R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Ninjapalooza, Part 2 – American Ninjas

With summer just around the corner, I’m excited that things look to be picking up a bit out there. I’m hoping the next few weeks will improve over what we’ve seen so far this year, with 2010 having produced perhaps one example that comes anywhere close to being a classic action film theatrically. It’s now April and so far the best action to be seen out there has either been a couple of DTV offerings (Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Ninja) or have come out internationally (The Shinjuku Incident, Bodyguards and Assassins). I did enjoy The Book of Eli, Green Zone and Edge of Darkness, but I didn’t feel like any of these films reached their full potential. Worse yet, films such as Clash of the Titans and Repo Men weren’t able to reach past the level of guilty pleasure.

Still, there is hope of the horizon.

’80s-style action is coming at us in bunches, as The Expendables, A-Team, and Predators are all coming at us in the weeks and months ahead. Hopefully, each is able to provide us with the old-school adrenaline rush we’re looking for without seeming too dated. My hope from each is a mix of the old and the new. I love the idea of the type of macho heroics that used to be commonplace in action movies but with the energy of a modern day thrill ride. A movie like Stallone’s last Rambo entry is a good example, providing us with the muscle-bound kick to the face we’d expect from the series, but with an amount of viscera that would have earned it an “X” –rating in the days when Reagan was in office.

If the old-timers can’t get it done we may be in trouble. I’m pretty sure that Iron Man 2 is the summer’s one guaranteed safe bet, and that Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood should be a solid finish to his pseudo trilogy of battle epics with Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, but after that things get a little shakier. May 28’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time looks promising, but could also end up a disaster, much like every other video game movie ever made. The buzz for Jonah Hex has largely been bad, I have no idea what to think of Knight and Day, and the directing pedigrees for both The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and The Last Airbender have me pretty worried.

Honestly though, I think we’re going to be ok. Every summer there are disappointments, surprises, and a PIXAR movie that ends up one of the best things we’ve ever seen. Before the summer even starts we’ve got Kick Ass, which is out right now and completely AWESOME, and if I’ll find Nightmare on Elm Street to be as entertaining as the Friday the 13th remake last year, I’ll be happy enough. If the first trailer is any indication, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World will also hit exactly the right tone, and send the summer out in style.

Now, before the summer hits and I’m completely distracted by my favorite season of Hollywood blockbusters to write about anything else, let’s get back to some ninjas…

R0BTRAIN’s Bad Ass Cinema presents…

Ninjapalooza! Part 2!

American Ninja Starring Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, and Judie Aronson. Directed by Sam Firstenberg.

While I’d always seen copies of American Ninja around on video store shelves or thrift stores, for some reason I’ve never really ever wanted to check it out. The movie and it’s sequels just seemed like one of those bargain basement type series that didn’t get much better than the title, and if I had been in the mood to watch a seriously good action film, like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Die Hard, I might have been disappointed when I finally sat down to give it my attention. Turns out, in the middle of a ninja movie marathon is exactly when you want to experience the awesomeness that is American Ninja and star Michael Dudikoff.

Taking place on a nameless island in the pacific, the story revolves around an army base that is constantly being raided by bandits who steal shipments and cause general havoc on the local highways. Turns out the bandits are actually a small army of ninjas, lead by the renegade Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita), whose use of stealth and general disregard for human life makes him and his underlings nearly unstoppable. That is, of course, until someone decides to finally take a stand.

That man IS Pvt. Joe Armstrong, a soldier with few words, but tons of lightning fast moves, and Pvt. Joe Armstrong is played by Michael Dudikoff. Like a modern day James Dean, Dudikoff doesn’t have to do much more in a lot of his scenes but stand there and look cool and disinterested in what’s going on around him, but when he’s called to, he springs into action. To his credit, he looks pretty formidable throughout this movie, despite the fact that the star had never actually had any sort of training before this movie.

Thankfully, while Dudikoff is all kinds of awesome here, the movie doesn’t even have to solely rely upon him to make sure you have a good time watching this thing. With layer upon layer of 80s cheese stacked pretty high during this movie, if you’re in the right frame of mind you can’t help but enjoy yourself. Armies of ninja battle armed with swords, magic, lasers, and heaping helpings of karate, keeping the movie from ever getting boring. On top of that, you get Steve James’ Jackson who belongs in some kind of sidekick hall of fame, and Tadashi Yamashita shows the same type of slimy villain appeal that made him so easy to hate in The Octagon.

Is American Ninja a good film? No. Is it a fun one to watch with your friends when you are ready to have some ridiculous fun? Absolutely.

