American Ninja – The Ultimate Collection 1-4 88 Films Blu-ray Review
88 Films American Ninja Blu-ray Collection is a must-have if you love 80’s action (and who doesn’t?) as it is still a hugely enjoyable franchise with a star making turn from Michael Dudikoff. Steve James practically steals the show any time he is on screen but David Bradley is also a welcome addition to the series. It’s too bad there are no subtitles or deleted scenes but the feature length retrospective makes it worthwhile.
I picked up the 88 Films Blu-ray collection of the American Ninja series a few months back but hadn’t had the time to watch it up until now, so I figured this was as good as time as any to give it a review.
There isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about this series, but I’ll give it my own spin.
The fifth movie isn’t in this collection but that is possibly due to the fact that it wasn’t originally intended to be part of the franchise or just because it’s rotten.
So, let’s take a look at the first 4 films and I’ll review part V later today.
America Ninja (1985)
Plot: Pvt. Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) chooses to enlist in the US army rather than go to prison and finds himself fighting off ninjas on a base in the Philippines. When he saves Patricia (Judie Aronson), the base colonel’s daughter, from kidnapping but loses everyone else in the platoon, Joe’s popularity with his colleagues drops precipitously and he becomes the target of revenge of the lead ninja (Tadashi Yamashita).
Review: I’m clearly going through a bit of a Sam Firstenberg phase at the moment after reading the Stories from the Trenches book and watching the Ninja trilogy so now I am on to the American Ninja series.
American Ninja is one of the most beloved action franchises from the 80’s making Michael Dudikoff a household name with his James Dean looks and broody demeanour. He plays Joe Armstrong who at first has a chip on his shoulder refusing to be part of the team on a military base but as the story goes on we find out that he either had the choice of prison or the military so he isn’t there because he wants to be.
After saving Patricia Hickock (Judie Aronson) daughter of Colonel William Hickock, Joe’s commanding officer from a kidnapping attempt you would have thought he would be seen as a hero but the problem is several of Joe’s comrades got killed during it, so he isn’t particularly popular.
This brings him to the attention of Curtis Jackson (Steve James) who challenges him to a fight which doesn’t go well for Jackson who immediately forgives Joe for being surly and they become buddies. What’s funny is that Jackson is arguably the best character in the movie coming off as immediately appealing and just a truly honourable hero who doesn’t like wearing shirts.
I should mention that Joe also has amnesia and doesn’t remember much about who he is, so he is a mystery even to himself.
With a movie like American Ninja you can expect some of the acting to be a little wooden and it’s all absolute nonsense but I still love it so much. Dudikoff looks the part and has the moves (despite not being trained in martial arts previously) and there is no shortage of ninja-punching action climaxing with a one-man army showdown at the bad guy’s lair.
Speaking of the villain it’s really more the henchman Black Star Master Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita from The Octagon) who is the real threat with Victor Ortega (Don Stewart) the brains behind the operation. He isn’t a particularly memorable villain but thankfully Black Star Master Ninja is awesome and his final battle with Joe is truly satisfying.
The music score is very 80’s but works perfectly even if it doesn’t particularly stand out.
It’s the kind of movie you can watch regularly and is the ideal escape from reality which is much needed at the present time.
The Blu-ray quality has been relatively well remastered although there is still some grain in the picture, and I found it frustrating that there are no subtitles.
Overall, American Ninja is very 80’s but I mean that with love as it is endlessly entertaining with Michael Dudikoff and Steve James making for an awesome team and it’s packed with classic action.
American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)
Plot: On a remote Caribbean island, Army Ranger Joe Armstrong investigates the disappearance of several marines, which leads him to The Lion, a super-criminal who has kidnapped a local scientist and mass-produced an army of mutant Ninja warriors.
Review: I think American Ninja 2 may well be my favourite of the series as it’s just superior in every way to the first movie. Joe (Michael Dudikoff) is far more sympathetic and just a straightforward action hero/ninja, but I’ve never seen anyone enjoy a bar fight the way Curtis Jackson (Steve James) does. He’s laughing and cheering while kicking ass and this entry generally just has a lighter tone. Curtis is the real personality of these movies and to this day it breaks my heart that we lost Steve James at such a young age.
I love how this entry takes place in a beautiful sunny climate with nice beaches and bikini clad women as God knows when we’ll get to see them again in reality!
It’s well paced with fight scenes every few minutes and like the first movie it climaxes with a showdown at the villain’s lair. It almost feels like a Bond movie (with more ninjas) and the villain is called The Lion (Gary Conway) which is amazing. It’s the henchman Tojo Ken (Mike Stone) who Joe has to face off with this time and it’s another epic showdown. There is a huge bodycount which every action movie needs, and I just find myself smiling from beginning to end.
It should be noted that any movie that has a character called Sir Cloudsly Smith deserves some kind of award.
George S. Clinton provides the score and you’ll recognise some of the music from that fake VHS trailer they did for the Expendables 2 a few years back.
Overall, American Ninja 2: The Confrontation is arguably the best of the series with Joe and Curtis becoming the ultimate buddy duo while taking on the bad guys and saving the day.
American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989)
Plot: Cobra, a terrorist, has spread terror among people and has been using humans to conduct biological warfare experiments. Meanwhile, Sean, an American Ninja and his partner Curtis try to stop Cobra.
