Film Review: American Samurai (1992)

Release Date: December 22nd, 1992 (Germany)
Directed by: Sam Firstenberg
Written by: John Corcoran
Music by: Craig Stuart Garfinkle, Robbie Patton
Cast: David Bradley, Mark Dacascos

Cannon Films, 94 Minutes

Review:

“Why couldn’t we just be brothers?” – Drew Collins

The poster for American Samurai has the tagline “…Bloodsport with blades”. That is an incredibly accurate description. Although, this pales in comparison to the awesome Bloodsport.

However, many fans of Cannon’s various ninja films see Sam Firstenberg as the premier 80s ninja genre director. Also, Firstenberg left the American Ninja series after part 2 and fans never got to see him work with the second star of that series, David Bradley. This film, however, teams these two guys up and gives you a taste of what American Ninja 3 could have been if Firstenberg stayed on to direct the debuting Bradley.

That being said, this is nowhere near as good as the two Firstenberg American Ninja movies or his two films before that, when he was working with Japanese ninja actor Sho Kosugi. This is better than American Ninja 3 and 4, however. But I would put American Ninja 5, slightly ahead of this.

This film brings back John Fujioka, who was Joe Armstrong’s ninja master in the first American Ninja. Also, it is the first major film role for martial arts bad ass Mark Dacascos. The film actually pits Bradley against Dacascos, who plays his jealous foster brother but legitimate son to his father’s samurai legacy. Dacascos wants to prove to his father that he is superior to his adopted son. He leaves his father and foster brother behind, becomes yakuza and forces his brother to eventually fight to the death in the climax of the movie.

American Samurai actually plays like a live-action version of an arcade fighting game from the early 90s. It predates the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat movies but definitely takes its inspiration from those franchises and the Jean-Claude Van Damme movies BloodsportLionheart and Kickboxer.

Filmed in Turkey, you don’t get to see too much of the geography, as most of this takes place indoors and on confined sets. The arena is pretty drab but then so are the fighters that populate it. You didn’t have a cast of cool and unique fighters like you saw in Bloodsport or Lionheart.

American Samurai is entertaining enough if you are into 80s and 90s martial arts pictures. It certainly isn’t exceptional in any way but David Bradley gets to work with a better director and it opened some doors for Mark Dacascos.

Film Review: American Ninja 5 (1993)

Release Date: March 29th, 1993 (Greece)
Directed by: Bobby Jean Leonard
Written by: John Bryant Hedberg, Greg Latter, George Saunders
Music by: Daniel May
Cast: David Bradley, Lee Reyes, Pat Morita, James Lew

Cannon Films, 102 Minutes

Review:

“Whoa!” – Hiro

I am a massive fan of the American Ninja franchise. So it sort of pains me to admit that I actually didn’t even know about this film until it was out for about a decade. There are reasons for this though, so let me explain.

First off, the film does not fit in with the first four movies in the American Ninja series. It is its own separate story and David Bradley plays a completely different character than his more famous Sean Davidson from the two pictures before this one.

Reason being, this was originally developed as a film called American Dragons. Ultimately, instead of piggy backing off of the American Ninja vibe, as Cannon did with American Samurai (also with David Bradley), they just threw up their hands and called this American Ninja 5. Sadly, this could have evolved into its own series had Cannon kept the original title and then didn’t go belly up almost immediately after.

Secondly, this film did not get a theatrical release in the United States, at least that I know of. It came out on video in international markets in 1993 but didn’t actually hit U.S. video store shelves until 1995. And even though I worked in video stores in that era, I never came across it. This may be because of Cannon Films ceasing to exist and their later films lacking real distribution.

This chapter in the series gets an incredibly bad rap. It has a 2.8 on IMDb (that’s out of 10) and no real critics featured on Rotten Tomatoes have even reviewed it or rated it. As a film, all on its own, I think it is better than the two previous American Ninja outings. While the fourth one featured David Bradley and the returning Michael Dudikoff, it completely missed the mark. The third film (and Bradley’s first) was really kind of a dud with really bad fight choreography and lacking a formidable evil ninja.

I think that people dislike this film solely for the reason that it isn’t a part of the universe from the first four movies. I get that. However, as a standalone picture, it is the best ninja movie that Cannon did since American Ninja 2: The Confrontation.

The film features Bradley, who I always think is pretty solid, and adds in Pat Morita (a.k.a. Mr. Miyagi), James Lew and Lee Reyes (the younger brother of Ernie Reyes Jr. and son of Ernie Reyes Sr.). Morita is barely in this movie but it opens up the idea that he could have been bigger going forward, had this turned into its own little series.

