Directed by Sam Firstenberg and starring Michael Dudikoff, Steve James (“I’m Gonna Git You Sucka”) and veteran ’80s ninja movie star Tadashi Yamashita, “American Ninja” was on such a heavy rotation during my childhood that I wore out several copies of the film on VHS. While it spawned at least three sequels, the original holds a place in my heart that no amount of time (or higher-quality films) can diminish.
Dudikoff plays Joe, an American soldier with a mysterious past, forced to use his training in the ancient art of ninjutsu to thwart a sinister plot involving the U.S. military and an army of evil ninja. I know, you’re probably sold already on how awesome this film must be — but wait, it gets better.
James, who’s probably best known for playing Kung-Fu Joe in “Sucka” as well as supporting roles in various ’80s action films, plays a fellow soldier who befriends Joe after learning (the hard way) not to mess with a ninja. Yamashita, on the other hand, plays “Black Star Ninja”— the vicious leader of the evil ninja army who’s not afraid to use decidedly un-ninja-like weapons (like lasers!) to get the job done.
Like so many ’80s action movies, the acting in “American Ninja” is far from stellar, the dialogue is unintentionally laughable and the special effects aren’t very, well… special. It’s probably worth noting, however, that the film was a low-budget, independently financed film when it arrived in the U.S., so it had a lot going against it from the start — even by ’80s standards.
What it did have in its favor, however, are ninja — and lots of ’em. Along with being packed full of high-flying, shuriken-tossing ninja action, “American Ninja” arrived at the height of ninja movie madness and had the somewhat unique distinction of featuring an American actor in the lead role.
However, while Dudikoff wasn’t exactly known for his martial arts skills (and it shows in some of the fight scenes), “American Ninja” also featured a pair of actors with legitimate action-movie cred in James and Yamashita, The former gets to flex his karate chops in a few cool scenes, including a grand finale that features James going all one-man-army on the evil ninja training camp.
In the villain role, Yamashita continued to be the face of bad-ass ninja with his performance in “American Ninja” — playing pretty much the same character (and with just as few lines) as he did in various other classic ’80s karate movies like “Gymkata” and “The Octagon.” Of course, if you’re familiar with either of the aforementioned films, there’s a good chance you’ve already been exposed to the wonderful world of this ninja named Joe.
Sure, the movie has lost a bit of its magic as I’ve grown to value things like quality of acting and cinematography over “sweet-ass ninja battles,” but it’s hard to find an action movie made during that period that hasn’t lost a little of its shine over the years. What “American Ninja” does continue to bring to the table is harmless fun that reminds me of a time when a pair of black pajamas and homemade nunchaku were all it took to keep me entertained for hours.
Oh, and it has ninja whipping shurikens all over the place… which is always cool no matter what age you are.