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Retro Review: AMERICAN NINJA (1985); AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION (1987); AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT (1989); and AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION (1991)

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AMERICAN NINJA
(US - 1985)

Directed by Sam Firstenberg. Written by Paul De Mielche. Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Judie Aronson, Guich Koock, Tadashi Yamashita, John Fujioka, Don Stewart, John LaMotta, Phil Brock, Berto Spoor, Nick Nicholson, Eric Hahn. (R, 96 mins)

A surprise hit for Cannon at the end of summer and into early fall 1985,  AMERICAN NINJA was originally conceived as a vehicle for Chuck Norris, who allegedly turned it down because he didn't want his face covered by a ninja mask. The title role ended up going to 31-year-old Michael Dudikoff, an actor who had been schlepping for gigs since the late '70s, whether it was small guest spots on DALLAS and HAPPY DAYS or bit parts in TRON and UNCOMMON VALOR. In 1982, he co-starred as Brian Dennehy's son in the short-lived ABC sitcom STAR OF THE FAMILY, and just prior to AMERICAN NINJA, he scored his biggest role to date as one of Tom Hanks' buddies in 1984's BACHELOR PARTY. Dudikoff was developing a persona as a second-string Willie Aames until Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus gave him his career-defining role as American ninja Joe Armstrong. Armstrong begins the first film as a loner misfit and troubled youth who was given a choice to enlist in the Army or go to jail. He chose the Army and while stationed in the Philippines, he ends up running afoul of a black market weapons smuggling operation run by the powerful Victor Ortega (Don Stewart). Ortega's got a ninja army--headed by the nefarious Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita)--to do his dirty work, plus military personnel on his payroll, including the reluctant base commander Col. Hickock (Guich Koock), whose daughter Patricia (Judie Aronson) is rescued during a ninja ambush of a supply convoy. Little does anyone know that orphaned, amnesia-stricken Armstrong was raised by Shinyuki (John Fujioka) and trained in the ways of the ninja.





The film was shot in the Philippines as AMERICAN WARRIOR, with the initial trailer going out under that title until it was changed to AMERICAN NINJA at the last minute. Armstrong wouldn't be the first American ninja in the Cannon universe, as we had the unlikely Franco Nero's Cole in 1981's ENTER THE NINJA, but in the Reagan era of patriotic ass-kickers draping themselves in the American flag (RED DAWN; Stallone in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and ROCKY IV; Chuck Norris in the MISSING IN ACTION films and INVASION U.S.A.), AMERICAN NINJA fit right in with the jingoistic trend. The boyish-looking Dudikoff isn't the most commanding actor, but he's likable enough and you can see him developing a rapport with his nemesis-turned-sidekick Curtis Jackson, played by Steve James. Dudikoff and James (who first gained notice as Robert Ginty's doomed best friend in 1980's THE EXTERMINATOR) would make three films together and the offscreen friendship that developed was apparent in their natural camaraderie onscreen. James' Jackson is sidelined for much of AMERICAN NINJA until it's he who gets to take out Ortega with a rocket launcher. Written by Paul De Mielche (STUNT ROCK) and directed by Cannon's go-to ninja and breakdancing stalwart Sam Firstenberg (REVENGE OF THE NINJA, NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, and BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO), AMERICAN NINJA is as formulaic as 1980s action gets, but it's still entertaining and a fine representation of the Cannon heyday.

Michael Dudikoff and director Sam Firstenberg
during a break in filming AMERICAN NINJA.


AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION
(US - 1987)

Directed by Sam Firstenberg. Written by Gary Conway and James Booth. Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Larry Poindexter, Gary Conway, Jeff Weston, Michelle Botes, Mike Stone, Len Sparrowhawk, Jonathan Pienaar, Bill Curry, Ralph Draper, Elmo Fillis, John Fujioka. (R, 90 mins) 

After the success of AMERICAN NINJA, Cannon had Dudikoff, James, and Firstenberg reunite for 1986's AVENGING FORCE, originally intended for Chuck Norris as a sequel to INVASION U.S.A. Dudikoff played Norris' Matt Hunter role, but there's nothing else specifically linking it to INVASION U.S.A. It functions as a standalone film and it's also one of Cannon's crowning achievements, possibly the best serious action movie they released. The core trio of Dudikoff, James, and Firstenberg reconvened once again for 1987's deliriously entertaining AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION. Where AVENGING FORCE was a straight-faced actioner with a surprising-for-the-time left-wing slant, likely the reason Norris rejected the script (let's just say its chief villain would be a huge Trump supporter), AMERICAN NINJA 2 proudly stands alongside the likes of REVENGE OF THE NINJA and DEATH WISH 3 as the Cannon ethos represented at its most ridiculous. Here, Armstrong (Dudikoff) and Jackson (James) are US Army Rangers sent to a US military base in the Caribbean to investigate the disappearances of several Marines. They've been abducted by flunkies of The Lion (Gary Conway), a megalomaniacal drug lord plotting to create a race of super ninjas. On his Blackbeard Island stronghold, The Lion forces kidnapped Professor Sanborn (Ralph Draper), one of the world's leading cancer researchers, to alter the DNA of the kidnapped Marines to transform them into unkillable warriors in his quest to dominate the global heroin market.