The film also looks better than the previous two. It gets out and gets more exotic than just trying to have South Africa and Lesotho stand in geographically for whatever random country the previous three films took place in. This chapter was filmed in Los Angeles, Venezuela and Italy. It was the best looking film since American Ninja 2 and it did a good job utilizing its surroundings.

The action was also better than the other Bradley films and this thing just feels like it is better directed, better acted and better produced.

It still isn’t a good film but it certainly isn’t a horrible one. While the villainous Viper came off as cheesy and hokey, more often than not, his Wolverine-like claw made up for it. I also liked that they got more colorful with the ninjas in this film. We’ve had colorful ninjas throughout the American Ninja series but in this film, they seemed to be utilized more. The film sort of plays like a late 80s/early 90s action video game. It really got me nostalgic and I had to fire up Bad Dudes on my original Nintendo.

I like American Ninja 5. At least, I like it more than 3 and 4. It is hard to top 1 and 2 but this was David Bradley’s best effort. However, like part 4, I was really missing the presence of Steve James. And it would have been cool to have seen Dudikoff thrown back in, even if this wasn’t a real sequel to part 4.

Film Review: American Ninja 4: The Annihilation (1991)

Release Date: March 8th, 1991
Directed by: Cedric Sundstrom
Written by: David Geeves
Music by: Nic. tenBroek
Cast: Michael Dudikoff, David Bradley, James Booth, Swayne Alexandre

Cannon Films, 99 Minutes

Review:

“This isn’t a game, Gavin, those were ninja!” – Sean Davidson

The American Ninja franchise lost Michael Dudikoff in part three. However, he returns in this one, even if he doesn’t show up until the middle of the film. What makes this chapter in the series interesting, is that it is the only one to feature both of the “American Ninjas”. Unfortunately, they don’t have a lot of screen time together and this is a pretty shitty movie. Also, this is the first picture in the series to not feature the bad ass and awesome Steve James.

The plot sees some angry white dude team up with Muslim terrorists that happen to have a ninja army because every baddie in this series, regardless of cultural ties, has ownership of a ninja horde. I don’t even remember what the baddies’ plot was and I just watched this and have seen it a bunch of times.

Anyway, Sean (Bradley) really wants to get help from Joe (Dudikoff) but he’s off being a pacifist with the Peace Corps. Eventually, Sean gets captured and at the exact moment where he is about to be burned alive, Joe walks onto the set and tears up ninja ass. Suddenly, you’ve got two “American Ninjas” kicking the bejesus out of anything that breathes.

The action is actually a step up from the atrocity that was the fight choreography in the third film but it still pretty much sucks here and it made me feel bad for Dudikoff, who got to do some really cool shit in the first two movies in the franchise.

This picture is also a weird hybrid of a ninja movie and a bad Mad Max ripoff. The good guy gang that storms the fortress to battle the ninjas looks like a 1980s post-apocalyptic Halloween parade. But if you ever wanted to see a post-apocalyptic desert gang battle a ninja horde, this is your movie. I can’t recall this happening anywhere else, ever.

As much as I love this franchise, this movie sucks tremendously. It also doesn’t help that the music is absolutely friggin’ awful. I’ve heard better sounds come out of a speaker covered in dog shit emitting white noise.

American Ninja 4: The Annihilation gets its title from what it does to our spirits. It annihilates the souls of those who loved these movies before this one. It then swallows them up, waits a few hours and then pisses them back into our faces.

I really hate doing this, based off of the quality of the first two pictures in this series, but American Ninja 4 must be put through the Cinespiria Shitometer. That being said, the results read that this is a “Type 5 Stool: Soft blobs with clear-cut edges (passed easily).”

Film Review: Bloodsport (1988)

Release Date: February 26th, 1988
Directed by: Newt Arnold
Written by: Christopher Cosby, Mel Friedman, Sheldon Lettich
Music by: Paul Hertzog
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb, Leah Ayres, Norman Burton, Forest Whitaker, Bolo Yeung

Cannon Film Distributors, 92 Minutes

Review:

“You break my record, now I break you, like I break your friend.” – Chong Li

After making notable and entertaining appearances in No Retreat, No Surrender and Black Eagle, it was a no brainer to give Jean-Claude Van Damme his own starring vehicle. It was also a good fit, putting him into a loose biopic about the life of martial artist Frank Dux. Granted, this just covers the first Kumite tournament that Dux fought in. However, it’s a more compelling story than what was typical of the late 80s martial arts genre.

In reality, Dux’s claims about his fighting history have been disputed and proven to be false. Regardless, the tale evolved into this movie.

This film was also the first time that Van Damme and Bolo Yeung appeared together. They would also duke it out in Double Impact and have talked about making a sequel to that film.

