STUDIO: Both Warner Home Video
MSRP: Both $14.96
RATED: Both PG-13
RUNNING TIME: Both 99 minutes
SPECIAL FEATURES: Both have none.

There are film franchises. Then there are film franchises that need no introduction. Folks, if you’re a regular reader of this site, you know what category American Ninja falls under.

"…and I see your sword is as big as mine…"

The Flicks

There is no series of films that scream “cheese” better than this one. We, the fans of mindless entertainment cinema do not watch them for little things like plot, or coherence, or rationality. We watch them to see nameless, hooded henchmen in Far Eastern pajamas get dispatched with things like katanas, shurikens and arrows. We watch them for ridiculous villains with inane world domination plots with a penchant for employing Ninja armies get their asses kicked by a silent American martial arts master named Joe and his Rambo sidekick homey named Jackson. We watch these films to see the best in ‘80s cornball kung fu. And we watch them simply because there’s nothing quite like ninja flicks. Not vampire flicks, not zombie flicks, not alien flicks. Nothing.

"It’s my franchise!"
"No it’s not, it’s mine!"
"Is not!"
"Is too!"
"Is not!"
"Is too!"
"Is not…"

Back in the heights of the decadent 1980s low-budget action filmmaking, the cheeseball juggernaut that was Golan-Globus came out with a movie called American Ninja. It was basically about a mysterious young army private named Joe (Michael Dudikoff). He didn’t say much, didn’t have many friends. But what he did have was the singular ability to whoop ass in the old Japanese Ninjitsu style. He teamed up with Curtis Jackson (Steve James), a ripped brother who also had a penchant for the putting of foot to ass, albeit with more of an American flavor. Together, they went up against a horde of ninja assassins and handed them all their balls. They teamed up once again for a sequel and the result was the same: more ninjas, more ninjas’ balls on the floor. Joe took a powder and Jackson hooked up with a new American Ninja for the third go-round, Sean Davidson (David Bradley).

Although a master of Ninjitsu, Bradley had the misfortune of coming up against a bunch of Gun-kata masters…

So that brings us to the first of two films to be covered here, American Ninja 4: Annihilation. Bradley is back for this one, and Dudikoff rejoined the franchise one last time to team up with him to take on another couple of bad guys. One is a Brit, Mulgrew (James Booth) and the other an Arab, Maksood (Ron Smerczak), and they have a suitcase nuke with plans to take out New York. The Delta Force team that was sent in is all but wiped out in the opening moments of the film. The four survivors are taken hostage and Sean and his partner Brackston are called in to rescue them. But after a bit of time, where he gets to take out a few dozen ninjas, Sean is himself taken hostage, along Brackston and a Peace Corps nurse (Robin Stille). The only person who can save them all is Joe.

"Hey boss, why do we have to work with this guy? He dresses funny…"

At first reluctant, Joe eventually heads into the fray and it’s not long before he’s giving the old school ninja ass-handings out. He enlists some local revolutionaries and together they storm the villains’ stronghold just as Sean and the others are about to be executed, Salem witch hunt-style. From there it’s a typical Ninja all-out-melee climax where ninjas and revolutionaries alike are flying and dying about. Sean has it out with Mulgrew and Joe has a showdown with Mulgrew’s Super Ninja. So how does Joe take him out? Nunchaks? Nope. Ninja sword? Uh uh, grenade. Excellent.

I’m telling you, nobody parties harder than ninjas…

So when we finally get to American Ninja 5, Bradley is the lone holdover; but surprisingly, he doesn’t play the same character he did in the previous two. He plays a character known only as – strangely enough – Joe. This time, he mentors a kid, Hiro (Ernie Reyes), for his master, Tetsu (Pat Morita). When Joe gets involved with a pretty young woman named Lisa (Anne Dupont) who did repairs on his boat, he finds himself in for more than he bargained when she’s suddenly kidnapped by a ninja master called Viper (James Lew). Viper takes her to Venezuela where her father, Dr. Stroble (Aharon Ipale) is developing a pesticide / nerve gas for the villain of the piece, Simon Glock (Clement von Franckenstein), who plans to sell the nerve gas as a weapon. He had Viper take Lisa to insure Stroble’s cooperation. What he didn’t count on was Joe and Hiro stowing away in his cargo plane in order to rescue her.

Before engaging in a duel to the death, Joe and the villain Ninja took part in the pre-battle ritual of the Touchy Feely…

Once they reach Venezuela, Joe and Hiro have a number of adventures including run-ins with Viper (who frequently appears and disappears like Mysterio), more ninjas, Glock’s henchmen and locals. They develop a big brother / little brother relationship, especially after Hiro thinks Joe’s been killed by Glock’s man, Flathead (Marc Fiorini). After the encounter with Viper, Hiro suddenly realizes that he is the one who killed his father when Hiro was younger. He then resolves to restore his father’s honor. Eventually Joe and Hiro are reunited and go on a spiritual journey together as they summon advice from Tetsu on how to proceed. Joe agrees to become Hiro’s sensei. Together, they rescue Lisa and have their final showdown with Glock and Viper.

"Like this, Master?"
"Exactly! See how much easier it is to let the wind pass through you from this position?"
[Fart] "You’re right!"

