Everyone knows that ninjas were super-stealthy spies and assassins who operated in Japan hundreds of years ago. But what if there were ninjas TODAY? And what if one of them were — stay with me here — an AMERICAN?? The 1985 action film “American Ninja” imagines such a fantastical scenario, demonstrating in the process that while we might be better at making fast food and pornography, the Japanese have us beat when it comes to the production of ninjas.
“American Ninja” was originally supposed to star Chuck Norris, if that tells you anything, which it should. Instead, they got Michael Dudikoff, a James Dean-y fellow whose resume includes titles like “Avenging Force,” “Platoon Leader,” “River of Death,” “The Human Shield,” “Chain of Command,” “Moving Target,” and several “American Ninja” sequels. In a parallel universe, he IS Chuck Norris. (In that universe, Chuck Norris is a pacifist antiwar protestor who teaches women’s studies at Berkeley.)
Dudikoff plays Pvt. Joe Armstrong, an Army grunt stationed at a U.S. military base in the Philippines. Joe doesn’t use a lot of words — not a single line in the first 15 minutes of the movie — but his blank expression says plenty. (Specifically: “I have no idea what I’m doing.”) The other soldiers don’t know much about him because he’s new and didn’t participate in the get-to-know-you games during orientation.
Joe is one of the soldiers escorting the colonel’s spoiled daughter, Patricia (Judy Aronson), from the Army base to the airport. Patricia needs an escort — an entire convoy, in fact — because there are local rebels who like to hijack military vehicles. Sure enough, the convoy is stopped by armed thugs who want to steal their equipment. The Army dudes (who I guess are not armed?) are cooperating until one of the bad guys punches Patricia in the face. Pvt. Joe Armstrong will not abide the punching of a lady, so he steps forward and starts a fracas. The Army dudes are now beating the crap out of the hijackers when suddenly a bunch of ninjas emerge from the jungle and attack. It’s not clear whether the ninjas are affiliated with the hijackers — if so, why didn’t they step in sooner? — or whether they’re just a freelance band of ninjas who happened to be passing by and saw a fight they could get involved in. At any rate, four American soldiers are killed while Joe and Patricia escape into the jungle.
Patricia does not appreciate having her life saved. She screams and complains a lot, like the women in adventure movies always do. Her apparent position is that she was doing just fine being punched by Filipino rebels, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, and she didn’t need Joe to get her out of harm’s way. When the ninjas pursue them through the jungle, a quick-thinking Joe — who still hasn’t spoken, by the way, probably because he couldn’t get a word in edgewise — breaks the heels off Patricia’s shoes and tears her dress into something resembling pants, all so she can move faster. In return, Patricia demands to know how Joe is going to pay for the clothes he’s ruined. You’d think she’d be impressed at his ability to MacGyver a dress into pants, but no. She hates him.
Back at the scene of the hijacking, Army officers have arrived to find their convoy wiped out. Says one of them: “This massacre was the work of ninjas!” (What, did they leave a note?) Then Joe and Patricia get back to the base, where everyone is mad at Joe because four of their comrades got killed in the melee. The hijacking was going just fine when we were standing there peeing our pants and cooperating with the thugs, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. The colonel’s stupid daughter gets punched in her stupid face and suddenly Joe has to fight back? Absurd! The Army will not tolerate bravery in the face of danger, Pvt. Armstrong.
It may seem ludicrous that these men would believe Joe should have let Patricia keep getting punched in the face rather than intercede, but remember, that was Patricia’s opinion, too.
Surely her dad, the colonel, is grateful that Joe stepped in, right? NO SIR. “I suppose you think you’re some kind of hero because you brought my daughter back alive?” he snarls. Joe, viewing this as a trick question, does not answer. The colonel’s vote is the same as everyone else’s: When hijackers punch his daughter, the U.S. Army is expected to stand there and watch.
