American Ninja Blu-ray Review

Ninja-fied

Reframing the ‘80s cop movie as a joyously cornball, post-Vietnam military brawl fest, American Ninja is a charmer. Starring an amnesiac ninja (Michael Dudikoff) and a wealth of thinly racist Japanese stereotypes, Cannon Films’ classic has lasers, sword fights, machine guns, helicopter stunts, flamethrowers, explosions, and little – only a little – common sense.

Locked dead center in the 1980s, Dudikoff’s quiet, even listless performance as Joe (“Just Joe”) headlines a film utterly content with its ludicrous and wide swinging action. A grand B-movie score throws up horns and electronic hums as Joe discovers signs of corruption from his superiors. Skirting the fear of communism and armed rebels, American Ninja leans on its sweaty, humid jungle setting with a surge of cheap connections to Vietnam. A distrust of American government and hundreds of vaguely Asian-esque enemies feed the fire.

It’s too schlocky to form any significance. Rather, American Ninja reflects a specific, outmoded standard, both in terms of representation and filmmaking. Crude enough to be voraciously entertaining but competent enough to withstand a critical barrage, director Sam Firstenberg follows his endlessly parodied Electric Boogaloo with this highlight of direct-to-VHS, video store shelf sitters.

Insipid, in a way, but amendment in its intent to exploit a (then) relatively new home video rental market.

Bullets are incapable of connecting with their exposed targets. Crashed cars explode for no discernible reason. Mexican arms smugglers use ninja as their hit squad. Damsels, muscles, romance, one-liners, and coarse choreography; they all bleed from American Ninja. Insipid, in a way, but adamant in its intent to exploit a (then) relatively new home video rental market. Sit and admire its gusto. It’s hard to ignore major studios taking a chunk of American Ninja. Replace the racial stereotypes with a bounty hunting alien. Pieces of Fox’s Predator then begin to show.

There’s a willingness to do anything in American Ninja. Maybe it’s an ever more sophisticated audience at fault, but when wrist lasers take aim at Dudikoff, the film’s backbone of nonsense has already allowed leeway. This comes as Steve James, muscular and gun happy as Rambo, blows through hundreds of stuntmen obviously protecting themselves as they fall from ledges. Violent scenery feeds through a finale utterly content in its own skin, tallying a body count which, in most circumstances, would chip away at the too-small budget. But not American Ninja. It’s too sure that it’s doing right and doing well in its hunt for entertainment value. Of the latter, it has plenty.

American Ninja Blu-ray screen shot 10

Video

We’re a bit removed from fading, overplayed VHS tapes. Olive’s work on American Ninja gives the feature added vigor. Detail forms in each frame and color saturates, if with a slightly digital tint. Excusing a rather odd scratch or possibly lens reflection at 1:18:00 or so, the print used shows enough cleanliness and fidelity to satisfy.

A jungle setting means opportunity to show foliage, and scene to scene, it’s a gorgeous sight. Greens pop and resolution takes off. As Dudikoff makes a trek through the trees early, leaves are defined deep into the background. Close-ups likewise produce fine detail. Rudimentary as cinematography is throughout American Ninja, the clarity and lack of focal changes (outside of certain close-ups) keeps images tight.

Preservation of thicker-than-usual grain and excellent encoding maintains the film stock as it should be. Outside of its style and techniques, American Ninja shows few signs of aging. Deep black levels (albeit lacking high-end density) keep night scenes rich and ninjas cloaked in the shadows.

Audio

Pedestrian DTS-HD mono is the best available for American Ninja. Clean and littered with dry stock sound effects, expect little oomph from this mix. Highlights are better left to the subtitles which note “loud explosion,” in comparison to those vehicles which explode quietly.

Firm dialog and consistent performance are appealing qualities though. There’s a bit of energy offered here along with decent balance. The score is a definite challenge as the screechy horns reach a ridiculously high pitch in the main theme. Everything holds together though.

Extras

Rumble in the Jungle runs 22-minutes, a fine retrospective featurette which is arguably classier than the film itself. Key cast and crew return to discuss their roles and how they landed the gig. Insight into Cannon Films and their process are covered too.

The producer of that featurette, Elijah Drenner, joins the film’s director Sam Firstenberg for a commentary as the second bonus, an unexpected slate of extras for a film this small.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

  • American Ninja
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras

Summary

Michael Dudikoff highlights this ’80s direct-to-video mini-classic by dodging laser beams and pairing with Steve James.

Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process. Patreon supporters were able to access these screens early, view them as .pngs, and gain access to exclusives.