Director: Cedric Sundstrom
Writer: Gary Conway
Cast: David Bradley, Steve James, Michele Chan, Marjoe Gortner, Calvin Jung, Evan J. Kissler, Yehuda Efroni, Mike Huff, John Barrett
PLOT THICKENERThere’s no shortage of talented people who hated the practice or products of their exceptional gifts. Before a Paris gallery showing in 1908, Claude Monet destroyed more than a dozen paintings in his infamous “Water Lilies” series; this sort of purge was a pattern for him. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle grew to despise his popular Sherlock Holmes character so much that he killed him off in a story and stayed away from Holmes for the next eight years. Not even the chopsocky genre is immune to this sort of self-directed grumbling. In American Ninja 3, Curtis Jackson, played by Steve James, is sick and goddamned-tired of fighting ninjas, despite his innate ability to wreck shop. This is like penicillin complaining about being a great treatment for bacterial infections.
All bellyaching aside, this would mark the first film in the series in which which director Sam Firstenberg and star Michael Dudikoff sat out to make room for new talent. Taking over the director’s chair is South African filmmaker Cedric Sundstrom, who did a few features after this and then (for better or worse) moved on to television. To replace Dudikoff -- at that time, a male model with decent screen presence but limited fighting chops -- the Cannon Film Group enlisted David Bradley, a practitioner of shotokan and kempo (kenpō) karate. His screen presence at this point consisted of an upbeat fighting style and a barely perceptible Texas drawl, topped with a shaggy coiff that would make Sho Kosugi proud.
Bradley plays Sean Davidson, an American who trained in ninjutsu as a youth under the tutelage of his murdered father’s master, Izumo (Jung). Sean is recruited for a lucrative fighting tournament in the fictional banana republic of Port San Luco, Triana, where he befriends a fanboy named Dex (Kissler) and U.S. military strongman Curtis Jackson (James) who’s probably on vacation to get the hell away from his co-pilot in the first two films. Little does the trio know that the tournament was hatched by the evil Cobra (Gortner) to ensnare one lucky participant for more nefarious purposes. Through his East Bay Laboratory enterprise, he hopes to use viral engineering to control fighters for more precise and efficient terrorist operations, and sell this product to the highest bidder. His colleague and the head trainer of his ninja outfit (and a hensōjutsu master at that) Chan Lee (Chan), has pre-selected Davidson for evaluation in the test pilot. What might happen if Sean is infected by the Cobra’s evil virus? Superhuman strength? Complete ambivalence to pain? Mood swings? A burning sensation while urinating?
The prevailing opinion among chopsocky heads is that this is the sequel where the American Ninja franchise officially went off the rails and straight into the crap bin. I don’t buy into that narrative. Here’s the harsh truth, y’all: these films were not good. Sure, the first one had lasers, Tad Yamashita, and that cool girl from Weird Science and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. The second one had beach fights and Body Glove wet-suits and the continuing Dudikoff-James bromance. Were they more “fun” than this one? Maybe, but that’s all subjective. Any perceived drop-off in quality between the second and third entries is splitting hairs, if you ask me; we’re not debating The Godfather versus Air Bud here.
The most problematic difference between this film and its predecessors it is the direction. Cedric Sundstrom may be a capable director in some regards -- he made the saxophonist-vengeance trash gem The Revenger the same year -- but his first installment of American Ninja is a stale, messy regurgitation of old plot points. The first two films saw the heroes taking down ninja terrorists, before fighting a villain called “The Lion” who ran an experimental ninja program, respectively. Sundstrom’s film has a villain named “The Cobra” who runs an experimental viral ninja program to benefit the world’s terrorists. Yeah -- tomayto, tomahto. There are plenty of other story miscues, from the abandoned fight tournament plot point, to a goofy and protracted motorized hang-glider scene. The East Bay Laboratory’s high-tech inner lair is just fluorescent lighting and a bunch of colorful, steamy liquids bubbling in beakers. For reasons that elude me, the lab station is surrounded by half-naked dudes on pedestals who are button-activated into ninja mode at the end of the movie. This is the kind of stuff that you might dream up after eating a hash brownie before bed, but it’s not something a rational person should commit to film (even in the 1980s).
Sundstrom’s command of the action elements is equally suspect. Outside of a single car-splosion, there are really no elaborate stunt sequences in the film, but the audience is treated to a fight scene once every 15 minutes or so. That’s a fine pace, but the film’s lead martial artist and its choreography (via Mike Stone) are frequently betrayed by poor shooting angles and coverage. This leads to a few scenes dogged by choppy editing that exposed plenty of strikes revealing too much space. (If you watch enough of these films, you can probably forgive the lack of quality control). Despite his character’s objections to the contrary, Steve James is having a good time cracking heads and throwing around stunt dudes in ninja garb. He has a scene in the film’s climax where he wields double swords and hacks and slashes his enemies to pieces, with all of the correlating sound effects ... but none of the visual bloodletting. Like a lot of other things, it wasn’t in the budget, I guess.
The supporting cast features a couple of interesting choices. Gortner was a controversial Pentecostal preacher from a young age and his biggest cinematic claim to fame was the Academy Award winning 1972 documentary Marjoe, which tracked his rise on the tent revivial circuit to televangelism and his final revival tour. Considering his history of blowhard behavior, it was a big surprise/screw-up to see him so subdued here. As the ninja leader with a conscience, Michele Chan is pretty good and has amazing rockstar Jem & the Holograms style spiky hair. These days, she pursues philanthropy and is married to billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, a co-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. I’m sure she credits this film for most if not all of the great things in her life.
VERDICTTo reiterate, this is an uneven ninja film where the star spends all of about 20 seconds in a ninja suit. On balance, though, the film gets one point for David Bradley’s debut, another point for Steve James being awesome in a “Shalom Y’all” shirt, and a third point for Michele Chan’s incredible mane of hair. After that, your mileage will vary. If you enjoyed the 80s cheese of the second film in the series, this one cranks the funk up a few notches, but pure action aficionados are likely to turn their noses up at this one.
AVAILABILITYYouTube, Amazon, Netflix.
3 / 7