Filmed, like many Cannon projects from this period, in South Africa when working there was strongly discouraged (and Cannon spent a lot of time denying they had a branch in Johannesburg), AMERICAN NINJA 2 marked the franchise's turn toward a Roger Moore-era 007 mentality, as the insane plots of megalomaniacal madmen would be the norm from here on out. There's some pretty daring stuntwork throughout, and now that the characters are established, Firstenberg can concentrate on some elaborate throwdowns every few minutes. James also gets much more to do, and even Dudikoff seems a lot more loose and comfortable as the star than he did in AMERICAN NINJA just two years earlier. Despite not doing nearly as well as its predecessor, AMERICAN NINJA 2 is the pinnacle of the franchise. This is due in large part to Conway, a TV and B-movie vet who had the title role in 1958's I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN and 1977's THE FARMER. Conway also dabbled in screenwriting, and he co-wrote AMERICAN NINJA 2 with British actor/screenwriter James Booth (ZULU, RAGE OF HONOR). Booth would go on to play the villain in 1991's AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION, but both and he and Conway seemed to get the goofy potential of the AMERICAN NINJA films better than anyone at Cannon. Conway the writer gives Conway the actor all the best lines ("American ninja, I presume?") and he has a blast with it. Everyone just seems to be having a fun time in AMERICAN NINJA 2, whether it's Conway's scenery chewing ("Kiss my ass!"); a comedic bar brawl straight out of an old-time western, with Armstrong, Jackson, and new sidekick Charlie (Larry Poindexter) taking on a bunch of roughnecks; Armstrong and Sanborn's headstrong, stubborn daughter Alicia (Michelle Botes) infiltrating The Lion's operation in full ninja garb, blending in and going completely undetected when they tag along on a tour of The Lion's top secret lab; and an infamous moment where Firstenberg did a bad job of hiding that Dudikoff was doubled in a quick shot of Armstrong exiting an office (the star was ill that day and went back to his hotel room after finishing his close-ups). Among Cannon's iconic ninja films, AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION is second only to the immortal REVENGE OF THE NINJA, and a DEATH WISH 3-style cult revival is long overdue. It also features an appearance by the pre-Appetite for Destruction Guns N' Roses song "Move to the City,"during that brief window in time when the band was just about to explode and were still within the Golan-Globus price range.

The infamous "Dudikoff double." 


AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT
(US - 1989)

Written and directed by Cedric Sundstrom. Cast: Steve James, David Bradley, Marjoe Gortner, Michele Chan, Calvin Jung, Yehuda Efroni, Evan J. Klisser, Adrienne Pearce, Grant Preston, Mike Huff. (R, 90 mins)

After a series of costly failures, slashed budgets, and too many dubious deals scrawled on cocktail napkins, Cannon's fortunes were waning by the time AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT bowed on less than 150 screens in February 1989. Though the film was released by Cannon, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus farmed the production of this third entry in the series out to veteran dealmaker Harry Alan Towers. Towers, who produced the Christopher Lee FU MANCHU movies in the '60s and bankrolled the most commercial years of Jess Franco's career, was set up in apartheid-era South Africa during this period. Working in South Africa looked bad in the late '80s, but working actors went were the work was, so jobbing journeymen like Oliver Reed (GOR), Donald Pleasence (TEN LITTLE INDIANS), Herbert Lom (MASTER OF DRAGONARD HILL), Robert Vaughn (RIVER OF DEATH), Jack Palance (OUTLAW OF GOR), Dom DeLuise (GOING BANANAS), Peter Fonda (MERCENARY FIGHTERS), and others acted in a variety of Johannesburg-shot Cannon productions for both Golan-Globus and Towers. Michael Dudikoff decided to move on--it's said he didn't feel right working in South Africa, but he did AMERICAN NINJA 2, PLATOON LEADER and RIVER OF DEATH there for Cannon and.or Towers around this same time--prompting the search for a new American Ninja. 36-year-old David Bradley was hired to play a new character, martial arts champ Sean Davidson, who's teamed up with Joe Armstrong's BFF Curtis Jackson (a returning Steve James) in the post-BLOODSPORT "Karate World Championship," which looks as if it's being held in a gym in the ruins of a condemned high school. Yes, AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT is working with a significantly lower budget that its predecessors, right down to recycling some of AMERICAN NINJA 2's plot. Again, we have a megalomaniacal madman, this time called The Cobra (Marjoe Gortner), and his plan to abduct Sean to turn him into a genetically altered super ninja, which is somehow vital to his big picture goal of germ warfare.






