Celebrating Cannon Films’ Greatest Action Movie – American Ninja (1985)


American Ninja: Cannon’s Perfection

In 1981, Van Halen released “Fair Warning,” their fourth LP. (Note to younger readers: the acronym “LP” stands for long play, i.e., full-length records — which preceded MP3s, compact discs and tapes. Google it if you don’t believe me.) After recording eight songs, the band thought they had the album “in the can.” But after unplugging their instruments and winding down, producer Ted Templeman said they needed one more song. Begrudgingly, they re-entered the studio, plugged in, and in one take recorded “One Foot out the Door”, what I believe to be a perfect song.

No overdubs. No re-recordings. ONE TAKE.

Much can be said of the cinematic output from Cannon Films in their 1980s heyday: schlock, low-budget, cheap, etc. But to me, American Ninja is as perfect a movie as they ever produced.

An Ultimate Action Movie Club Review

Released in 1985, American Ninja starred Michael Dudikoff as Joe Armstrong, a private in the U.S. Army. Joe’s father was stationed there during his service. After Joe’s dad was killed in an explosion, Joe was taken in and raised by Shinjuki (played by John Fujioka), who raised him as a son. You see, Shinjuki was secretly a ninja who had imparted his years of wisdom onto Joe throughout his life, for he lacked sons of his own to impart his wisdom on.

But just because Joe was trained as a ninja doesn’t mean he walked around like a bad ass. He’s not some well-oiled killing machine. Oh, no; he has amnesia from the explosion. His body reacts and performs ninjutsu, basically from muscle memory. While he acts heroically, it’s all reactive, not proactive. Therein lies the rub.

Joe was somewhat of a troublemaker as a youth and enlisted in the Army as a way of avoiding jail time. While there, he just wanted to be alone, do his time and avoid trouble — but trouble seemed to have a way of finding him. Although he tried his hardest to be a loner, Joe befriended Cpl. Curtis Jackson, played by the late Steve James. Jackson was demonstrating martial arts to servicemen when Joe walked by. Taunting him for the deaths of soldiers that occurred in the movie’s open, Jackson tried to goad Joe into a scuffle on the base. However, one does not scuffle with a ninja unscathed. Joe easily takes Jackson, even at one time with a metal bucket over his head! A friendship that would spill over into 1987’s American Ninja 2 (The Confrontation) would develop.

Remember how I said trouble had a way of finding Joe? Throughout the movie, a slow romance develops between him and Patricia (played by Judie Aronson of Weird Science fame). However, when Joe stumbles upon a conspiracy involving Patricia’s dad, Col. William Hickock (who heads the Army base), it lands him in jail.

With friends and believers few and far between, and an evil wrist rocket-wearing ninja (you gotta love Cannon!) out to get him, Joe must dig deep into his ninjutsu repertoire to save the day, get the girl, and star in the sequel.

The Multiple Levels of Perfection

I could delve deeper into a review, but this movie needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. As I’ve said before, I truly think it’s perfect on so many levels:

  • The reluctant hero trying to control his powers (comic books have been using this trope for nearly a century now)
  • The trusty, loyal sidekick who’s a good fighter, but not better than the protagonist
  • The love interest, who doesn’t rely upon gratuitous nudity to advance the plot
  • The father-figure elder/trainer
  • The antagonist (think of the wildest version of the word “ninja” you can, and multiply that by 100)

You get the picture.

American Ninja has been released on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray. As God is my witness, it’s the only movie I own on all three media. I’ve collected American Ninja advertising, marketing and promotional materials. I also own original movie posters of it and its first sequel.

It is that perfect to me.

“Honor the code” and watch it sometime. Then feel free to let me know what you think of it.

Part Tony Manero, part Rocky Balboa, John Acquavita is a N.Y.-area transplant currently living in Ohio. He uses his “particular set of skills” to contribute to various websites covering 1980s-era action movies.

Let us know what you what you think in the comments!