Alongside Van Damme and Yeung is Donald Gibb, who is probably most known for playing Ogre in three of the four Revenge of the Nerds movies. Norman Burton and a young Forest Whitaker play the men sent to Hong Kong to bring in the AWOL Frank Dux.

In Bloodsport, we follow Dux as he leaves the Army and heads to Hong Kong to fight in the secret underground fighting tournament Kumite. He breaks fighting legend Chong Li’s (Yeung) “world record” and thus, paints a target on his back. Li, who is infamous for murdering his opponents, sends a message to Dux when he severely injures his friend Jackson (Gibb). Dux, while evading the military men sent to retrieve him, must step back into the Kumite ring and avenge his friend against the psychotic Chong Li.

Bloodsport is interesting in that it puts a lot of focus on the tournament itself and the fighters in it. It showcases the varying martial arts styles from different regions of the world and when I saw this as a kid, it was the closest thing we had to a live action version of a tournament fighting game. It was like Street Fighter II coming alive on the screen. Well, until Jean-Claude Van Damme made that Street Fighter movie that is nowhere near as awesome as Bloodsport.

The film has solid action but unfortunately, it takes a half hour or so to get to it. Cannon Films usually kicked off their movies with a big early action sequence. Bloodsport differs from that formula but the action it contains makes up for that lack of instant gratification.

Bloodsport is also one of the best films Cannon ever produced. It is also, still to this day, one of Van Damme’s best pictures. This, alongside Kickboxer, are the two movies I use as the measuring stick for Van Damme’s filmography.

Film Review: American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989)

Release Date: February 24th, 1989
Directed by: Cedric Sundstrom
Written by: Gary Conway
Music by: George S. Clinton
Cast: David Bradley, Steve James, Michele Chan, Calvin Jung, Marjoe Gortner

Cannon Films, 89 Minutes

Review:

“But I am glad that I can tell you that there will be no more inefficient hijackings, no more bungled kidnappings or mistimed bombings, because you see now terrorism can be scientifically focused to be totally effective!” – The Cobra

American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt is where this series went into a steep decline. While one and two are far from masterpieces, they are really enjoyable 80s action flicks featuring a gazillion ninjas and the utter coolness that is Michael Dudikoff. Plus they were directed by the greatest ninja movie director of the 1980s, Sam Firstenberg.

Well, Dudikoff and Firstenberg didn’t return for the third chapter in the series. Many people do not know why Dudikoff bowed out and I didn’t for years until researching it recently. Apparently, after the second film was released, Dudikoff got a mountain of shit from the do-gooders in Hollywood because the movie was made in South Africa during Apartheid. Dudikoff only agreed to return briefly in part four, after convincing the producers to film it in Lesotho, that small independent country surrounded by South Africa. I’m not sure if this is why Firstenberg also left but the filmmakers did not even mention shooting location in the credits of American Ninja 3, which was still filmed in South Africa.

In this chapter, we meet Sean Davidson (David Bradley). As a kid, his father was murdered during a robbery at a karate tournament because why wouldn’t a movie like this start out that way? He is then raised by a ninja, because why wouldn’t he be? When Sean gets older, he’s a bad ass ninja and fights in karate tournaments like his dead daddy. At the 1989 Island Games Karate Tournament, Sean meets Curtis Jackson (Steve James) from the first two American Ninja films but unfortunately, this was his last.

Also at the tournament, Sean and Curtis with their annoying friend Dex, discover that something strange is afoot. There is a criminal madman, as there always is at karate tournaments, that is developing some sort of killer virus. While meddling in the bad guy’s affairs, Sean is captured and given the virus. A bunch of ninja fights happen, Sean meditates the virus out of him and the good guys win.

I didn’t spoil the whole movie but there isn’t a whole lot of plot. Just lots of bad fight choreography and other random stunt stuff. And yes, the fight choreography is almost excruciatingly bad. All the scenes where Michele Chan throws down are horribly executed. She looked like a fish out of water and completely awkward.

When Sean and Curtis were fighting, it was mostly okay but there was nothing to really make you pump your fist like when you see Dudikoff in the first film take on the evil Black Star Ninja. Speaking of which, after two good big boss ninjas in the two previous films, this chapter in the series lacked that. The final fight was Sean against the criminal madman, who really wasn’t a fighter. Well, Sean also had to bat away a couple mid-grade ninja henchmen but they aren’t even worthy of being level one bosses in a 80s Data East game.

I don’t hate American Ninja 3 but it does make me weep at the possibility of what could have happened, had Dudikoff and Firstenberg stayed in the series. Don’t get me wrong, David Bradley was not a bad replacement but it was hard to see him achieve his best in a poorly directed, written and choreographed mess like this.

