Wednesday, 1 October 2014

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation

Starring: Michael Dudikoff
Director: Sam Firstenberg

Year: 1987
Studio: Cannon

The 1980s were a high watermark for the action genre. Films such as First Blood, The Terminator and Bloodsport were setting box offices alight the world over, making stars of their leading men and setting standards for film that many would argue have never been bettered. Well, some of us might argue that, anway…  

But for every Predator, there were plenty of others that didn’t quite live up to the same grade. Some of these were financial hits in their time, but never made it out of the 80s. Every era of film suffers this in some respect, and I think it can generally be put down to a similar variety of reasons – poor critical reception, poor handling of the franchise, studios shutting down, disputes over copyright and as a result films getting lost during changing media formats (e.g. Betamax to VHS, VHS to DVD, etc).
Sometimes, it’s because the film was just the product of a short-lived craze. In the 1980s, ninja films were seemingly everywhere, but very few are readily available today. The American Ninja series are one such example of this fad. They obviously made their studio money – one can only assume that they wouldn’t have made four of them otherwise – but they have not entered the canon of classic action films in the same way that many of their contemporaries have. So, how has time treated the second instalment? The short answer is “not well”, but read on for a more detailed synopsis if you’re so inclined.  

On a remote Caribbean island, US Marines are going missing from their base. But they’re not being murdered or anything so mundane. They’ve been kidnapped, but why? Michael Dudikoff (the titular American Ninja) and his companion (Steve James) are sent in to investigate.

It quickly becomes apparent that one of the Marines is selling his companions out to this ninja organisation. The reasons behind his betrayal are fairly straightforward – they have his wife and are threatening to kill her – but things quickly become unnecessarily complicated.
Ninja "Magic" Part 1
It seems that on a nearby private island, a drug lord calling himself “The Lion” has established his base. He is kidnapping soldiers to turn them into genetically engineered ninjas to serve as enforcers for his drug empire. Naturally, there’s a little more to complicate matters than this; the main love interest’s father is working for the criminal organisation against his will, for instance. All the individual elements are pretty standard, but when viewed as a whole, they don’t make a lot of sense from a plot perspective.  
Ninja "Magic" Part 2
Rarely is this more evident than the scene in which The Lion showcases his army of ninja warriors to a group of prospective buyers. Bizarrely, he summons in his ninja commander – a guy who is presented as pretty badass earlier in the film – who then proceeds to cut his way through the entire room of genetically enhanced ninjas. Maybe I’ve missed something here, but somehow that seems like The Lion just threw away millions of dollars to demonstrate the inefficiency of his ninja army. Yet the buyers are impressed to a man.
On the more positive side, Michael Dudikoff was presumably cast for his martial arts skills rather than his acting ability, but I think he actually has a reasonable amount of charisma, particularly once he’s donned the ninja suit. Steve James, his sidekick, is also quite entertaining. And there are a few good stunts – such as the ninja who cops a shuriken to the head, and the ninja who gets set on fire. Additionally, the scene with a ninja being dragged along behind the car is quite impressive, particularly given the budgetary limitations they seem to have been working with.  
There are many good and entertaining elements in American Ninja 2, fighting to get out – namely, some potentially memorable villains and some good martial arts scenes (you can view the final swordfight here – it’s kind of cool). But they’re hampered by questionable dialogue, poor direction, average pacing and a general lack of focus. Bad humour, impenetrable scenes that drag on for too long and an overall lack of money all bring it down.

Although many films do get “lost” through the decades for whatever reasons, the good news is that many of them do eventually resurface in some form. Granted, it’s often in obscure bargain bins that are not easy to find, but sometimes that’s part of the fun. I still remember stumbling across the legendary Mazes and Monsters as a two-in-one feature, packaged with Loose Shoes, an early and obscure Bill Murray film – all for the extravagant price of $2! Mazes and Monsters paid for itself many times over in the following years.

I found this DVD in the bargain bin in a service station for $6. Who visits a service station looking for a movie at all, let alone American Ninja 2? But, as I’ve said before, God will sometimes send you a pick-me-up in the most obscure form.

I first came across the first American Ninja in 2008, at a local video store (remember them?). It had been a bad few months for me. I had been through a bad break-up, work was a bit of a mess and I was drinking heavily at any chance I got. So a friend suggested that we have a movie night to cheer me up and I took him up on the offer. Likely already half-tanked for the evening, I picked American Ninja, fully aware that I would probably enjoy it (or at least find it hilarious) and he would hate it. Surely enough, it didn’t disappoint. It’s an entertaining film, but quite a bizarre one – a product of 1980s fads and low budget. We shall hopefully see its like again.

While the first was nothing to write home about from a truly objective perspective, even if entertaining, American Ninja 2 failed to meet those expectations. As a result, I don’t recommend this film – even taken on a “for laughs” basis, it’s pretty lacklustre. But would I support a remake that was going to be done properly? Absolutely!   

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