Nostalgia is a powerful feeling. What we have sometimes built up in our minds is often quite different from what we remember. It can be a wondrous feeling if it connects and rekindles something that we once held dear. Or it can systematically erase those feelings just as easily, if it fails to hold up to the hype. This past year for home media, there has seemingly been more catalog titles to have come out from the studios than ever and many, many more announced.
Many of these films haven’t been easily accessible and we may have forgotten how truly great or terrible they were, when first watched those long years ago. I often held the American Ninja Series in a high regard as a youth. I remember them being some of the first martial arts films I was introduced to and being super excited to be like Joe Armstrong and save the day. I have been wanting to get the American Ninja series on Blu-ray for awhile now and was very close to importing the 88 Films versions that came out last year when Olive Films announced their versions. Of course I was even more excited when finding out Olive was going to send us some for review.
The Movie Itself (3/5)
The story begins in an Army base in the Philippines where we meet our stoic hero Joe Armstrong; he is just trying to stay under the radar and finish his mandated service. While driving one of the trucks in a supply convoy, they are ambushed by the rebel militia. The soldiers are then taken out of their vehicles and held at gunpoint. When the rebels start to get rough with the Colonel’s daughter (Patricia), Joe springs into action which causes the other soldiers to fight back against the rebels. This leads to (you guessed it by now) ninjas appearing to take control of the situation. They end up killing four of the Americans while Joe and Patricia elude capture and make it back to the base.
The deaths are placed on poor Joe and he becomes the pariah of the base. Until, in typical 80’s fashion, the resident well respected tough guy Corporal Curtis Jackson decides to see exactly how strong this new guy Joe is. Once handily defeated, Jackson accepts the loss graciously and is now firmly in the Joe camp along with the rest of the men and will back him up with whatever he needs. This includes lending his new best friend his motorcycle so Joe can go on a date with Patricia where they see the Sergeant dining with the enemy. The rest of the film goes into a fairly basic plot of the ninjas trying to kill Joe and him having to deal with them but also with his superiors who think he is responsible for everything. This eventually leads to an all out epic battle that might possibly be one of the most one-sided gun battle in film history.
What makes a film like this difficult to score, aside from the personal nostalgia aspect, is whether to treat it purely as movie of its time or to compare it to what else is releasing today. If this film was just made, it would no doubt go down as a straight to video low budget action piece that may have a small chance at cult status, but no one would remember it fondly like they currently do. While the basic story line holds up just the same, I think that the action choreography would be a huge miss. What seemed like great excitement and such powerful martial arts action thirty years ago, now feels almost laughable. You can tell Michael Dudikoff had no training prior to this film and that many of the scenes were just too big with too many untrained actors. The one on one fighting seems forced and unpracticed at times, even when Joe encounters the enemy master ninja Blackstar. There are some decent kills including one spectacular double take down in the warehouse scene, but these are few and far between and don’t really provide enough excitement to overcome the majority of lackluster scenes.
I’ll be the first to admit that due to the increasingly uber violence present now in today’s action/martial arts films, it can put older films into a hole to start with. However even when compared to other 80’s films American Ninja seems somewhat subdued. There are over 100 deaths in the film according to IMDB, yet there is almost no blood or graphic depiction of any of it. Not that is should be a necessity, but when slicing through dozens of bodies with the same sword, you would think there would be at least some blood on it, but nope it stays nice and clean. Not that I was specifically looking for any cursing, but if there was if wasn’t very predominant. This film came out the year after the PG-13 rating and I am struggling to figure out how it got stuck with an R rating. I would have no issue with letting a younger teen watch this film.
While American Ninja might not hold up to my fond childhood memories of it, there are still some worthwhile moments present. The acting is fairly well done and the love story between Joe and Patricia doesn’t feel as forced as they often can be in action films. My highlight was Steve James as Corporal Curtis Jackson. He seemed to really get into his role and give it his all whether he was standing up to his superiors and trying to protect Joe or whenever there was a fight, somehow appearing shirtless and dispatching people with ease.
Visuals/Picture Quality (4/5)
Olive Films uses an existing MGM master for American Ninja which looks very nice in high definition. The detail is excellent and looks great for a film of its age. Clarity is generally fine except for a few hiccups during the darker night scenes. For the most part everything looks very natural and any viewer should be pleased. There are some pops and artifacts that could probably be cleaned up further if they were to go back through and make a new transfer, but with the quality of this final product it seems unnecessary unless they are ready to do a full 4k master.
Score/Audio Quality (3/5)
American Ninja comes with just a bare bones English Mono track. The dialogue was clear and had no issues other than being a little low in an early scene. The track certainly lacks when any type of gunfire or explosions happens and sounds tinny instead of full and robust. The score is reminiscent of other action films of that era mixing horns with electronic equipment. It also reminded me of Macguyver for some reason throughout. The mono track doesn’t seem to affect the bass at all. Though it wasn’t used frequently it gave some great low end when it did show up.
Special Features (3/5)
A Rumble in the Jungle: Making of American Ninja (23 min) This is a newly produced featurette done by Olive Films specifically for this Blu-ray release. It Features Director Sam Firstenberg, Michael Dudikoff (Private Joe Armstrong), Judie Aronson (Patricia), stunt coordinator Steve Lambert, and screenwriter Paul De Mielche. This is quite an informative little piece that documents a lot of the stunt work and filming locations. The actors talk about their on screen interactions. It’s always interesting for me to see the stars when it has been such a long time since the film came out.
Audio Commentary with Director Sam Firstenberg and narrated by Elijah Drenner for Olive Films. I have never been a commentary person and have probably heard just a handful. Having said that, this one is fantastic and I’m glad I did the review for this film because otherwise I most likely would have skipped it. Elijah Drenner moderates the discussion perfectly; he always knows the perfect question to ask. Director Sam Firstenberg and his elephant like memory has quite the stories to tell. Almost everything discussed is bigger picture and location type items. He tells us about his dealings with his bosses at Cannon Films, his previous works, casting, and how him and Micahel Dudikoff saved a young girl from drowning. He doesn’t go into particular shots or many specifics about each scene keeping a broader stroke. As long as you are interested in the film industry from that time, you will be thoroughly entertained. If you wanted to know why something was done a certain way in the film, chances are you won’t find out.
- Disc Art
- Non Eco Case
- Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
- English Mono
- English SDH
Runtime 96 Mins
American Ninja might have half of its running time full of action scenes, but most of them feel dated. If you loved this movie on release 30 years ago, there is certainly some worth to checking it out again, especially at its price point. If you have never seen American Ninja, you can probably give it a pass unless you were born in the wrong era and love other 80’s action films. The overall package put together by Olive is nicely done. I would have preferred a box set with all the films instead of individual releases and possibly more features. What they have given though in features and picture quality is excellent for those looking to purchase.
American Ninja is available at Amazon.
Note: This Blu Ray was sent to us for review. This has not affected our judgement or editorial process in any way. Please contact us if you have any questions regarding this process.