Say what you will about the cheap, often tacky, often bad movies made by my beloved Cannon Films, but some of what they did was, for lack of a better word, important. They brought ninjas to Western culture with a trilogy of films -- Enter the Ninja (1981), Revenge of the Ninja (1983) and Ninja III: The Domination (1984) -- and before long these shadow warriors had invaded popular culture everywhere. This may not seem "important" to you, but then you might not be a #HeavyAction fan. If you grew up watching action movies in the '80s as I did, you cannot understate the value of the ninja in contributing to one's education and burgeoning love of genre cinema.
But Cannon's ninja films -- particularly American Ninja, the subject of today's Heavy Action column -- serve another important function as well. They helped to bridge the kung fu movies of the '70s (those made by the Shaw Brothers, for example) with the shoot 'em up action movement of the '80s. Yes, Bruce Lee helped "Americanize" martial arts movies in Enter the Dragon, but Cannon brought them to the video store shelves, normalizing the art form within the context of more "accessible" action films. It's kind of like when Jean-Claude Van Damme brought Hong Kong action to the U.S. by hiring filmmakers like John Woo and Ringo Lam. It's not something he often gets credit for, but he helped changed the face of the American action movie. In their way, so did Cannon.
Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo), and the American Ninja train was leaving the station.
Originally intended as a vehicle for Cannon house star Chuck Norris (who declined the role for unspecified reasons, possibly [as one story goes] because he didn't want his face covered for much of the movie's running time), the part of the American ninja eventually went to Michael Dudikoff, an actor previously known for playing a goofball in comedies like Bachelor Party and Albert Pyun's Radioactive Dreams. He plays Joe Armstrong (I love that there is a ninja named "Joe Armstrong"), an American soldier stationed in the Philippines. He suffers from long-term memory loss and can only remember certain things like being in gangs and training in the martial arts, which is convenient when your career path is that of "American ninja." After being picked on and cast out by his fellow soldiers, Joe finally befriends Curtis Jackson (the great Steve James) and gets asked out on a date by Patricia Hickock (Judie Aronson), daughter of Joe's commanding officer. When the soldiers are attacked and wiped out by the evil Black Star ninjas and Patricia is kidnapped, Joe is reunited with master Shinyuki (John Fujioka) and resumes his training to become...you guessed it...the ninja from America!
Then there's Steve James, an actor conscribed to a career of playing sidekick to the (white) hero, whether it's here or in The Exterminator or Avenging Force or Hero and the Terror (his fate in all three of those movies being the same, which is even more criminal). He deserved his own action franchise, as he was a guy who had it all -- he could fight, he was ripped, he was handsome, he was charming. He's almost always more of a badass than the actor to whom he was playing second banana and made every scene in which he appeared that much better. That he passed away so soon (at age 43) is a tragedy not just for his family and loved ones but for action movie fans who were denied what would hopefully have been the one great role to break him out. I miss you, Steve James.
Joe Armstrong represents a departure from the usual Cannon hero, who were so often either fascist supermen or revenge-minded vigilantes. Joe is quiet and reserved, but not because he's the brooding silent type in the Eastwood tradition. He is decent and sensitive -- except for some questions about his past, he's a hero without a real dark side to him -- and there's a trickle down effect that frees the movie from Cannon's usual cynicism and ugliness. Don't get me wrong: the movie is still super violent and a lot of people are stabbed and shot and blown up, but it all feels weirdly innocent. The movie is as schlocky as a lot of Cannon efforts (the sub-A-Team score slathered throughout does not help), but Firstenberg's positivity and Dudikoff's sincerity combine for an action movie that believes not just in the mysticism of the ninja, but in real heroism as well.