Course Correction with AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION, New on Blu

The first 4 American Ninja films, including American Ninja 4: The Annihilation, were released on Blu-ray from Olive Films on August 16th.

This article caps off a short series reviewing the new American Ninja series Blu-rays from Olive Films. Please also check out parts 1, 2, and 3 covering the other films as well!

American Ninja 3 is pretty much a disaster all around, which made me uneasy about taking another ride with director Cedric Sundstrom behind the wheel (especially since I knew that Ed, who shares a lot of my taste, hated it). I’m happy to report that it was a major course correction, and while not in the same league as the first two films, it has a lot of interesting things going for it.

The most obvious change is that Michael Dudikoff returns, co-starring with American Ninja 3’s David Bradley. He’s a welcome sight and his character has evolved a bit since last we saw him. More on that later. Unfortunately Steve James didn’t return, so we’re still missing that old camaraderie from the first couple films (James sadly passed away a couple years later, ending any chance of an eventual reunion).

Cedric Sundstrum apparently found some of his mojo again as the direction in American Ninja 4 is better on nearly every front. Unlike the incoherent third film, the plotting and action make sense and maintain interest.

Now with the CIA, Agent Sean Davidson (David Bradley) goes on a mission to Africa (contextually South Africa, though I don’t recall if it’s actually mentioned) to rescue some Delta Force soldiers taken hostage by a ruthless warlord and his entourage. This is an American Ninja movie, so OF COURSE the bad guys have any army of ninjas, DUH.

Unfortunately the one area in which this film doesn’t show any improvement is the lame sidekicks department. Sean’s mission partner is a dorky pal who’s completely worthless in a fight, and the pair get further bogged down by a loudmouthed kid who squeals their location to the bad guys almost immediately (but they let him hang around anyway).

Unsurprisingly, also worthless in a fight.

I know it’s wrong to wish violent death on a child, but this toolbag kid right here.

Also joining their party is one more person who actually does contribute value, a lovely and quick-witted Peace Corps doctor named Sarah (Robin Stille), who knows the area and helps the guys through some tough jams.

But also worthless in a fight.

Sean has some great fighting sequences and doles out some beautiful damage with a bow and arrow. But unsurprisingly, despite his ninja awesomeness, his pals are quickly overpowered and the group ends up in the warlord’s prison with the same people they were trying to save.

Nice rescue, assholes.

Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff), who had previously turned down the mission, is called upon once again to rescue the (growing list of) POWs. Having moved on from his military career, he’s now living abroad as a pacifist. If this story arc sounds familiar, that’s because it’s basically Rambo III. In Joe’s case, he’s now a schoolteacher with the Peace Corps, and uninterested in returning to a life of violence — until his pal Sean’s life is at stake.

And this, I think, is one of the key flourishes of brilliance in this film. Sean and Joe had never actually met on screen before, but the movie trusts the audience to fill in the blanks. They had probably met through their mutual friend Curtis, and — who knows? — maybe the trio even had a bunch of untold adventures together after American Ninja 3. By not explaining any of this, the film actually opens up its world to further possibilities.

Though I guess it’s possible they were both just members of the same anime club.

I’ve heard Dudikoff’s role here dismissed as a cameo, and that’s not true. While there’s a lengthy setup before introducing Joe, he owns the movie’s second half. His rescue mission takes the most unexpected of detours — in order to storm the enemy’s compound, he teams up with a gang of leather-clad rebels in the desert clearly inspired by Mad Max, and also has a humorous infiltration mission in priest’s garb to steal the mountain base’s architectural plans. This stuff is super fun, and all the Dudikoff parts of the film really feel like the franchise is truly back on track.

Take that, Col. Klink!

One curious shift from previous films is that, while all four films are technically R rated, this is the only one that actually earns it. The POW theme is pretty dark, and these bad guys are truly sadistic. Yes, in the franchise’s supervillain fashion they plan to nuke New York City and all that, but it’s the more intimate evil that resonates: wantonly executing soldiers and civilians alike by point-blank headshots, hanging, and even immolation. There’s also some implied rapeyness as one of the top baddies tries to feel up Sarah as she’s chained to a pillar. None of the other American Ninja movies really have anything more intense than the expected martial arts violence, but this one warrants more thoughtful consideration where younger viewers are concerned.

Ugh, even the bad guys have moronic sidekicks.

The Packages

American Ninja 4: The Annihilation arrived on Blu-ray on August 16, along with the first three films in the series, which I have already reviewed separately.

The discs come in flat-spined Blu-ray cases and share a similar design aesthetic such that they have a nice shelf presence together.

Special Features and Extras

Last Tango In Lesotho (14:09)

The final making of featurette is almost entirely an interview with director Cedric Sundstrom, with brief injections from Michael Dudikoff and producer Avi Lerner. Some of the most interesting stuff deals with the global political environment surrounding the production, the incredibly dumb producer-mandated reason that Steve James doesn’t appear, and the challenge of knowing that Cannon Films could be winding down its operations.

Music video (4:15)
 “The Cobra Strikes” by George S. Clinton, featuring clips from all four movies.

Theatrical Trailer (1:22)

American Ninja 4 doesn’t reach the heights of the first couple movies in the series, but thanks in a large part to the return of Michael Dudikoff, it’s a big course correction from the abysmal third outing and a solid closing chapter for the franchise.

A movie called American Ninja 5 was later released with David Bradley as its star, but was a rename of an unrelated film with no actual continuity with the series. With that in mind, all 4 American Ninja films are now on Blu-ray, look great, and come with respectable bonus features. Films 1 and 2 are highly recommended. 4’s not on the same level, but still a solid recommend. Part 3’s a dud but completionists gotta completion.

A/V Out.

Further reading:

Blu-ray Review of American Ninja
 Blu-ray Review of American Ninja 2: The Confrontation
 Blu-ray Review of American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt
 Ed Travis on American Ninja 4

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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