American Ninja takes the classic action film to an utter apex of absurdity, offering up a hyperbolised vision of sigma masculinity that revels in its own silliness. Michael Dudikoff plays Joe Armstrong, an American who is found unconscious on a Pacific island with total amnesia: “Date of birth – unknown. Parents – unknown. Next of kin – unknown.” All that Joe does know is that he’s a martial arts master and this serves him well when a judge conscripts him into the United States army in the Philippines, where he finds himself called upon to lead the charge against the deadly Black Star Order of ninjas and their nefarious ringleader Victor Ortega, an arms dealer played by Don Stewart who is slowly stockpiling American weaponry.
Right from the outset Joe, and Dudikoff, play as the ludicrous yet logical conclusion of the strong silent archetype of action cinema. For the first act Joe simply doesn’t talk, even in a crisis, when basic directives are essential, since talking is apparently feminine, as personified by Patricia Hicock, the female lead played by Judie Aronson, who doesn’t keep quiet even when being pursued by ninja insurgents. When we finally hear Joe’s voice it’s thin, reedy, high-pitched and doesn’t sound like it has fully broken yet – not unlike the shock and bathos of hearing a silent movie star speak for the first time. At one point he puts a bucket over his head to fight his adversaries, and there’s not that much difference in charisma or presence.
Yet this strong silent outlook is simply one facet of Joe’s lone wolf persona, which is “misunderstood above all else.” Dudikoff distils the action visage to pure angst and in doing so reduces it to its base ingredient – high school. In the same way that Red Dawn imagined communists parachuting into Calumet High as the coal face of the American military, Joe is like the new kid from out of town – rocking up suddenly, unknown to everyone, including the people in command. In the opening scene he looks on moodily, toying with his gun, while everyone else plays hackysack, and only scowls when he’s told that “loners don’t get too far in this outfit.” Team spirit is tantamount to cuckdom, while Joe is the only man in the military with any real sense of chivalry, even if it is just as misunderstood as the rest of his character, as when he is blamed for Patricia’s abduction despite actually rescuing her from the ninjas.
This distillation of the action lexicon means that American Ninja is also unusually overt about the primal fear of post-Nam cinema – that the American military-industrial complex has been effeminised beyond repair. It’s here that the martial arts resonates so dramatically, since it renders Dudikoff macho and effete at the same time, poised awkwardly between dancing and fighting, in a kind of ungainly ballet. The effect is not dissimilar to the opening sequence of West Side Story – just as the burly bodies of the Jets and Sharks are somewhat at odds with the silky choreography, so Dudikoff’s middle-aged white Dadbod feels irretrievably incongruous with the litheness of the martial arts world. I’m no ninja expert but his moves aren’t all that convincing here, which is perhaps why the action often devolves into slapstick, whether in the form of pratfalls that function as side flourishes to the main set pieces, or scenes where the action regresses entirely to playing around with so many infantile ninja toys.
The upside of all this hyper-absurdity is that American Ninja shifts almost imperceptibly into a feel-good film, since it only takes a few life lessons for Joe to shed some of this adolescent angst and become best buddies with the men on his base. In no time they feel like members of a long-lost sitcom, while also planning a ninja hijack on the side, which leads to an even more surprising shift: American Ninja actually becomes a halfway decent film by its second act, when it exudes the cosiness of late night television, the comforting hang-out vibe of the first generation of VHS releases. By the end, Joe has acquired ninja magic, laser guns, and a retinue of followers, who look on as he conducts a Jedi-like fight in an ornamental pool, clad in a black suit that harkens back to Luke’s outfit at the end of Return of the Jedi. And American Ninja ultimately aims for the same creature comforts as Star Wars – it’s a vision of what the blockbuster, still a recent invention in the mid-80s, might have become if it was helmed by less competent hands. In that sense, it’s a minor masterpiece, an endlessly comforting oddity.