Ninja Starring Scott Atkins, Tsuyoshi Ihara, and Mika Hijii. Directed Isaac Florentine

So I don’t know how many of you watch DTV very often. Since I’ve been writing this column for Inside Pulse I’ve seen my fair share, and let me tell you, most of them are awful. This especially goes for action movies, because most of these are made on a shoestring budget, with little to no creativity. Often times, DTV action films are boring, mostly filler, and end up having very little action, let me tell you, there are few things worse that an action movie with no action. I’ve been saying for years that what the DTV market needs to become what the Grindhouse market was for the 1970s and ‘80s; a place for smaller budget, but high energy movies. Sure, for every ten Grindhouse movies there were nine bad ones, but that one could end up being a movie like Coffy or The Streetfighter, and then you’d have a small phenomenon on your hands as the rest of the market went to capitalize on the movies that did work and became profitable.

Well guess what? It seems like somebody out there just might be listening. No longer the wasteland it once was, some directors and former action superstars are beginning to really flourish in this market, and the results are quite shocking. Until seeing Kick-Ass this past weekend, the best 2010 action film I’d seen was Universal Soldier: Regeneration, the third installment of this series, which may actually stand as the high point of the whole franchise. Other recent offerings that managed to keep the body count up and skipped the trip to the big screen were the insane hitman smackdown The Tournament and Dolph Lungdren’s awesome Die Hard-rip off Command Performance.

Joining this group, and representing some of the most fun I’ve had watching any movie this year, was director Isaac Florentine’s Ninja. Now most of you are probably not familiar with the works of Mr. Florentine, but you may have seen some of the covers to his movies while perusing your local video store. The director’s The Shephard: Border Patrol is a movie that is absolutely in the upper echelon of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s late-stage career. Florentine’s Undisputed II is that rare DTV movie that outclasses its predecessor in terms of action and general awesomeness, despite the fact that Undisputed was actually a theatrical film directed by action legend Walter Hill. (Note: Undisputed III is on the way and I hear it is AWESOME.)

By far though, my favorite film of Florentine’s is Ninja. The movie is at once a throwback to the type of Michael Dudikoff/Sho Kosugi movies of the past, while updating the genre with terrific choreography and awesome camerawork. For anyone that saw Ninja Assassin a couple of months ago and thought “meh”, I highly recommend you seek this film out and check out what this type of material can do for someone who really knows how to shoot action and give us some really martial arts heroics. I know it seems like such a simple thing, but just being able to see what’s going on during the film’s action actually makes it more exciting, which shouldn’t be as revolutionary a concept as it is. Sure, I like gore and gobs of blood as much as the next guy in my movies, but I’d take being able to see awesome choreography over CGI blood any day.

Thankfully, this movie also has a star that is able to carry the film on his back and take this thing to the finish line. Scott Adkins, who has always played supporting roles in Florentine’s films but never headlined, comes to the forefront as Casey, an orphan who grew up in the ninjitsu dojo he was trained in. A star student, he must uphold the honor of his clan by taking its most prized possession, a treasure of ninja weapons and an ancient uniform, and get it to safety, while a rogue member of their school tries to take the objects for himself. While this premise may be gloriously silly, the film manages to take itself pretty seriously throughout, and the results are pretty infectious.

First and foremost, the reason to watch this movie is for Adkins himself. Though he’s been around for a while now, it feels like I’m getting in on the ground floor here, because he’s starting to get noticed, and I feel like the man has the moves and the screen charisma to be huge. The guy looks like he jumped right off the pages of a comic book, but so far he’s been relegated to supporting roles or work in big budget pictures like The Bourne Supremacy or X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Hopefully, a few more roles like this one and he should get his shot at the big time. In the mean time, I’m perfectly happy to watch him do his thing in movies like this. Adkins’ work in Ninja’s fight scenes are a combination of grace and brutality. His physical prowess has him doing flip kicks and jumping over cars, but at the same time, when he hits you, it really looks like it hurts. Whether taking on one opponent or sixteen, it looks totally legit when he takes them all down. While I do appreciate stars like Jason Statham, you can tell that Adkins is working at another level due to his martial arts training, and whether he’s defying gravity or breaking someone’s neck, I buy it every time.

Add in a terrifically devious villain in Tsuyoshi Ihara’s Masazuka, Florentine’s Zach Snyder-esque fight scenes, some terrific choreography and an apocalyptic showdown of new and oldschool ninjas, and what you’ve got on your hands is B-movie heaven. Ninja isn’t the best DTV action film I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the most polished. Like the best directors, Florentine takes what tools he has and uses them to maximum effect. If you’re tired of watching action films that have lost their grit and ingenuity, you should give Ninja a go. Good action films are still out there, sometimes you just have to look a little harder to find them.

See you guys soon.

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