American Ninja (1985) – Awfully Good

With Marvel releasing their first Asian superhero movie with SHANG CHI, we look back at another martial arts master that crossed cultural boundaries…

American Ninja (1985)

Director: Sam Firstenberg
Stars: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Tadashi Yamashita



Joe (Michael Dudikoff!) is an American soldier with amnesia who can only remember one thing: how to kick ass using the deadly martial arts of the ninja. Which is convenient since his Army base is located next door to a black market arms dealer who has his own army of evil ninjas.


AMERICAN NINJA is a classic B-movie for many reasons. Mainly because it comes from the legendary Cannon Films and producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the men behind such prestigious works of cinematic art like Chuck Norris’ DELTA FORCE, neon dance epic BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, and of course the radioactive SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. Cannon specialized in a certain kind of movie in the 1980s—ones that were almost their own genre—awash in swagger and devoid of subtlety (and oftentimes a realistic budget). Having endured back-to-back success with Sho Kosugi’s NINJA trilogy (including recent Awfully Good Movies entry, NINJA III: THE DOMINATION), they decided to replicate that winning formula for an audience that wanted even less Asian people in their ninja movies.  

So picture a jingoistic, B-grade action opus about a white man appropriating eastern culture to fight for his country and you get AMERICAN NINJA, the movie whose poster boasted the amazing tagline: “The deadliest art of the Orient is now in the hands of an American.” Finally!

 I mean, in the broadest sense, yes, this is technically a ninja and he is an American

Originally titled AMERICAN WARRIOR (I like to think this is where American Ninja Warrior got its name), AMERICAN NINJA was first pitched as a starring vehicle for studio staple Chuck Norris, who immediately turned it down, refusing to cover up his famous face for the final act of the movie. So who could possibly fill Chuck’s glorious beard? The producers looked at over 400 actors and, much like the recently reviewed MORTAL KOMBAT, they made the head-scratching decision of hiring someone to play the title character with zero martial arts experience. Allegedly, Golan/Globus went with Michael Dudikoff solely for his “James Dean look” and decided that they could just fudge the rest. Dudikoff, to his credit, does the best he can given the circumstances: the rushed training, the flimsy script, and having to carry a movie you know you’re not really qualified for. He’s doing the best he can, guys.

Honestly though, having Dudikoff in the lead role is part of its charm. Sure, it would’ve been nice to have an AMERICAN NINJA that was remotely believable as, you know, a ninja. But it adds just the right level of Cannon goofiness and makes this an entertaining flick that stands out from the plethora of similar 80s action vehicles. And at the end of the day, even after 35+ years, it remains pretty much exactly what you want in this kind of a movie—cheap, cheesy and just a little tone-deaf, and something that prioritizes silly action over all else.  

Apparently there is a wrong way to wish upon a star.

Dudikoff stars as Joe, who is first introduced in this film as a recently recruited, no-nonsense soldier that refuses to play hacky sack with his fellow troops.  (AMERICAN NINJA DOESN’T HAVE TIME FOR YOUR CHILDISH GAMES!) While driving a transport vehicle on a routine mission, his platoon is attacked by ninjas and the daughter of the Colonel is taken hostage. While everyone else immediately surrenders, our hero Joe opts to fight back, using his elite martial arts skills and all the automotive tools at his disposal to rescue and, of course, immediately fall in love with the girl. 

This leaves everyone else wondering: who the hell is this literal G.I. Joe with the kung fu grip? It turns out Joe was found in an island jungle as a teenager with no memory of who he was, how he got there, or why he seems to be a master of karate (and friendship for everyone). He was brought back to the U.S., where he continually fell on the wrong side of the law, until a judge gave him a choice…go to jail or enlist in the Army.

This works out great because the island Joe was stationed at also happens to be the home base for international black market smuggler Victor Ortega, who has been stealing weapons from the military to sell to criminals. (At least I’m pretty sure that’s his plan; the actor’s accent is so thick I thought my copy of the movie was missing subtitles for his first few scenes.)  If you’re wondering how someone could possibly steal from the Army, Ortega has his own personal clan of lethal ninjas at his disposal, led by the enigmatic Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita, who you might recognize from Awfully Good favorite GYMKATA). Luckily, the U.S. Armed Forces now have their own white guy with similar skills. 

