Sunday, August 30, 2015

Newsploitation: AMERICAN NINJA (1985) turns 30!

August 1985 was one hell of a month for movie fans. Released in those 31 days thirty years ago were tons of titles still fondly remembered today including FRIGHT NIGHT, WEIRD SCIENCE, PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, REAL GENIUS, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON, and TEEN WOLF. Naturally the boys at Cannon had to squeeze something in there and they offered up another film in their “ninja” sub-genre. What is surprising about this film is that despite featuring no big actors it still managed to be a modest box office hit for the company. Not only that, but it gave the company two new stars.

The first mention of this continuation of the NINJA series came at the American Film Market in 1984 when Golan and Globus promised a NINJA IV alongside other sequels PREPPIES II and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II. NINJA 3: THE DOMINATION (1983) had come out the previous September and done only so-so, but the GoGo Boys were determined to keep wringing the last drop out of that shinobi shozoku. A few months later at Cannes, the company debuted the AMERICAN NINJA title. A this point it was a wildly different film. Director Sam Firstenberg was back, but the lead was Cannon’s Golden Bearded Boy, Chuck Norris. The tagline promised “Assassination! Random Murder! Terrorism! Only One Power Can Stop It…” and the screenplay was credited to James Silke. Come the October MIFED film convention and the film had changed significantly again - the script was now written by Norris and James Bruner and Joseph Zito was credited as director. Given those particulars, it is easy to see this Norris project morphed from AMERICAN NINJA to INVASION U.S.A., his 1985 vehicle.

Never ones to let a good title escape them, Cannon regrouped in the new year and announced in January 1985 that AMERICAN NINJA was scheduled to come out in September 1985. Firstenberg was back on the project and a script was now attributed to Paul De Mielche and the story was credited to Gideon Amir and Avi Kleinberger. At the 1985 AFM the producers announced that filming would take place in the Philippines beginning in April 1985. The two-page ad offered a traditional ninja leaping through the air with the tagline: “He was trained in Japan to kill a thousand ways. Now he’s home and will face his deadliest challenge.” By the time of the Cannes festival the following May, Cannon had found their American Ninja and - as part of their “The Year of Cannon” ad campaign - announced the new star, Michael Dudikoff, in a gorgeous color poster of what would become the iconic AMERICAN NINJA pic of Dudikoff bringing down his sword on a ninja.

The California-born Dudikoff had been acting since the late ‘70s in smaller roles and he had just started to breakout to bigger roles, such as being one of Tom Hanks’ buddies in BACHELOR PARTY (1984) and the co-lead in Cannon’s wild Albert Pyun post-apocalyptic-comedy-action-musical RADIOACTIVE DREAMS (1985). According to the recent Cannon documentary ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, Dudikoff was selected by Menahem Golan due to his slight resemblance to James Dean. It was a true star-making turn for the young actor and one that firmly established him in Cannon’s ranks. Rewatching the film recently, you can really tell that the thirty-year-old Dudikoff gave his all for the role, as he is doing tons of leaping, diving and fighting.

Also launched as an action star in this film was the fantastic Steve James. Like his co-star, James had been around in film since the late ‘70s, perhaps best known for his role as Robert Ginty’s pal in THE EXTERMINATOR (1980). By far the biggest revelation on my recent revisit is just how much damn charisma James has. It leaps off the screen in his role as Armstrong’s nemesis-turned-ally Curtis Jackson. His natural presence is also the perfect balance to the quiet cool Firstenberg has Dudikoff going for. The duo has a great onscreen rapport, so it is no surprise they did a trio of films together. Also notable is the presence of Tadashi Yamashita. NINJA series staple Sho Kosugi’s contract with Cannon had ended and he went on to do his own thing so the co-star of THE OCTAGON (1980) was brought in to play the “Black Star Ninja.”

Cannon ended up getting AMERICAN NINJA into theaters just a few days earlier than their September 1985 release date (imagine the insanity of shooting a film in April and having it in theaters just a few months later). The film debuted nationwide on August 30, 1985 and was the highest grossing new release that weekend with a haul of $3,234,837 for a fourth place finish. It is worth noting that Cannon only got this into 672 theaters, the lowest theater count in the top five (for reference, the no. 1 and 2 films, BACK TO THE FUTURE and TEEN WOLF, had over 1,500 and 1,400 screens, respectively; damn, Michael J. Fox was kicking ass at the box office). AMERICAN NINJA ended its haul with $10,499,694, which was more than NINJA 3 had made the previous year. The series proved popular enough on home video and cable that four sequels were produced over the next six years.

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