having said all these mean and nasty things about basically every aspect of American Ninja, I also have to note that I still had a blast watching it, because all the awkwardness and the cheese on display don’t feel like signs of incompetence at all but rather as if this were a much scrappier production than it is, of pretty insane enthusiasm, which is quite a feat for a film so clearly cashing in on various fads. True or not, competent or not, the way the film throws ninjas and slightly wonky action sequences at its audience feels a lot like kids playing with the stuff they feel is awesome, and there’s an excitement here surrounding even the most stupid moments that makes the film very much worth watching. Even if a lot about American Ninja is wrong, it just feels so right to the twelve year old inside me (and that’s its target audience anyhow).

No comments: