The funny thing about ’80s fight flicks like American Ninja is that, with the greatest of respect, none of these moves work. I’ve been watching UFC for years now and guess what? All the funny little throws and joint locks that you see in this kind of thing don’t work. Also, you can’t beat up twenty guys in a row by taking them out with one strike each. But hey! This is Hollywood and I’m prepared to always suspend my disbelief.
Besides, Michael Dudikoff (starring as Joe, the titular American Ninja) wouldn’t mind. He got cast on looks alone for this film (which is fair enough, the handsome, smouldering son of a gun) and hadn’t done any martial arts training at all.
The story is that Joe, after losing all of his memory a few years before and having had a few run-ins with the law, ends up enlisting and finds himself on a US army base in the Philippines. They set him up as a quiet loner almost right away with him ignoring polite conversation from his fellow troops before eventually alienating them completely within five minutes of the movie starting.
The military in the area have been having a problem with shipments going missing and when local rebels hijack their convoy, which includes the Colonel’s daughter Patricia, Joe doesn’t take it at all well and starts a fight that sees him rescuing Patricia, who is pissed off because he’s hacked up her fancy shoes (that reminds me, we need to do Romancing The Stone at some point), while four of the army guys get killed by a bunch of ninjas who turn up and start flinging arrows and pointy throwy stars (yes, I know they are called shuriken but pointy throwy stars is better) at everyone.
When Joe gets Patricia back home, her arsehole dad is none-to-impressed and neither are the other troops. After a bit of highschool-style moodiness, the troops do a Diet Full Metal Jacket on Joe by sending in Cpl. Curtis Jackson, their martial arts instructor, to give Joe a whooping. The thing is, Joe’s a badboy ninja and he goes all Steven Seagal on Jackson, avoiding all his attacks and throwing him on the ground repeatedly.
This convinces Jackson that Joe’s alright and the guys all suddenly think he’s one of them. Bit odd. Before long they even help Joe sneak off-base so he can go and have a nice day with Patricia. There’s no sex but they do go to look at some hills and end up at a restaurant where they find one of the sergeants out to dinner with Ortega, a local business man, who also happens to be a big arms dealer.
Ortega’s the guy who hired the evil ninjas and he’s running a big operation. ’80s movies love having a big boss to hate and this guy’s got everything covered. He’s got a business plan, he’s got the army in his pocket, he has loads of armed guards and he’s got NINJAS FOR DAYS. We’re not just talking a few ninjas here. No, he’s got the feared Black Star Ninja, the only ninjitsu sensei outside of Japan, and a school of ninjas which has men running around in coloured ninja suits. With yellow, red, blue and black ninjas running around on obstacle courses, it’s like the best episode of Teletubbies ever.
After Ortega suggests that the Sargeant kills Joe off, Joe is sent to a warehouse. A GOD DAMN NINJA WAREHOUSE. Where he kicks the shit out of a solid dozen or so of the pyjamaed jumpy pricks. He tells Jackson and they go off to let the Colonel know. The Colonel has Joe arrested immediately though. Because the Colonel is in on it! Uh oh!
After the Colonel tries to back out of the huge deal Ortega is setting up, Patricia gets kidnapped which sets up the thrilling finale which is, of course, a massive battle featuring guns, ninjas and rocket launchers. We won’t spoil it here but it’s as entertaining as it is silly and when you see Jackson show up with an ammo belt and a mounted machine gun, it’s maybe the most gloriously ’80s action moment ever.
It’s easy to point and laugh at the silliness of American Ninja but the action is good, the plot is fast (if a little predictable) and Dudikoff gives a great, moody performance. Sure, it is basically Beverley Hills Cop but with army guys (in fact at times it is closer to being Dragnet) and the fights are a tad daft but we remember American Ninja 4 being pretty good and we’re in the mood to get all the way there, and beyond, in order thanks to this fab re-introduction.