Inside Pulse 12

Monday Morning Critic – The American NinjaQuadrilogy & The Amazing Hilarity of Bad 80s Action Cinema

MMC New

So there was nothing to really write about this week, as prestige season hasn’t quite kicked in and there’s no really good way to write about Snowden without it devolving into either political machinations which most (including myself) are woefully uneducated on … or on how Oliver Stone might be the only director in cinema history with two Oscars that no fans arguing he’s at a great director.

There isn’t even the pretense of “he might have a run left in him” anymore either, like signing an aging quarterback well past his prime because you think he can lead a team to the playoffs with veteran know how. Oliver Stone helming your film is like signing Mark Sanchez to be your quarterback. You hope for competence, nothing more.

Stone is the director that you have to really acknowledge as having a period of time (1975-90, roughly) where he had a white hot streak … and then everything since hasn’t hit anywhere near those heights. Like if he walked away from Hollywood after Natural Born Killers we’d think of him in a much more substantial way than we do after two decades of uninspiring work.

It’s amazing that in the twenty years plus since the end of his peak, which I would argue was The Doors, he’s still working and relevant but he’s a hard sell as a director of note. Stone may have two Oscars but does anyone really consider him a better director than any of his contemporaries like Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola?

He has twice as many Oscars as Scorsese … but if you had to be stuck on a desert island with the collected filmography of one of them you’d have to really work hard to take Stone over Scorsese. It’s a hard sell. What wasn’t a hard sell was when Travis Leamons offered up the chance to take a look at American Ninja on DVD. And instead of a proper, traditional review I thought I’d write on one of the weird touch stones of ’80s American cinema: the crappy action movie sequel.

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It’s a concept that hasn’t gone away … but man, the world has changed in the days since they made up huge aisles of a Blockbuster.

American Ninja had five films in the series, two of which hit theaters (American Ninja and America Ninja 2: The Confrontation), two of which were designed to go direct to video and a finale that has nothing to do with the four film American Ninja universe. American Ninja V was released on television as American Dragons but wound up being the fifth American Ninja film before it was released onto VHS.

And you thought that direct to DVD sequels that had nothing to do with the originals was a new thing, right?

The American Ninja franchise all share the same plot structure. An American badass (Michael Dudikoff) becomes a ninja and has to save the world from other, evil ninjas. The world is filled with evil guys have these massive armies of ninjas at the waiting. He’s joined by Kung Fu Joe (Steve James) and a host of others over the years as apparently evil ninjas releasing weapons of mass destruction are America’s greatest threat. David Bradley would take over for Dudikoff for the third film, and the duo would team up for the fourth, as ninja violence is America’s biggest unintended import.

Bradley is perhaps best known for Cyborg Cop … a trilogy in and of itself that was as equally awful as American Ninja.

I find it amazing all these years later how the sheer hilarious awfulness of this franchise still holds up. These films are collectively bad, progressively worse as the franchise moves on, but there’s a sheer amusement to them that oddly keeps them as repeatable watches. Before martial arts were exposed in the UFC, and before Asian cinema pumped up the volume to compensate, there’s a simple joy in remembering when we thought that knowing Kung Fu made you a bad dude.

Before Royce Gracie demystified the martial arts … Ninjutsu was something that people took seriously, sort of. Thus you could make a film like American Ninja then and it wouldn’t be quite the tongue in cheek comedy it would be now. This is the same era that posited that Steven Seagal as an action movie star … and it worked!

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For a different generation films like American Ninja were staples of every action movie section of every video store, Blockbuster and otherwise. You could make a film like this for $200-300,0000 and make a profit because renting movies was such a big thing to do. We see it now with the direct to DVD market, and major stars who’ve headlined works of note going direct to DVD and video on demand regularly, but there was a class of direct to video stars like Dudikoff that made a living this way.

You could be a genuine, drawing movie star without ever having your films see the inside of a movie theater because of the power of home video. One film made cheaply enough that a $1 million gross domestically at the box office could garner you a half dozen direct to video sequels because you could make everything cheap and have a built in profit margin. The revenue streams weren’t as diverse as they are now, of course, but a film franchise like American Ninja had an audience that rented it en masse.

I should know, me and my idiot friends as kids rented all five at some point. Multiple times. I don’t know whether to be proud or ashamed of that. In my defense it was a weird pair of summers where I rented every action movie in the Dollar Video because they had a two for one deal.

It’s amazing how the world of cinema has changed so radically in the past decade to match the changes in the modern world. You can’t make an edgy, relevant film about a movie rental place, a record store or an arcade without it being a period piece. It’s why films like Empire Records, Clerks and High Fidelity feel sort of quaint now.

That culture of film geeks working in a video store, music fans in a record shop or guys who like handing out quarters to small children because it’s the best job an ex-con can get is long gone. It’s just amazing that the last relics are still on DVD.

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Scott Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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