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Blu-Ray Review: Kino Lorber’s American Ninja (KL Studio Classics) 

American Ninja

Michael Dudikoff stars in American Ninja.  New to Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber who has pulled out all the stops for the ‘80s Cannon Film Action Thriller.  

The Film 

Nothing said the 80’s and 90’s like non-Asian dudes doing martial arts films.  Guys like Norris, Van Damne, Seagal, Wilson, and MICHAEL DUDIKOFF.  Dudikoff was a guy who screamed the 80s the way that Neon and Jan Hammer screamed the 80s. American Ninja is a time capsule of exactly what Middle America loved and wanted from its action films; white dudes taking care of business, backed up by a much more capable African American “sidekick”, add lots and lots of Uzis, explosions and most importantly NINJAS and MARTIAL ARTS!

You add the magic that was producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.  Producers of such B-Movie classics Firewalker, Sahara, Lifeforce, and The Stuff!!!  As relics of a bygone era the series has the sort of clichéd story arcs people make jokes and punch lines about.  The American Ninja series never winks though.  Each of the films is earnest in the execution.  There isn’t irony in these films.  Golan and Globus made sure of that.  More to the point, no one ever felt they were above the work.

A clear product of the excess Reagan-esque “rah-rah” Patriotism, American Ninja as a film series is as stupid as it is fun.  Setting up film films with a bare minimum of plot exposition, there is a brevity and unintentionally complex storytelling at play.

The first American Ninja starts us in the middle of a scene.  We are given no bearing on the story just plopped into a Military installation and guys playing hacky sack (no joke).  It is not as though they were being clever and it was intended.  It feels as though the first ten minutes were lobbed off the beginning of the film.  The consequence is actually better, leaner storytelling, smarter by accident.  This kind of storytelling continues throughout the series which works out better in some films better than others.

Watching the original almost four decades removed is quite fun.  There isn’t a heaping of irony needed to watch American Ninja.  Yes, it’s inherently ridiculous but isn’t a nerdy scientist that turns into a green rage monster?  That’s what I thought.  Part of the fun of the entire series and the revisit I had was just how much of a product of its time they are.  Dudikoff and James are the center of the series and the chemistry they have is on par with the great “buddy cop” duos of the era.  Yes, we’re talking Stallone & Russell; Gibson & Glover; and Caan & Patikin style greatness.  There’s an inherent friendship that seems to ring true here.

The Transfer

Kino Lorber has done the film justice with what appears to be a new Master/Transfer.  The image is sharp with a beautiful grain structure.  Cannon films often were never the best shot films but here the image photographed by Hanania Baer is dynamic with colorful pop imagery.  The resulting transfer is a beautiful representation of the film giving it the look of a freshly struck 35mm archival print.  

The Extras

They include the following;

  • Audio Commentary by Director Sam Firstenberg and Stunt Coordinator Steven Lambert
  • Audio Commentary by Director Sam Firstenberg, Moderated by Filmmaker/Editor Elijah Drenner
  • A Rumble in the Jungle: The Making of American Ninja 
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Optional English Subtitles

The first archival Audio Commentary by Director Sam Firstenberg and Stunt Coordinator Steven Lambert opens with introductions by two very close friends.  Some of the details include the butterfly knife that Dudikoff opens with – a book written by stunt coordinator Jeff Imada; working in the Philippines – the crews and how much love they have for them; the stunt work and set pieces – how they were directed, developed, and achieved; where they took inspiration from for the action scenes; and much more.  Firstenberg and Lambert are a great duo discussing the tough nature of low-budget filmmaking in the 1980s with Cannon Films.  There’s a great chemistry and comrade that shows these two men have worked for years together.  

The second archival Audio Commentary by Director Sam Firstenberg, Moderated by Filmmaker/Editor Elijah Drenner opens with introductions and how the idea for American Ninja began and the original casting of Chuck Norris. Some of the details include the casting process working in the Stunt Coordinators as well as the casting director; how Firstenberg started with Cannon Films – which is how he got started in the industry first being assistant director to Golan (of Golan and Globus) turning to his own career; side discussions about what he learned making Revenge of the NinjaNinja III: The Domination and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo; casting of Judie Aronson – how Dudikoff was not a part of her audition process; the casting of Steve James; why they chose to film in the Philippines – including the various reasons why they used Filipino Military bases instead of American; working on the action sequences with the stunt coordinators and in the Philippines; the length and complexity of the production – with how the multiple units work and collaborated; the pressure that he and the crew were under after an issue with Invasion USA went over budget and schedule; and much more. This commentary track is an entertaining and fun conversation between Drenner and Firstenberg with Drenner guiding the conversation to the areas that fans want to know about the production.  

A Rumble in the Jungle: The Making of American Ninja (22:48) – this making-of is as much a mini version of the beginning of Cannon Films as it follows director Sam Firstenberg’s career beginning with how he began his relationship with Golan and Globus leading to his first studio film Revenge of the Ninja (the sequel to Enter the Ninja) to Ninja III: The Domination to how American Ninja was developed, filmed, and released.  As with any of the Cannon Films, the stories behind the scenes are as fun (or even more so) as the films.  Some of the details include Chuck Norris being originally cast – why he didn’t want to star; the casting of Dudikoff and Aronson; the stunt and action work – stories from the production; the script development – both pre-production and on-set; filming in Manila – and stories from the production; and much more.  This is a great slickly produced making-of.  Featuring interviews with Actors Michael Dudikoff, Judie Aronson; and Director Sam Firstenberg; Stunt Coordinator Steve Lambert; screenwriter Paul De Mielche, and others.   

TV Spot (0:34)

Rounding out the special features are trailers for American Ninja (1:50); American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1:34); Avenging Force (1:19); Platoon Leader (1:37); River of Death (2:05); Enter the Ninja (2:54); Revenge of the Ninja(1:42); The Challenge (2:14)

The Final Thought 

Kino Lorber has delivered an excellent updated edition of American Ninja.  Highest recommendations! 

Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray edition of American Ninja is out now 

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