As it turns out, 4 and 5 are quite different movies, with 5 the biggest departure of the entire series. Neither one approaches 1 or 2 in terms of quality, but they’re right up there in turns of cheese. 4 especially just takes logic and just commits seppuku on it. Sean and Joe end up in a foreign country that’s, by all accounts, populated by Africans, Asians, Europeans and Muslims and run by a sheik who dresses like Bin Laden and indulges like Saddam. And the country bears a striking resemblance to California for some reason…. The revolutionaries look like a cross between The Warriors, Humongous’ goons in The Road Warrior and extras from the final dance production of Staying Alive. There’s also a quickie little fight between Joe and a Sean impersonator via a rubber face that’s not set up nor explained nor referenced ever again. As for the ninjas, they seem to become more and more incompetent as the series progressed; and the Super Ninja is no Black Star Ninja by a long shot.

In hindsight it was definitely a mistake to let Steven Cojucaru handle the wardrobe…

Dudikoff practically sleepwalks through his third outing as Joe and it’s patently obvious he’s finished with the role five minutes into his first appearance in the movie. He has no emotional investment in Joe and Joe has none in the movie whatsoever and Dudikoff just plain looks lost without James. Speaking of Curtis Jackson, there simply is nothing that makes this movie stand out from any of the other low budget kung fu flicks of the time without him. He was the backbone of this franchise and is sorely missed here. In this film, Bradley’s about as charismatic as Jeff Speakman on a bad day, but he looks good and can definitely get some impressive moves in.

"Okay Zed, I’m ready…"

When getting to 5, the series took a detour that wasn’t altogether unwelcome. Rather than Joe / Jackson / Sean being sent on a mission by the government to take down a big bad with a ninja army, Bradley’s Joe gets drawn into practically everything that happens by mistake – with a sorta big bad who has a ninja army. And the relationship that the filmmakers ply between Bradley and Reyes is surprisingly a bit of fresh air in the concept. Bradley has his first go alone in the franchise and he’s quite a bit better than he was in 4 as he’s given the chance to inject a bit of humor into his character. Although it simply makes no sense to have him change the character he plays if he’s continuing on in the series. They get into Blood Fist territory with that, where Don “the Dragon” Wilson has done eight movies in the franchise and portrayed six or so different characters rather than continuing on in the same one.

Unfortunately there wasn’t enough in the budget to give ole’ Tadashi a make believe name…

There’s plenty of lapses in logic and story in this one as well. The most glaring is a pathetic attempt to add backstory to Joe’s and Hiro’s characters over an hour into the flick with a laughable scene where they contact Tetsu through ninja meditation and through the magic of a smoke machine, Morita does a walk on and “Miyagis” them to success. Joe seeks to resolve a previously unrevealed pain he had with his younger brother’s death, which contributes to his initial reluctance to train Hiro in ninjitsu. Tetsu has his brother do a quick wave hello and then disappear in the scene and it’s beyond comical. Also, Hiro becomes a 12-year-old ninja master just by remembering that his father taught him a few moves in his pre-school years.

When the usual henchmen failed, the villains tried to confuse the American Ninjas with a Road Warrior parade…

But I was surprised how much I could connect with Lee Reyes, when Ernie Reyes used to drive me nuts with his inability to act and one-note martial arts. Normally I loathe kid characters, especially kid martial artists, but I didn’t mind him as much here. As for the ninjas in this movie, they might as well not even have shown up. When four of them are getting their asses kicked by a kid on a room service cart and a bowl cover, it’s time to find another line of work. Viper was a Phantom of the Opera-style villain and his climactic fight with Joe is probably the least satisfying of the entire franchise.

"So what does that mean exactly? Getting a shuriken enema?"
"You don’t wanna know. Trust me."

I’d also say 5 is the lightest film of the series, with more than a passing resemblance to The Karate Kid, the least of which is the inclusion of Morita in the cast. All of the problems with these two movies can be taken with a grain of salt, because finding errors in the plotline of an American Ninja movie is like criticizing George Bush: it’s just too damn easy. These movies are made to show ninja butt whoopins and not much more. On that note they succeed, but the quality definitely goes down each time. Since zombies have had a renaissance in the last four years or so, I look forward to a similar revival of the ninja movie at some point soon, because that’s a market that’s definitely not being served right now. But I also wish that they could be made like back when they were really good, like with the 3 Ninja movies with Sho Kosugi and the first two movies of this franchise. There was something about the times that these were made that I doubt can ever be recaptured. 4 and 5 were both made in the ‘90s and I think even by then the moment for ninja films had passed. But the moment for the American Ninja films definitely passed the same day that Steve James departed this earth.

American Ninja 4: 5.9 out of 10
American Ninja 5: 6.2 out of 10

"Come on! There’s no chance Butch is going to show up way down here!"
"Doesn’t matter, Marcellus wants us ready if he does…"

The Look

For both films it’s pretty much shit. The quality of the transfers doesn’t seem to be much better than when I see these films on TV. Of course that would also be because they’re both fullscreen. You just can’t box a ninja, baby.

American Ninja 4: 5.1 out of 10
American Ninja 5: 5.1 out of 10

The Noise

There’s Dolby Digital stereo,, but it doesn’t blow the wires off the speakers. Still always a pleasure to hear bad ‘80s action music and snapping ninja blows.

American Ninja 4: 6.1 out of 10
American Ninja 5: 6.1 out of 10

"So tell me kid, have you ever been to a Ninja Turkish Bath?"

The Goodies

Vanished in a puff of smoke. These are your standard no-frills packages.

American Ninja 4: 0 out of 10
American Ninja 5: 0 out of 10

The Artwork

4’s art is basic low budget martial arts crap that we’re used to seeing on a thousand and one movies just like this. 5’s art actually isn’t all that bad.

American Ninja 4: 4.2 out of 10
American Ninja 5: 6.2 out of 10

American Ninja 4: 4.7 out of 10
American Ninja 5: 5.0 out of 10