Director: Sam Firstenberg
Writers: Gary Conway, James Booth
Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Larry Poindexter, Michelle Botes, Gary Conway, Jeff Celentano, Mike Stone, Ralph Draper
When I publicly acknowledged in my review of the first American Ninja movie that the entire series was a shameful blind spot, it felt as if a huge Dudikoff-sized weight had been lifted off my chest. Without any fears of sentimentality coloring my critique, I could enjoy these classic films on their own merits: the limp grasp of ninja mythology, the whiteboy-in-Eastern-philosophy adventuring, the frequent fight scenes, and the lasers -- my god, the lasers. I was apprehensive, still; to break the seal of reviewing the first film was daunting considering the sequels to come. As a general cinematic rule, sequels tend to diminish in quality, but as evidenced by franchises like No Retreat, No Surrender and Ring of Fire, that rule goes out the window with martial arts b-movies. More accurately, it gets jump-kicked through the window during a bar fight.
In this case, on the other side of that newly broken window is Steve James, and he's laughing and flexing all the while. Returning to the fray as Army Ranger Sgt. Curtis Jackson, he and Sgt. Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff) have recently been assigned to a Marine base to help protect the American embassy on an island in the Caribbean. Life is good for the local Marines. They surf, chase girls, get hammered, and due to some anti-American elements on the island, must rock Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts instead of their standard uniforms to blend in. Even the base's brash commanding officer, Capt. "Wild Bill" Woodward (Celentano) is dressed for a Jimmy Buffett concert.
Because of his culturally appropriated ninja-sense, Armstrong knows something is fishy right off the bat, and it's not the local shrimp tacos. (Shrimp are technically decapod crustaceans, not fish). Jackson and Armstrong are first invited to go water-skiing by a few of the dudes from the base. Guess what? There's no fucking life jackets. The boat mysteriously breaks down and drifts ashore to an isolated island beach. The shifty Marine is all, "oh, how strange... let's go swimming everybody" and Armstrong says "I'm afraid of sharks, I'll stay with the boat." Within moments, he's attacked by a gang of ninjas who throw every manner of ninja weapon cliche at him: the spears, the confounding net, the stars, the swords. Even while dressed in a three-quarter-length wetsuit and white cross-trainers instead of his normal ninja gear, Armstrong prevails and the gang makes it safely back to base.
Even though Woodward has no idea what ninjas are (how typical), he grants Armstrong and Jackson a week to investigate further. They have a hunch that these ninjas may be related to a spate of kidnappings of Marines. Really, Joe? You think the random beach ninjas, kidnapped Marines, and shifty Marine who ran the boat ashore and into a sabotage might be connected? As it turns out, all of these things were mere coincidences and the kidnapped Marines were actually just busy with a bunch of hookers, the ninjas were a local indigenous culture hostile to outsiders, and the shifty Marine was actually just a terrible driver. Kidding! Joe was totally right. A local heroin kingpin called The Lion (Conway) has been using a kidnapped biological engineer to create an army of ninjas out of kidnapped Marine DNA to protect his vast drug empire. Do you see why pro-lifers are so concerned about stem cell research? This is the shit that happens.
After exploring some super-serious dramatic territory with the first American Ninja, it was interesting to see that director Sam Firstenberg could lighten the tone with the second installment. The movie is zany throughout, and pretty much everyone got the memo. Dudikoff seems a little detached -- there's only so many Blue Steel glares I can tolerate -- and he makes some odd wardrobe choices like a leather jacket and jeans tucked into his boots. (We're in the Caribbean, mind you). James pretty much steals the show once again as Sgt. Curtis Jackson, so no surprises there. Mike Stone is pretty enjoyable as Lion's main muscle, Tojo Ken, and his build-up as the most threatening physical match for the heroes is well done, if completely illogical. (During quality assurance testing, he kills about 20 of the gang's own GMO ninjas). Jeff Celentano is a little stiff as Capt. Woodward, but sports a fine moustache and owns the best line of the film: "What is this? Ninjas? Drug pushers? My men getting kidnapped and murdered? This is really beginning to get on my tits." It's funny, because he doesn't actually have tits. If he does, they're pretty small.
While the movie treads a lot of the same action territory as the first installment -- heroes get jumped by ninjas, defeat ninjas handily, rinse, repeat -- there are some distinct differences. The most egregious is that Michael Dudikoff looks pretty awful in his fight scenes. A successful fight scene, in this humble writer’s opinion, requires that the stuntman act as if he’s getting hit, but also that the principal act as if he’s hitting him. Dudikoff acts like an interpretive dancer trying to complete a field sobriety test after a dozen Pina Coladas. When he’s not flailing, or throwing a weak kick, he’s doing movements without any regard for how the stuntman is moving with him. I counted at least three instances where he “threw” an opponent despite having no grip whatsoever on them. None of this is helped by the fact that Steve James brings intensity to his fight scenes, is deliberate but not stilted in his movements, and genuinely appears to be having a good time beating up those around him. It would be easy to point the finger at Dudikoff as a non-martial artist, but I think blame should be laid at the feet of Sam Firstenberg. The Koff looked passable in the first film, so what changed? One has to assume that director was lazy with the coverage and was forced to edit his way out of it.
Let’s recount: decent fights, a silly story, mostly unremarkable characters, and a lead actor who I may forever refuse to embrace as a martial arts action star. When all the critical elements are sort of neutral, your film would appear to be dead in the water, but you can still win a ton of points on overall form and pacing. I ultimately enjoyed the breezy runtime because there was always *something* happening: either a fight scene, a ridiculous plot point that moved the story forward, or some display of dated fashion sense out of a modern Williamsburg farmers market. While this film seemed to signal Dudikoff's waning interest in the franchise, the rest of the crew picks up the slack. Solid.
Wide and salty, like the Caribbean Sea. Amazon, Netflix, EBay.
4.5 / 7