Steve James (1952-1993)
The film borrows so much from AMERICAN NINJA 2 that Gary Conway actually has a story credit, a consolation prize after South African director Cedric Sundstrom rewrote his screenplay. There's also a female kung-fu warrior (Michele Chan) who's a master of disguise, a new sidekick for the bromancing Sean and Jackson in Dex (Evan J. Klisser), and the matter being personal for Sean, as The Cobra's chief lackey General Andreas (badly-dubbed Cannon regular Yehuda Efroni) killed his father when Sean was a child. Sundstrom's direction is undistinguished, and he doesn't bring the kind of flair and enthusiasm that Sam Firstenberg brought to the two previous films and his other NINJA assignments. Dudikoff isn't the world's most gifted actor, but he's Daniel Day-Lewis next to the boring, charisma-deficient Bradley. The biggest mistake the filmmakers made with AMERICAN NINJA 3 was not handing the franchise over to Steve James, an immensely likable actor who should've been the next huge Hollywood action star. Instead, Cannon--and other producers--opted to continue relegating him to perpetual sidekick duty (THE DELTA FORCE, P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE, HERO AND THE TERROR), which was doled out to him once again with AMERICAN NINJA 3 despite his top billing. James, who died far too young in 1993 at just 41, shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, was a rarity: a martial arts expert who was also a trained, schooled actor. A jobbing journeyman since the late '70s, picking up supporting roles and stunt gigs to keep busy (he can be spotted as a gang member in THE WARRIORS), James was a favorite of exploitation director James Glickenhaus (THE EXTERMINATOR, THE SOLDIER, MCBAIN) and also caught the attention of the legendary William Friedkin, who used him in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and his two C.A.T. SQUAD made-for-TV movies. He also got to display his comedic chops as Kung Fu Joe in Keenan Ivory Wayans' blaxploitation spoof I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA. James finally got a couple of leads with two non-Cannon action projects (1989's RIVERBEND and 1990's STREET HUNTER), but he died before he ever had a chance to generate any momentum as a headliner. He gets a lot to do in AMERICAN NINJA 3, howling and shrieking as he kicks asses and snaps necks, but how much better would this thing have been if it was James who became the new face of the franchise instead of the bland Bradley? Between the enjoyable presence of James and the hammy overacting of Gortner, there's some positives to be found with AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT (you'll dig the closing credits tune "The Cobra Strikes"), but it's missing the engaging rapport of the Dudikoff-James duo and it's a big step down from the glorious triumphs of AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION.

"Special appearance by Marjoe Gortner as 'The Cobra'"




AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION
(US - 1991)

Directed by Cedric Sundstrom. Written by David Geeves (James Booth). Cast: Michael Dudikoff, David Bradley, James Booth, Dwayne Alexandre, Ken Gampu, Robin Stille, Franz Dobrowsky, Ron Smerczak, Kely McClung, Jody Abrahams, Ted Le Plat. (R, 100 mins)

Cannon's best days were behind them by 1989. The latest releases by the likes of Charles Bronson (MESSENGER OF DEATH, KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS) and Chuck Norris (BRADDOCK: MISSING IN ACTION III, HERO AND THE TERROR) tanked, and breakout action star Jean-Claude Van Damme was almost single-handedly keeping the company alive with 1988's BLOODSPORT and 1989's CYBORG being their only recent hits. 1990 saw the release of the global punchline LAMBADA, and by 1991, the company was on life support. Menahem Golan acrimoniously departed in 1989 to form the short-lived 21st Century, where his top priority appeared to bum-rushing the competing lambada film THE FORBIDDEN DANCE through production so it could be released to universal apathy on the same day as LAMBADA. Yoram Globus briefly ran things before the sinking operation was handed over to Italian schlock king Ovidio G. Assonitis (BEYOND THE DOOR, TENTACLES, THE VISITOR), who saw Cannon through its final, gasping breaths. The rechristened Cannon Pictures was still getting a few movies into theaters in 1991, with the Chuck Norris vehicle THE HITMAN being a minor hit in a slew of barely-released duds and straight-to-video obscurities. Despite the tepid response to AMERICAN NINJA 3, Globus and partner Christopher Pearce deemed another sequel necessary, so AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION happened. AMERICAN NINJA 3 star David Bradley and director Cedric Sundstrom were once again onboard, but the draw was the return of Michael Dudikoff as Joe Armstrong (perhaps to appease Dudikoff's wish to no longer work in South Africa, shooting took place in Lesotho, a sovereign nation within South Africa), the film pairing both titular American ninjas. Out of the equation was Steve James, much to the disappointment of Dudikoff and, as it turned out, the fans. While it's nice to have Dudikoff back, he doesn't even appear until 45 minutes into the movie, and that's only after Bradley's Sean Davidson has been kidnapped. In other words, they don't really work together and aren't really paired up. Each American Ninja gets about half the movie to themselves before they finally cross paths with ten minutes to go. A lot of this was due to Dudikoff and Bradley reportedly not getting along, but for those expecting an AMERICAN NINJA summit, the film is a letdown not unlike those 1940s Universal monster rallies where Glenn Strange's Frankenstein monster doesn't even get off the operating table until the last two minutes of the movie, where his only function is to stumble around and cause an explosion...The End.






