CANNON MONTH: American Ninja (1985)

According to Vintage Ninja — and who are we to doubt a ninja with photographic evidence — this film was in production as Sho Kosugi finished Ninja 3: The Domination and before he had a falling out with Cannon and went off to make 9 Deaths of the Ninja, which was called American Ninja in some markets which meant that this movie was called American Warrior in other countries.

Cannon often tried to sell movies before they were made, so the next version of this movie would star Chuck Norris — wearing the evil ninja costume from the aforementioned Ninja 3 — but then Chuck decided — allegedly — that he didn’t want to cover his face. He also probably would have said that ninjas were sneaky and too violent and to please, think of the children. But hey — that’s no insult to Chuck. He knew his brand.

So Cannon went with Michael Dudikoff, who while athletic wasn’t a martial arts star like Kosugi and Norris. Luckily, he had stuntman and Enter the Ninja creator Mike Stone to help.

Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff) has a choice: join the Army or go to jail. He’s barely settled in when he saves Colonel William Hickock’s (Guich Koock) daughter Patricia (Judie Aronson, After MidnightFriday the 13th: The Final Chapter) from the ninjas of the Black Star Order. He’s the only man that survives and he ends up protecting Patricia — and being targeted by the Black Star Master Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita, SevenThe Octagon) — while still getting thrown in the brig.

The rest of the soldiers dislike what they perceive as him not caring about others. But because he’s so silent — he can’t remember anything about his past and has no idea how he became such a skilled hand-to-hand fighter — he’s targeted by Corporal Curtis Jackson (Steve James, who is amazing in this) but after one fight they become friends.

Patricia — against her father’s wishes — sets up a date with Joe but during their dinner they’re noticed by Sergeant Rinaldo (John LaMotta, who was director Sam Firstenberg’s first movie One More Chance) who is selling weapons to Victor Ortega (Don Stewart, Markov from Carnival Magic), the main bad guy who has been hiring all of those ninjas.

As Rinaldo and the ninjas work to set up Joe for the weapons thievery and several murders, our hero is saved by Ortega’s butler Shinyuki (John Fujioka). He’s a soldier who never knew World War II ended, but still was able to save and rescue Joe after the death of his parents. Fujioka specialized in Japanese soldiers still fighting the war, playing similar parts in The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark and the Bud Spencer and Terence Hill movie Who Finds a Friend Finds a Treasure.

Only Jackson, Patricia and an MP named Charlie (Phil Brock) are on Joe’s side and things get worse when we discover that Patricia’s dad is the one really selling the weapons to Ortega, who is about to host an entire convention of criminals and terrorists in the Philippines to sell off all of the weapons. They didn’t figure on an American Ninja ruining all of their plans.

While I prefer Kosugi in the Cannon ninja movies, this is a fine film and Firstenberg really knows how to keep the story and action moving. Steve James is another favorite and he’s great in literally every second he gets on screen. It’s a shame that he died so young.

This movie is a million times better than it should be. They may have made four sequels and a few associated movies like American Samurai and Lethal Ninja, which was also sold as American Ninja 5: The Nostradamus Syndrome.

You can listen to The Cannon Canon episode about American Ninja here. There’s also a watchalong here.

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