Blu-ray Review: AMERICAN NINJA - THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION Charts A Legacy Of Badass Action
Beginning with the remarkably insane Enter the Ninja, starring Django himself, Franco Nero, alongside Sho Kosugi, Cannon rode the ninja train as far as it would take them. Following the surprising success of Enter the Ninja (directed by Cannon leader Menahem Golan), a sequel, Revenge of the Ninja was commissioned and director Sam Firstenberg was brought on board. Both Revenge of the Ninja, which brought back Sho Kosugi, this time as protagonist, and it's utterly unbelievable sequel Ninja III: The Domination were successful enough to make Firstenberg Cannon's go-to guy for these films. Then, in 1985, Cannon Films decided it was time to make an American ninja film, and history was made.
The American Ninja series lasted five films and eight years, but left permanent impressions on millions of impressionable minds of the late '80s, my own included. The first film, which introduced relative small-timer Michael Dudikoff to the world as an action star, is a perfect example of what '80s action meant to kids like me. From that point on, Dudikoff was no longer the comedy sidekick he'd been honing in films like Bachelor Party, he was an action star, a role he has relished ever since. That first film set a mold for the American Ninja series that would be revisited and repeated, with largely diminishing returns, until the series' demise following the half-assed semi-sequel American Ninja 5 in 1993.
The four films included in 88 Films' Ultimate Collection are pretty solid, with only the odd misstep of American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt to sully the set. Rather than talk about them in order of release, I'm going to talk about them in order of awesomeness. First up, the original American Ninja.
Michael Dudikoff is Pvt. Joe Armstrong, a quiet loner stationed on a Philippine military base beset by illegal arms dealers and ninjas. When a caravan transporting a shipment of heavy arms is attacked first by Filipino guerrillas and then by the infamous jungle ninjas of Manila, Joe takes out the lot of them while simultaneously saving the Colonel's daughter, Patricia, in a very wet, Romancing the Stone fashion while dragging her through the malarial jungle to safety.
It isn't long before his lone wolf tactics and great skills make him the target of both the Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita) and his own army brethren who don't like being shown up. Thankfully, he meets the impossibly muscular and jovial Curtis Jackson (Steve James), and the two best buddies proceed to punch, kick, and KI-YAY their way through a seeming endless army of color coordinated ninjas intent on destroying truth, justice, and the American way in the Philippines.
American Ninja is a ton of fun and ticks all of the '80s action boxes. Plenty of ninjas in unwieldy outfits that can't possibly be practical, impossible explosions that in no way match their causes, the perpetually oiled up super-man physique of Steve James, bratty women playing the damsel in distress, and plenty of Sansabelt slacks to go around. I truly love this film, and it definitely brought back a lot of memories. American Ninja is definitely the most grounded and plot heavy of the series, and while some of the others do a great job at pushing the envelope conceptually, I love the relationships in this film.
While it's fairly clear that American Ninja's Blu-ray comes from an existing HD master, it's not bad at all, and certainly looks and sounds the best of the bunch. Colors pop, detail is anywhere from good to great, and the audio is nice and punchy, moreso that I would've expected. As the budgets decreased throughout the series, the production value did as well, so 88 Films probably had more to work with here in terms of materials, and it's a solid package from an A/V standpoint.
The set's single major extra is also on this disc, a feature length retrospective on the series titled Ninja Gaijin: Remembering a Classic Cannon Franchise. The documentary, directed by Jim Kunz and produced by High Rising Productions, spans the entire series, with an understandable emphasis on the first two films in terms of talking heads. Director Sam Firstenberg and star Michael Dudikoff are the main interviewees, but the doc also brings in writers, producers, stunt and action coordinators, as well as co-stars and many others to tell the story of this legendary series. Conspicuously absent from the doc is David Bradley, star of American Ninja 3 and co-star of American Ninja 4. Also sadly absent is the late Steve James who left us far too young in 1993, but his daughter makes an appearance to tell some of his side of the story. The documentary is engaging, but it is extremely heavy on the first two films, and while the latter films are mostly a step down, they may have deserved more time.
Also included is a feature length commentary with Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert that is enlightening as to the lengths they went to to make the film in the Philippines and what it took to make the film as we saw it.