Review: The third movie isn’t the greatest and lacks the scale of the first two so it clearly had a lower budget. Gone also is Michael Dudikoff but he’s replaced by David Bradley who is fine in the role of Sean Davidson but the script is rather forgettable with Steve James once again saving the day.
James uses multiple swords during a couple of the fight scenes which is one of the action highlights but this movie finally gives us some nunchucks too.
The villain in this entry is called The Cobra played by Marjoe Gortner and he is one of my favourite bad guys of the series; he is another nemesis with a lair guarded by an army of ninjas. Are you really successful if you don’t have an army of ninjas at your disposal? I think not. The Cobra is making a virus to sell to terrorists so it’s quite an apt storyline for these times.
The best new addition to the cast is Chan Lee (played by Michele Chan) who works for The Cobra but once she realises what he is doing she turns on him. She’s the first female in the series who actually gets to kick ass rather than waiting to be saved.
George S. Clinton provides the score once again and it is rather repetitive as it’s essentially the one theme tune on repeat, but it works just fine.
The arena fight at the end with Sean and some rescued marines against a group of ninjas is impressive but one of the best sequences is the motorized hang glider scene which has one landing on the back of a moving truck which was a great stunt.
The Blu-ray for this movie has no special features whatsoever (still lacking subtitles!) but the quality is much better in terms of picture and sound so there isn’t the same graininess that is on the fist two movies.
Overall, American Ninja: Blood Hunt may not be quite a strong as the first two movies, but David Bradley looks good in the fight scenes and Steve James once again nearly steals the show. It lacks the scale that the original had but there is enough action and cool stunt work to make it a lot of fun.
American Ninja 4: The Annihilation (1990)
Plot: CIA agent Sean Davidson and his sidekick Carl are sent into the stronghold of sadistic British ex-soldier Mulgrew to rescue some Delta Force commandoes who have been captured and tortured. When Sean, Carl and pretty doctor Sarah run into some problems, Peace Corps vet Joe Armstrong is lured out of retirement to stop Mulgrew’s plan to explode a nuclear device in New York City.
Review: This is another awesome entry in the franchise with both Michael Dudikoff and David Bradley sharing the screen for the first time with both American ninjas taking on a sadistic tyrant.
The Annihilation has the best villain of the series with James Booth wonderfully nasty as Mulgrew, the monster who takes pleasure in torturing and killing people while wanting to nuke New York. He is so hateful that every moment he is on screen makes your blood boil. The final battle between he and Sean is incredibly satisfying although I think in terms of the series best kill that honour goes to Joe who fights the main ninja henchman then drops a grenade on him.
Cedric Sundstrom returns to direct and this entry has a bigger scale than part 3 with more ninjas and larger set-pieces. I do wish we got more screentime with Joe and Sean together but what we get is still awesome. The “fight” between them is brief but a definite highlight giving fans exactly what they want to see.
It’s too bad Steve James wasn’t able to return again as he was always a ray of sunshine but the two American Ninjas make it one of the best in the franchise.
This also has a bit of a Mad Max element to it with the group at Sulphur Springs all dressed like they came off the Wasteland and onto the set of this movie.
The Annihilation has the great song Fight Fire with Fire from Eddie Wolfe which is one of my favourite end credit songs of the era; I do miss the days of motivational songs about fire, steel and rising up to the challenge, etc.
This Blu-ray has been well remastered and the picture and sound quality are arguably the best of the bunch. There are no special features for this one though so really it’s only the first two movies that have anything worth talking about.
Overall, American Ninja: The Annihilation is one of the best of the series with both David Bradley and Michael Dudikoff taking down entire armies and by the end you’ll wish we had more movies in the series which had the two stars working together.
New Directors Commentary for American Ninja and American Ninja 2: The Confrontation
The Making of the American Ninja Series, A Feature length documentary
American Warrior Trailer
As you can see there isn’t exactly a wealth of special features however, you’d be hard pushed to find a more informative behind the scenes than The Making of the American Ninja Series which is just under an hour and 25 minutes long. It features interviews with Michael Dudikoff, Sam Firstenberg and the rest of the cast and crew. One of the most moving moments is Michael Dudikoff talking about the late Steve James and how he was just a genuinely nice human being and that he misses him.
Sam tells us show Chuck Norris was initially planned to be the American Ninja but according to stories (not facts) Norris didn’t want the role as he didn’t want to cover his face with a ninja mask.
One thing I didn’t know was that Judie Aronson auditioned with Chad McQueen (son of Steve McQueen) but as we all know he didn’t get the role and it went to Dudikoff instead who really made it his own bringing his own sense of vulnerability to the character of Joe.
We also find out that for the first movie they inherited the crew from Apocalypse Now which had just finished shooting in the Philippines which I also didn’t know previously.
The first two movies have audio commentaries and the UK trailer for American Warrior (as it was previously known). Sadly there are no deleted scenes which are my favourite kid of special features but this is still a must own just to have the movies in a nice tidy collection.
Overall, The American Ninja Series is classic stuff and while they are hardly perfect they are never less than entertaining with Michael Dudikoff, David Bradley and Steve James all giving us memorable characters that we all still enjoy today.