Film Review: Cyborg (1989)

Release Date: April 7th, 1989
Directed by: Albert Pyun
Written by: Kitty Chalmers, Daniel Hubbard-Smith
Music by: Lalo Schifrin, Kevin Bassinson
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Deborah Richter, Vincent Klyn, Dayle Haddon

Cannon Film Distributors, 82 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll take you to Atlanta, and you’ll give me the cure. And if you don’t, I’ll give you the horror show.” – Fender Tremolo

In the late 1980s, I was a big Jean-Claude Van Damme fan like every red blooded American boy. However, I really hated Cyborg when I saw it and I was endlessly reminded of my dislike for it once it started appearing on cable almost weekly for a span of several years. Out of Van Damme’s early stuff, it just completely missed the mark, even if it did have several cool things that could have made it good.

However, seeing it now, a few decades later, I no longer hate it. In fact, I found most of it to be fairly enjoyable, even if it is incredibly cheesy, full of atrocious acting and looks very dated.

To start, it was put out by Cannon Films, who were responsible for dozens of exciting balls-to-the-wall 80s action flicks. It also starred their new up and coming star, Jean-Claude Van Damme. It had a sci-fi setting and was like an American East Coast Mad Max minus the cool vehicles. This would have been much better with cool vehicles. However, this was a good mixture of good elements to make something great. The film lacks in most regards though and it obviously didn’t have cool cars because it was made for the same cost as a case of discount domestic beer, a couple Koozies and a bag of Ruffles.

Most of the fight choreography is pretty good for what this is. Van Damme has the uncanny ability to throw kicks that don’t just look elegant but seem to look powerful as well. He’s always had a grace with his movements that most likely comes from his dancing background but because of this, he just always looks fantastic when he has to pull off that big roundhouse kick to the face.

Cyborg doesn’t have great cinematography. However, there are a few shots that do look amazing and hold up well today. Most notably, the scene where a thug walks into a dark sewer corridor, looks up, and there is Van Damme, above his head, doing the splits while holding a nasty looking dagger. The lighting, the panning and the overall shot was just beautifully done and certainly stands out among the rather drab cinematography.

One thing that significantly hurts this picture is the music. The score sounds like some toddler slamming away on a small Casio keyboard with his sippy cup. The score is so bad that you never get used to it and it sticks out like a sore thumb through every major action sequence.

Cyborg could have been a much better movie, it had some things that worked, but ultimately it was like it was out to sabotage itself. For some reason, there are two sequels to this, neither of which star Jean-Claude Van Damme. Maybe I will watch them someday if I really want to torture myself.

Film Review: American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)

Release Date: May 1st, 1987
Directed by: Sam Firstenberg
Written by: James Booth, Gary Conway
Music by: George S. Clinton
Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Larry Poindexter, Gary Conway

Cannon Films, 90 Minutes

Review:

“I don’t like that tiny maggot, I don’t like him at all. I mean what is this? Ninjas? Drug pushers? My men being kidnapped and murdered? This is really beginning to get on my tits.” – Wild Bill Woodward

When I reviewed the first American Ninja I said that the films got worse and worse. I was wrong on one account, this film. Truth be told, while I watch the original every couple of years, I haven’t seen this one since I was a teenager. Back then, I didn’t like it as much as the first. Now, I think it is pretty equal, if not slightly better than the original. Things do go downhill after this one though.

The plot is a little wacky but the action and the setting are much better than the first picture. The story sees our heroes Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) and Curtis Jackson (Steve James) arrive on a Caribbean island (actually filmed in South Africa) to investigate why some Marines have gone missing. As the film progresses and ninjas keep trying to capture Armstrong and Jackson, we learn that some villain is making mindless super soldier ninjas out of the elite soldiers he captures. The end goal is to sell super ninja armies to other villains with large bank accounts. So we get a big finale of Armstrong and Jackson against an army of super ninjas.

Compared to the first film, Dudikoff is much better on screen in the action sequences. James also puts down the big machine gun and fights ninjas with a couple machetes. The film has a lot more hand-to-hand combat and the skills of the actors and the stunt work is just more refined and fluid in this movie. The main evil ninja isn’t as cool as the Black Star Ninja from the first movie but he’s still a solid baddie.

Unfortunately, Dudikoff left this series after this film except for a fairly brief appearance in the fourth film. This was also the last time we got to see the duo of Dudikoff and James on screen together, following the original American Ninja and Avenging Force, which came out between the two Ninja movies.

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation is a good sequel to the original. The series tanks after this installment but at least we got two good chapters before the breakup of Dudikoff and James and the introduction to David Bradley, who took over the series in American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt.