American Ninja / American Ninja 2: The Confrontation Blu-rays Review: The Dawn of Dudikoff

There are a number of things that made the 1980s the 1980s. New Wave music. Big hair. Video game consoles. Outrageous fashions. Odd expressions. Even the film industry pertaining to that particular decade offered up a variety of awesome flicks from every genre possible, from westerns to comedies, and from horror to action. But it is the latter category to wit we owe an eternal debt of gratitude, thanks largely in part to an amazing slew of low-budget wonders from Golan-Globus Productions, and their now-infamous distribution company, the Cannon Group. The men behind this outfit, Yorum Globus and Menahem Golan, knew darn well how to make movies dirt cheap and turn a profit, and they cranked out one title after another throughout the entire decade.

But when they weren’t busy cranking out mediocre cult classics starring Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, or breakdancers, the Golan-Globus Production team were busy defining an entire subgenre of action film: the ninja movie. More specifically, ninja movies starring white guys (“white-fu,” as I tend to ‒ fittingly, anachronistically ‒ call it). After breaking ground in 1981 with Enter the Ninja (starring European actor Franco Nero) Golan-Globus created filmdom’s greatest unofficial trilogy ‒ wherein neither title was related to the other in any way ‒ following with Sho Kosugi’s Revenge of the Ninja in 1983, and concluding with Ninja III: The Domination, starring Breakin’ franchise dancer/starlet Lucinda Dickey, in 1984.

Anyone who has ever seen even a fleeting example of the Cannon Group moviemaking mold knows what to expect: films that are waning in the common sense and acting departments, but which thrive via fast-paced (and usually fairly clumsy) action sequences that occur every other scene. The most interesting aspect of Cannon franchises, however, is watching them “decline” into something that is even “absurd” by their reasonably low standards; something that happened with the final Ninja film, Ninja III: The Domination, wherein the main character was possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja. Worse still was the audience reaction: apparently, nobody wanted to see a breakdancing woman starring in an American action film.

So, by reverting back to the old formula a bit, Golan and Globus revamped the ninja movie movement. Retaining director Sam Firstenberg (who had helmed both Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination), Cannon took another ninja script lying around ‒ one that had previously failed to materialize because Chuck Norris refused to do it (you really have to stop and think about how good your script is when even Chuck Norris doesn’t want to do it). All they needed was a new start to launch, which they found in the guise of a James Dean/Steve McQueen hybrid named Michael Dudikoff, who had only known playing bit parts in a couple of big productions, and more regular, slightly meatier roles in cheaper ones at that point.

Interestingly, however, their new action icon had no martial arts experience at all. Now, while hiring a mostly unknown actor with no prior martial arts experience to step into the big, ass-kicking shoes of Mr. Norris may seem like insanity to you, it was all part of the Golan-Globus plan to make more money. And of course, it worked (by ’80s B-grade action movie standards, that is) ‒ which is probably the most insane part of the whole damn thing. Michael Dudikoff soon became an international action star (look, I cannot stress this enough: it was the ’80s, OK?) thanks in part to Chuck Norris refusing to appear in a movie where his face would have been hidden underneath a ninja mask (although, ironically enough, Dudikoff rarely dons any sort of face-concealing apparel).

Sam Firstenberg’s American Ninja was made at the zenith of the ninja craze, during which time countless imitations were spewing forth from the bowels of cinematic hell left and right. In Hong Kong, the infamous Godfrey Ho was mashing abandoned or unreleased movies together along with new footage of Richard Harrison and Stuart Smith dressed in the most ridiculous ninja outfits ever created (since it was the ’80s, I can only assume cocaine was involved). To the southeast, Filipino z-grade auteur Teddy Page was busy making one hilarious ‘Namsploitation action flick after another, usually starring the likes of Rom Kristoff (or Richard Harrison; tragically, Kristoff and Dudikoff never appeared in a movie together), and a plethora of exploding straw huts.

Coincidentally, American Ninja was also filmed in the Philippines (it was cheap), and even includes a couple of American expatriates who popped up in many a Filipino-made flick, such as the great Jim Gaines and the late Nick Nicholson. And, in keeping up with the great Jim Gaines tradition, he dies ‒ not via an exploding straw hut, tragically, but rather by an army of deadly ninja known as the Black Star Order, who ambush a standard US Army convoy in order at the beginning of the film, permitting headstrong amnesiac loner (!) Pvt. Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff), a chance to use his martial arts skills killed whilst trying to be a hero and protect the annoying California girl-like daughter (Judie Aronson) of base commander Colonel Hickcock (Guich Koock).

His unwarranted heroics resulting in the death of four other army men (Jim Gaines, we hardly knew ye) immediately cause Joe to be shunned by his peers. That is until tough Cpl. Curtis Jackson (the late Steve James, bitch) ‒ also well-versed in the martial arts ‒ decides he really isn’t that bad of a guy and befriends him. From thereon in, the unstoppable ass-kicking shenanigans of Armstrong and Jackson work together in order to determine just what the heck is supposed to be going on in this movie, unveiling an illegal arms dealing conspiracy and numerous moments of unintentional hilarity in the process, including the extremely memorable death scene of co-star John LaMotta (Alf), whose jeep explodes when hitting a tree at a whopping 5 MPH.

Essentially, American Ninja plays off like both an origin film and at least one sequel combined into one fast-paced thrill ride. The first quarter of the movie alone has Dudikoff absconding into the jungle with co-star Judie Aronson, where he has to keep her alive and safe from the Black Star ninja team lurking in the foliage. This could have been its own film, but it is instead a swift introduction to a story where the plot is even more secret than the evil ninja sect out to kill everyone. From there, Dudikoff’s Armstrong ‒ who is only in the army by the order of a judge; it was that or prison) struggles with his peers before being accepted as one of them, before forming an alliance with Steve James and defeating the bad guys in as ’80s of fashion as possible.

