To this day, I still can’t really wrap my head around the 80s ninja craze that occurred in America. The only possible explanation I can really comprehend is that there are times when badassery and coolness top whatever reasons, and this was one of these times. Generally, I reckon, eighties were like that overall – all style and little to no substance. To quote TvTropes: “we can accept that something is unrealistic, as long as it’s very cool”. In fact, this line is a rather perfect description of the whole ‘American Ninja’ franchise.
The first movie was released in 1985 and enjoyed a huge popular and financial success, securing Cannon Films’ interest in making a sequel. Both the first and the second movies were shot by a long-time Cannon collaborator Sam Firstenberg, who is best known for making other ninja movies (‘Revenge of the Ninja’, ‘Ninja 3 – The Domination’). Also, Firstenberg directed ‘American Samurai’ and I could totally buy that these two exist in the same movie universe.
Michael Dudikoff stars as the eponymous American ninja, sergeant Joe Armstrong, being a spiritual father to a Scott Adkins ninja hero. If Adkins ever makes ‘Ninja 3’ I definitely think it should have Dudikoff either as his mentor or as a villain. Anyway, before the making of the first movie, Dudikoff had no martial arts training whatsoever, being primarily known as a fashion model and a number of supporting roles in various comedies. While he did learn a lot whilst preparing for the role in the first movie, Michael truly shines in the second installment as a fighter, stepping his game up for real. Armstrong’s love interest from the first movie is neither appearing in this film, nor is she even mentioned. But do we really care that much? We don’t, especially if Steve James makes a comeback as an obligatory 80s best friend, who can hold his own in a fight against the bad guys. On a side note, I believe that Cannon missed a perfect opportunity to earn some money by not making a blaxploitation ninja spin-off about sergeant Curtis Jackson, Armstrong’s bestie. Gary Conway, who co-wrote the script, stars as an evil blonde drug lord Leo ‘The Lion’ Burke, who wears a white suite and shades, just so we know he is the main antagonist. It feels as if he came straight out of the ‘Miami Vice’ universe. Of course, this guy is way too refined and polished to pose a threat to Dudikoff, so he has a right-hand man Tojo Ken do the dirty work. A rather ominous-looking karate fighter and actor Michael Stone plays Ken. The man is so sinister; he has a scar near his eye, marking him out amongst hundreds of nameless mooks.
The plot is fairly simple. Most importantly, it has ninjas. Loads and loads of ninjas. So, in the very beginning, the bad guys kidnap two American marines, who are guarding an embassy in some unnamed Caribbean country. Armstrong and Jackson arrive in the country in order to investigate the disappearance of the American soldiers. The two are Army rangers, which leads to some pretty intense rivalry with the local Marines. They present themselves to ‘Wild Bill’ Woodward, a somewhat eccentric commanding officer of the Americans stationed in the country. Armstrong and Jackson go water skiing with some of the other soldiers, where a gang of evil ninjas, clad in black, ambushes them. These guys are armed with stock ninja weaponry – katanas, shuriken, claws, blades, kusari fundo (basically, chains), daggers, spears, bows and arrows. None of these are actually important, since Dudikoff catches arrows with one hand and throws daggers with another like a goddamn Ninja Terminator. I might be mistaken, but isn’t there an 80s action movie by the name of ‘Ninja Terminator’?
Later on, Armstrong figures out that one of the Americans, by the name of Taylor, who is married to a local girl, is collaborating with the enemy. It turns out that the local drug kingpin, The Lion, smuggles his merchandise into the US and is practically a feudal lord of the place. The Lion, tired of paying off corrupt government officials and law enforcement, seeks to secure his position by building an army of genetically enhanced ninjas. What’s more, he will be able to sell these super ninjas of his to other kingpins, dictators, criminals, terrorists – basically, to any 80s action movie villain in existence. In his compound on the Blackbeard Island, Burke holds a scientist by the name of professor Sanborn, captive. Sanborn used to work on creating a cure for cancer, but now he is forced to work for this evil guy. There are two female characters in the movie, the first one is Sanborn’s daughter Alicia, the second is a local woman, who has the hots for Jackson. Armstrong saves Alicia from Lion’s goons, since, to quote Wild Bill, “I don’t think the U.S. armed forces ever let a lady down yet”. Aside from Alicia, who becomes enamored with Armstrong, there is also a boy called Toto, who is a street urchin, helping the Americans. Toto is actually kinda likeable and not particularly annoying, as is the case with lots of child sidekicks.
After killing several regiments of ninjas, Armstrong and Alicia attack Lion’s compound and liberate the American prisoners. Joe cuts his way through, until he has to face Tojo Ken in a final duel, which starts off as a conventional fight between two ninjas and ends with the bad guy pulling a shotgun on Dudikoff. Elsewhere, Wild Bill and Jackson lead an unauthorized assault on Blackbeard Island. Aside from the fighting, there is one introspective scene, where Dudikoff meditates and there is a flashback of him being coached by a former Japanese soldier, reminding us of the hero’s backstory.
In the end, ‘American Ninja 2’ is probably better than the original film and has a number of great fights, which still look cool to this day. Dudikoff and James have some nice chemistry together,which is frankly better than the chemistry between Michael’s supposed love interests. It has far more action than the first part and Dudikoff is still handsome, unemotional and doesn’t really have any dialogue, but makes Joe still likeable. This is a fast paced and rather short movie, which has a lot of action and one doesn’t really get bored in-between. Aside from the leading duo, there are some genuinely entertaining supporting characters, such as Wild Bill, who is a cowboy-like military officer.
This movie is so 80s it makes you feel like you’ve gone back to this wonderful, glorified era. Does it make sense? Not really. Is it cool enough to make you forget about the real world for a while? Hell yeah! And with this, I’m off to write a Russian rip-off I’ll title ‘Sakhalin Ninja’ or ‘Kuril Ninja’ in case I’d feel like exploiting the current political situation. This will surely kick off a 2020s ninja craze on the other side of the globe this time. Ninjas are cool, after all. See you around, folks.