I wonder why they call him the Black Star Ninja? He must really love Mos Def and Talib Kweli.

While Joe is busy taking down the bad guys, he runs into an old Japanese man in the jungle, who—in the creepiest way possible—tells him that their karmas are connected and they belong together. While this sounds like the world’s worst pickup line, the guy is actually Joe’s former mentor and the man who trained him to be a ninja. He tells Joe that it’s time to remember everything, which apparently is how amnesia works! In a flashback, we see how he found Joe on a remote island as a baby and raised him like a son. We also disturbingly see the man and child wearing no pants together as he details how he “conditioned” the young boy’s body. Eventually, a random, unexplained explosion separated the two of them and Joe was taken to the United States.

So if I’m correctly understanding the course of events here, Joe was somehow stranded on an island in the Pacific as an infant (his parents are never really addressed) and trained to be a ninja. He goes to the U.S., joins the military, and is shipped off to an Army base on another island. The same island where a crime boss lives with his own private ninja army AND his former father figure also now works as a gardener for said crime lord.  Yeah, that makes sense.

Take a shot if this makes you uncomfortable.

AMERICAN NINJA’s biggest sin, and ironically it’s most enjoyably silly element, is the ludicrous treatment of the title profession. A general rule says that ninjas are always cool. Except in this movie, where they’re portrayed in just completely ridiculous fashion. When we first visit Ortega’s ninja compound, it’s clearly just a dressed-up playground for children. We see the ninjas—wearing bright purple, red, yellow and orange outfits—training on swing sets, climbing on monkey bars, and jumping on tiny trampolines. Hell, the final showdown between American Ninja and Black Star Ninja partially involves the two of them chasing each other through what I can only describe as an outdoor obstacle course.  

As you can guess, this leads to mostly bloodless action that is more unintentionally funny than exciting. Everything feels amateurish —punches and kicks clearly don’t connect, stunt guys fall down before even being shot, and none of the fight scenes are particularly impressive. Even things like car chases are laughable, often hysterically slow with the vehicles just gently tapping each other or in one case, a car lightly hits a tree and promptly explodes.

And while not a film particularly grounded in realism, AMERICAN NINJA does take a giant nose dive into fantasy territory at the end. For one, Joe’s mentor comes to his aid during the final fight and straight up teleports to save him. And not just in a “ninjas are fast and seem to appear out of nowhere” way. You actually see his physical form fade away and reappear in a completely different location in a puff of smoke, something that is never explained or even reacted to by anyone else onscreen. And if that’s not enough, Black Star Ninja, who has been portrayed simply as a highly skilled martial artist, puts on a pair of magic ninja gloves that can fire bullets like a gun, breathe fire like a flame thrower and then, in a moment that elicited a genuine spit take from me during my first viewing, shoot a laser like a Star Wars blaster. It comes out of nowhere and is my favorite part of this movie. 

Peter Pan’s shadow turned in to a real dick when he was hangry.

Much like magic gloves, the secret weapon of this movie, and the one thing that still holds up really well, is Steve James as Joe’s friend and fellow soldier Curtis Jackson. In many ways, Jackson is the real hero of AMERICAN NINJA—the levelheaded, likeable protagonist who has presence and personality to spare. He also has all the charisma and action chops that Dudikoff is lacking. (Granted, they write Joe to be emotionless and distant, but James still steamrolls him in every scene.) Jackson also strolls in at the end like Rambo, starring pretty much in his own separate movie. He destroys hordes of bad guys with machine guns, ball-punching fists, and real action star machismo—all while Dudikoff is off playing pretend ninja. (Sorry, Michael.)

Luckily, James joined Dudikoff one more time for AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION, probably the only of the sequels remotely worth checking out. The less said about AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION the better…

Steve James American Ninja
Tell me you wouldn’t rather watch a movie about this guy…





Take a shot or drink every time:

  • Someone says the name of the movie
  • A stuntman falls without being hit or shot
  • Someone attacks from above
  • Someone breaks an arrow in half
  • You can’t understand what the bad guy is saying
  • The title character is sitting on the toilet

Double shot if:

  • Someone gets hit in the balls

Thanks to Shawn, Jon, and Mishi for suggesting this week’s movie!

Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email and give him an excuse to drink.


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