Cinapse Favorite AMERICAN NINJA Makes Its Blu-ray Debut!

American Ninja was released to Blu-ray on August 16 by Olive Films, along with its first three sequels.

As a kid I kind of scoffed at the American Ninja movies, or at least my idea of them. Who would want to watch a movie about an American ninja? The concept was laughable. (Somehow in my hypocrisy this logic didn’t apply to the Ninja Turtles, whom I loved unreservedly).

It’s too bad I didn’t watch these movies at the time because I would’ve loved them. American Ninja is in a lot of ways the perfect R rated movie for action-loving kids: a ton of awesome cartoonish action, clear heroes and villains, a few swear words and a little blood to make it feel a bit dangerous, and some light puppy romance but nothing actually objectionable.

American Ninja is quintessential Cannon Films. Directed by prolific Cannon personality Sam Firstenberg, it’s a distillation of a lot of why we love that company. And love it we do: at Cinapse, the American Ninja franchise is part of our DNA. Our editor in chief Ed Travis has written extensively on the franchise and on Cannon Films in general, not only here but at Ain’t It Cool News, where his Cannon Fodder column covered a ton of films from the mighty distributor.

The first film in the franchise introduces us to an Army Private named Joe (Michael Dudikoff) as he arrives at his new station in the Philippines. He’s a quiet loner who is disinterested in getting to know the other soldiers, and we later discover the reason for his withdrawn attitude: he’s an amnesiac.

When their army caravan is attacked by ninja bandits (!), Joe uses his martial arts skills to halt the attackers and rescue the General’s daughter Patricia (Judie Aronson), but his heroism is not appreciated at the base, where the other soldiers lament the loss of several lives in the battle which might have been averted had Joe simply complied with the thieves. But he does have the appreciation of (new love interest) Patricia, and finally wins the grudging respect of Cpl. Curtis Jackson (Steve James), who is impressed by his fighting skills and moral courage. Together, they uncover a conspiracy that goes up their chain of command, implicating their Sergeant of selling military weaponry to the local guerrillas, who happen to also be ninjas.

The film has a number of cool action sequences as Joe uncovers further reaches of an escalating conspiracy that is out to silence or kill him. Patricia is kidnapped from her home to lure him out, naturally this leads to a final explosive confrontation as he takes on the evil ninjas and their supervillain crime boss, also unlocking the secret behind his hidden memories and the film’s title. (Patricia has been kidnapped by ninjas. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue her?)

Michael Dudikoff has a simple endearing charm in the role of Joe, though the character is so reserved and stoically written, especially toward the beginning, that he comes across as a bit wooden at times. Apparently Chuck Norris was first approached for the role with Cannon even taking out an optimistic but unsubstantiated ad with his name attached (as they were wont to do). As much I enjoy a good Chuck Norris flick, I’m glad he opted out of this one. As great as he is as a martial artist, let’s be honest — ninjutsu isn’t really his style and having a younger, lesser known actor inhabit the role of an Army private with a romantic interest undoubtedly yielded a much better result.

Steve James is awesome as lovable badass Curtis Jackson, and their rivals-turned-friends relationship is the film’s anchor, and one of its most distinct pleasures. I think Ed would also say that across the franchise, his story is the more interesting one.

Some aspects of the story, mostly where Joe’s amnesia is concerned, are thinly scripted or poorly explained. Also, the main villain, aside from his deployment of a ninja army, is a bit of a generic crime boss with no personal stakes for the characters or investment for the audience until the last act, when he kidnaps Patricia.

But typical of Cannon’s style, American Ninja is a bit cheesy, action-packed, and a ton of fun, and kicked off a memorable franchise.

The Package

American Ninja arrives on Blu-ray from Olive Films, along with its first three sequels. The discs come in flat-spined Blu-ray cases and share a similar design aesthetic such that they have a nice shelf presence together.

These are better than average efforts for Olive Films, with the inclusion of special features and subtitles — I really like that Olive has worked to turn things around on this front lately.

Picture quality might come across as a bit soft and grainy, but if I know anything about Cannon Films, it’s that all their movies look exactly like this.

Special Features and Extras

A Rumble in the Jungle: The Making of American Ninja (22:48)
 Produced especially for this disc, a meaty and well-made short documentary on the film. Features interviews from director Sam Firstenberg and stars Michael Dudikoff and Judie Aronson, among others. My favorite parts describe Firstenberg’s history with Menahem Golan and Cannon Films, and American Ninja‘s place in the succession of ninja-themed movies at Cannon which began with Sho Kosugi titles.

A featurette like this appears on all 4 of Olive’s American Ninja Blu-ray releases, notably edited and co-produced by recognized genre documentarian Elijah Drenner.

Trailer (1:49)

Audio Commentary with director Sam Firstenberg and Elijah Drenner

If you’re a fan, this is a must-buy. With best-ever home video quality and respectable features, this is a great presentation of an action classic, and quite possibly the pinnacle of its presence on physical media. I know there’s a temptation for fans who want all the films to hold out for a box set of the franchise (which could theoretically also have the 5th film), but Olive doesn’t really seem to do much in the way of repackaging or re-releasing, so I wouldn’t hold my breath. It seems unlikely to happen, and if it does, it could be a long wait.

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 American Ninja — [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]
 American Ninja 2 — [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]
 American Ninja 3 — [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]
 American Ninja 4 — [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]

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