By the way, the colonel is played by an actor named Guich Koock, who played redneck cops in the sitcoms “Carter Country” and “She’s the Sheriff” His resume is of little importance, however, because his name is Guich Koock. Guich Koock. I don’t even know how to say “Guich.” Gwich? Gooch? Gooch Kook? Like the Beach Boys song, “Little Gooch Kook”? Though no longer working, the actor is still alive, and is still presumably named Guich Koock.
Anyway. Everyone at the base is pretty steamed at Joe for being chivalrous and getting their buddies killed. One of the guys picks a fight with Joe and loses handily, whereupon they become best friends and everyone gets over that thing they were mad at Joe for, whatever it was. Patricia has suddenly changed her tune, too, and is now in love with Joe, whom she previously hated for saving her life. This transformation began right around the time that he had to take his shirt off in the jungle, when the camera lingered on his torso and Patricia salivated.
The movie’s in a fix now, though. It presented a dumb conflict — everyone’s mad at Joe for saving Patricia — then resolved it quickly and also dumbly. What do we do now? Ah, yes: A wealthy local plantation owner named Ortega (Don Stewart), who has a Spanish name and a French accent, is ostensibly an honorable businessman but is secretly a weapons dealer. And what does Ortega grow on his plantation? Ninjas! Under the direction of the Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita), they train at the plantation and are at Ortega’s beck and call whenever a situation arises that requires ninjas. (You’d be surprised how often that is.) Also on hand is a mysterious Japanese gardener, Shinyuki (John Fujioka), who never says anything but seems to know his employer is shady and will probably become important later in the film.
Ortega, who is in cahoots with some of the top Army dudes, has the cigar-chomping Sgt. Rinaldo (John La Motta) send Joe on an “errand” that will actually be a trap, with the Black Star Ninja and his gang ready to pounce. Since a team of ninjas was unable to kill Joe earlier, it naturally follows that they’ll be able to do so now. I mean, law of averages, right? But no, somehow Joe single-handedly defeats them again, in a clunky and lethargic fight sequence that looks like a high-school production of “Enter the Dragon” The IMDb trivia for “American Ninja” notes that Michael Dudikoff had no martial arts training before this movie, and it is evident that he didn’t have much during it, either. Still, he’s no worse than the “ninjas,” whose fight skills are a disservice to the honorable ninja name. They should be called non-jas, am I right??
Also, they should try shooting him. The stories I read in the paper suggest that this is often an effective method for killing someone.
It’s revealed that Joe was an orphan child who lost his memory a few years ago, which is why he’s so enigmatic and brooding. It’s also revealed that after he was orphaned, he was trained in the ways of the ninja by none other than Shinyuki, the mysterious Japanese gardener who works on the ninja farm! Who would have guessed that Joe’s secret trainer would be the one Japanese character in the movie?!
But what about Patricia? Remember her, the one who started this whole mess by getting punched in the face? The one who hated Joe, then suddenly loved him once he took his shirt off? Well, during the brief moments when Joe isn’t walking into one ambush or another and fending off incompetent ninjas, Patricia goes on a date with him. The movie wants us to think they’ve fallen in love, but I’m not buying it.
Joe gets thrown in the brig for leaving the base, whereupon he is attacked by ninjas “again,” with the same results as the previous times, i.e., several ninjas are killed while Joe remains alive. When at long last Ortega himself fires a gun at Joe, we discover that Joe is one of those action heroes who simply cannot be hit by bullets, no matter how many are fired. The ninjas probably intuited this, so let’s go easy on them for not trying it sooner.
Everything turns out OK in the end for Pvt. Joe Armstrong, the American Ninja. He’ll never defend a woman’s honor or save her life again. He learned that lesson! As for Ortega, his weapon-smuggling and ninja-farming operations are shut down. The weapons are destroyed, and the ninjas are placed with good families who have big yards where they can run and play. Everyone lives happily ever after, I reckon, except for Guich Koock, who sources confirm is still named Guich Koock.