Two years later, after he appeared in yet another movie rejected by Chuck Norris ‒ Avenging Force (and it is here that we have to pause briefly to reflect on the unbelievable fact Chuck Norris actually dismissed several scripts Cannon sent him!) ‒ Michael Dudikoff was back, this time with more acting lessons under his belt, for another row with international evil in American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (by the way, folks, the Cannon Group is almost single-handedly to credit/blame for the outlandish usage of subtitles in movie sequels these days, just so you know). And when you’re up against a bad guy like former Hollywood B-movie pretty boy Gary Conway (Land of the Giants, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein), you know you’re in for serious trouble.

This time around, Dudikoff and Steve James ‒ both now US Army Ranger Sergeants for services rendered in the previous outing ‒ find themselves in the Caribbean (actually South Africa, where it is also cheap to film!), attempting to figure out who is responsible behind the disappearances of several very unconvincing US Marines. Joining them for this venture into extreme silliness is TV actor Larry Poindexter, who becomes the prototype third-wheel character Joe Pesci would later bring to the Lethal Weapon series (which debuted just three months before American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, incidentally), whilst Dudikoff and James themselves become the Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed of mid 1980s low-budget action movies.

Behind the whole sordid mess is the aforementioned Mr. Conway, who plays a character called “The Lion.” Looking very much how you’d imagine the illegitimate offspring of Aaron Eckhart and Charlton Heston would look (were one to have such a bedsheet-ruining thought, naturally), The Lion works out of a giant, plush lair complete with its own auditorium for showcasing The Lion’s greatest creation: genetically engineered, disposable (and quite clumsy) ninja warriors! His character responsible for the onscreen mess, the real Gary Conway is quite literally the man to blame for the film’s absurdity: he wrote the story and screenplay for this flick, with the latter burden shared with another actor everyone sort of forgot about, James Booth (the overacting villain of another ninja class-ick, Pray for Death).

Whereas the first film had at least one pinky toe firmly planted on the ground, Conway’s storyline has little to no interest in cinematic gravity, which makes one wonder if the former Hollywood heartthrob hadn’t originally conceived and penned the unbelievable tale as a martial arts exploitation flick in the ’70s. It’s even silly by Cannon sequel standards. (On a side note, I really can’t help but wonder if The Lion’s secret lair wasn’t an abandoned MGM Grand Hotel. The Lion’s personalized logo looks an awful lot like someone’s eighth-grader took the chain’s old recognizable emblem ‒ which is everywhere, just like an old MGM Grand Hotel ‒ and used every crayon and marker at their disposal to make it look like it was something else; which it surely is!)

All jesting aside (honestly, how can anyone truly help it?), Sam Firstenberg’s American Ninja 2: The Confrontation is just as outrageous and fun as its predecessor. The film takes itself about as seriously as Cannon’s greatest contribution to arts and humanities, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and is just as enjoyable. The late Steve James is particularly fun to watch here; both he and the crew discovered he was a big name in South Africa when they were on-location, and, in an effort to really cash-in on his international stardom, Firstenberg permits James to ham it up even more ‒ to the point where he makes Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s pec-flexing in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island almost seem poised and dignified by comparison.

Released time and time again on VHS, Betamax, LaserDisc, and DVD all over the world, American Ninja and American Ninja 2: The Confrontation make a triumphant return to home video ‒ this time making their American Blu-ray debut ‒ thanks to Olive Films. Olive Films have also brought forth the next two “official” entries in the series to Blu-ray: American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt starring David Bradley and Steve James (once again written by Gary Conway), and American Ninja 4: The Annihilation starring Michael Dudikoff and David Bradley (which co-starred and was written by James Booth). (A fifth flick, American Ninja V, starred David Bradley again ‒ this time as a different character ‒ alongside The Karate Kid‘s out-of-work Pat Morita, is not considered a legitimate entry to the Cannon canon.)

Along with their U.S. Blu-ray unveilings, Olive Films have also given all four films new Standard-Definition DVD re-releases as well. Quality-wise, both features sport 1080p transfers which appear to be from the same master 88 Films used for the 2015 UK Blu-ray releases. On the whole, they are light years above even the best DVD releases (most of which were usually issued in open matte presentations), although the brightness level on American Ninja 2: The Confrontation is too high (if anyone has ever seen a South African DVD release of a Teddy Page film, you’ll probably have an idea of what I mean). The DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack on each title is about as good as you can get, and optional English (SDH) subtitles are included for both films.

But the real meat and potatoes here (as opposed to the delicious junk food quality of the titles themselves) are the all-new special features, which the devoted folks at Olive Films put together. The UK Blu-rays featured an audio commentary with director Sam Firstenberg and the respective stunt coordinator of each film, Olive Films went the extra mile to record entirely new commentaries with Mr. Firstenberg and cult/B-movie documentarian Elijah Drenner. Mr. Firstenberg is also prominently featured in for each disc’s making-of featurette (produced by Mr. Drenner), which also include reminiscing from select cast and crew for their respective films. The awesome, very Cannon-esque trailers wrap up these individual releases, both of which come highly recommended.

Strap on your ninja headband and neon pink sweat bands, switch off the ColecoVision, kick back, and enjoy. It’s totally tubular, Dudikoff!

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Luigi Bastardo

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