Davidson and pal Carl Brackston (Dwayne Alexandre, a terrible actor) are CIA agents sent to rescue a kidnapped Delta Force unit that's being held for a $50 million ransom. The villains: embittered British military man-turned-terrorist Scoff Mulgrew (AMERICAN NINJA 2 screenwriter James Booth, who wrote this under the name "David Geeves"), who's in cahoots with Arab terrorist Sheik Ali Maksood (Ron Smerczak), who's hellbent on a detonating a nuclear device in NYC. Getting some help from Peace Corps volunteer Sarah (THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE's Robin Stille), Davidson and Brackston attempt to thwart Scoff Mulgrew (at one point, Alexandre, in what's likely a gaffe, refers to him as "Stark Mulgrew," and honestly, either name is just is awesome), but they're all taken hostage. The CIA reaches out to Armstrong, now a teacher in a tiny African village, to go in and save his old buddy Sean. Is this film even following its franchise's own internal backstory?  When were these two ever friends? When did they even meet? While it does prefigure THE EXPENDABLES 3 in the way that the new characters are kidnapped and the old one is recruited to save the day, that concept of "saving his old buddy Sean" would've made more sense had they given the franchise to James, and his Jackson had to be rescued by Armstrong. While it's nice to see Dudikoff back in his signature role, the biggest takeaway from AMERICAN NINJA 4 is that Steve James was the heart and soul of this franchise and his inexplicable absence is felt much more here than Dudikoff's was in the previous film, especially considering that the abysmal Alexandre is a pitiful substitution. The longest entry in the series at 100 minutes, AMERICAN NINJA 4 is sluggishly paced, and Bradley still can't act. There's some odd touches that are interesting, like the appearance of a marauding band of desert bikers straight out of THE ROAD WARRIOR, and the fact that an overacting Booth is having a lot more fun with this than either Bradley or Dudikoff. Like Gary Conway in AMERICAN NINJA 2, Booth writes himself a completely ridiculous character and gives himself the best lines ("Mecca is that way," he sneers at a praying Sheik Maksood). AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION opened on 170 screens in March of 1991 before making a quick turnaround to video stores. All four films have just been released on Blu-ray by Olive Films. There's bonus features on each title, the chief selling point being commentaries by Sam Firstenberg on the first two films.





Cannon's death rattle continued into the first week of 1994, when the Joe Lara-starring AMERICAN CYBORG: STEEL WARRIOR earned the distinction of being the last Cannon production to get a theatrical release. The company had ceased production on any films by that point, with long-shelved stragglers--including the Chuck Norris vs. Satan horror film HELLBOUND, which prefigured Arnold Schwarzenegger's similar END OF DAYS by several years--going straight-to-video beginning in 1994. The penultimate Cannon release was the Ovidio G. Assonitis-produced AMERICAN NINJA 5, shot as AMERICAN DRAGONS in 1992 and unreleased until it appeared on video store shelves in November 1995. It's a PG-13 affair aimed at younger audiences, with overtones of THE KARATE KID, right down to an appearance by Pat Morita. David Bradley has the lead, which obviously prompted the title change, even though he isn't playing Sean Davidson (it also features Tadashi Yamashita, the original's Black Star Ninja). It's no longer considered part of the official franchise and was not given the Blu-ray treatment by Olive (Warner owns the rights to it, anyway), and when it appears in semi-regular rotation on cable today, it's shown under its original AMERICAN DRAGONS title. The last Cannon production to be released was CHAIN OF COMMAND, appropriately starring Michael Dudikoff, shot in 1993 and released directly to video in January 1996. And with that, the legend that is Cannon was laid to rest, gone but never forgotten.






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