Among the more amusing anecdotes about the legendary schlocketeers at Cannon Films: They separated scripts into piles based on the Chuck they felt most suitable — Norris or Bronson. (Imagine the two-buttons meme panic that faced the reader forced to choose on Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear adaptation.)
The story goes that American Ninja fell in the Norris stack and Cannon anticipated he would play Joe Armstrong, a U.S. Army private whose ninjitsu skills pit him against a corrupt military, secrets of his past and the evil Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita of the Norris-starring The Octagon). However, Norris allegedly passed out of disinterest in covering his face to do so.
Hilarious, if true, that Norris balked at what amounts to maybe 10 minutes of director Sam Firstenberg’s 1985 film — C-grade Cannon fodder if there ever was, which is saying something. Frankly, the movie would improve itself by masking the empty-shell visage of its star, Michael Dudikoff, for the duration. Or not feeling as though it were edited by someone with one hand on the tools and the other on a sandwich.
Two years later, American Ninja 2: The Confrontation would improve in every way — most notably that the genetically mutated super-ninjas in cryo-sleep all look like dudes recruited at a quarter-beer night. The sport-o version of Anthony Edwards also plays a base commander. In all seriousness, returning co-star Steve James (a delightful presence) can actually handle the combat choreography asked of him; honestly, his climactic undercard fight is far cooler than the main event. As for Dudikoff … well, he can fight better than last time. (In other words, don’t expect a “Hey, Dudikoff!” series on Midwest Film Journal any time soon.)
Unlike its predecessor, The Confrontation is essentially wall-to-wall action. (Seriously, who thought anyone would care so much about Joe’s childhood or who taught him these still-sorta-blocky-white-dude moves that half of American Ninja is devoted to it?) At least in the sequel, it’s recapped as a previously-on for those eager to jump into an installment worth enjoying as effective garbage.
If you can believe it, there were three more American Ninja films. Dudikoff sat out American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt, replaced by David Bradley (not that one) — a jockstrap Jason Patric as enthused to be here as Patric was to be in Speed 2: Cruise Control. Bradley rode out the remainder, even as Dudikoff returned for American Ninja 4: The Annihilation. Bradley is perhaps a better fighter than Dudikoff but a less impressive hero — although he is in the series’ second-best installment, American Ninja 5. There, Bradley plays a different character … named Joe … who is not Dudikoff’s Joe. Regardless, its Dollar Tree 007 global-science conspiracy and cheesy action-comedy for kids makes it one of the chintziest, chastest and most competent Cannon movies.
The first two installments come to Blu-ray from Kino Lorber — giving new life to titles previously available only from now-defunct boutique label Olive Films. Firstenberg features heavily on a pair of commentary tracks on each disc — two ported over from the Olive Films releases (with filmmaker / editor Elijah Drenner) and two new chats (with stunt coordinator Steven Lambert on American Ninja and stunt coordinator BJ Davis on The Confrontation, respectively). Although Firstenberg left the director’s chair for later installments of the franchise, he still touches on them in his conversation about The Confrontation. Behind-the-scenes featurettes are also revived: A Rumble in the Jungle for American Ninja and An American Ninja in Cape Town for The Confrontation. Trailers are also included on each release.