Posted by Jon Peters on Jul 4, 2011
Cannon Films, like any other studio yesterday or today, wanted to keep a good thing going, and for them in the 1980s it was
the ninja movie. After two early successes for the studio in Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja (recall
this film’s flashback here), success wasn’t guaranteed a third time in their Ninja III: The Domination. The studio took
a break, as did director Sam Firstenberg, but in 1984 the studio wanted to revisit the genre, but with a twist. The deadliest
art of the Orient is now in the hands of an American.
Killer Film catches back up with director Sam Firstenberg for an Action Packed Flashback
for 1985′s American Ninja.
After the lukewarm reception to Ninja III: The Domination both critically and
financially, Sam took a break from the genre with Breakin’ 2. “It was the company’s decision
to keep the Ninja series alive, despite the lukewarm reception of Ninja III: The Domination. When I was directing and editing
Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo, the American Ninja project was already approved and being written. So while finishing Boogaloo,
I was also preparing American Ninja. I didn’t even have to think about doing it, I was just offered the job by the company
and accepted the challenge right away,” says Firstenberg on how he got back involved with the ninja genre. Golan-Globus
Productions sent the crew to the Philippines with a budget of a million dollars. Now, the film just needed a fresh face as
the headlining star.
“For the part of Joe Armstrong, I interviewed more than 400 young actors and martial artists,”
recalls Firstenberg on the casting process. “But when Michael Dudikoff walked in and did the reading, I felt that
he was the American Ninja. After a few call backs we had five finalists with Michael one of them. He already had some credit
to his name including Bachelor Party and Radioactive Dreams in the lead. After putting them all on tape and viewing it we
all agreed that Dudikoff is the American Ninja.” Despite his squared-jaw, blond hair, seemingly Americana presence,
Dudikoff had zero martial arts knowledge, something that over the years, he would receive flack for. “US champion
Michael Stone prepared him for the movie. Richard Norton who had a part in the movie was also Michael’s stunt and fight
double, but Michael did a lot of the action and the fights himself and he was very good at it. American Ninja was Dudikoff’s
first important lead part in a major theatrical release and of course it was risky but it was a huge success and the rest
is movie history.”
Steve James was cast as Cpl. Curtis Jackson, and in an interview years ago, claimed Dudikoff
had high levels of anxiety and fear of being shown up as a result of a lesser knowledge of martial arts than his sidekick.
The story would involve Pv. Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff), an orphaned drifter will little respect for much other than
martial arts, finds himself on an American Army base in The Philippines after a judge gives him a choice of enlistment or
prison. On one of his first missions driving a convoy, his platoon is attacked by a group of rebels who try to steal the weapons
the platoon is transporting and kidnap Patricia (Judie Aronson from Friday the 13th: Part IV: The Final Chapter),
who is the base colonel’s daughter, who happens to be along for the ride. Joe rescues Patricia and gets her safely back
to the base, but everyone else in the platoon is killed, leading his superiors to conclude that Joe is guilty of cowardice,
collaboration or simple incompetence. At the same time, the rebel leader vows revenge against the serviceman who disrupted
his plans, and sends an army of ninjas to assassinate him and bring back Patricia.
Firstenberg recalls casting the very young and beautiful Judie Aronson, who made a slight splash against Jason Voorhees
prior to American Ninja for another Cannon Films vet, Joseph Zito (Invasion USA). “After Michael
Dudikoff was already cast we started to pair him up with different candidates for the love interest part. In such a case what
I am looking for is the right chemistry between the actors. Judie and Michael had it on screen; they worked perfectly together
and that is what counts. I am glad we made that choice.” The film also cast Tadashi Yamashita, who has been seen
in Enter the Dragon and Lethal Weapon 4, as the Black Star Ninja, someone Joe would have to defeat.
The film opened on August 30th, 1985 and would eventually gross $12 million, making it another rousing success for
both director Sam Firstenberg and Cannon Films. A whole new series of ninja films were born, as the film received four sequels,
some with just Michael Dudikoff and others with David Bradley and Steve James. “The popularity of American Ninja,”
explains Firstenberg, “is the simple fact that at its core the movie is really a story about innocent first love
and true friendship. The lead character is a reluctant hero and the combination of Michael Dudikoff and Steve James was perfect.
It is a well balanced movie with good main plot, some mystery, good secondary plot, nice romantic story, great back story,
a handsome innocent hero and a terrific sidekick. But best of all it has lots of exciting action, beautifully choreographed,
and executed in an exotic location.”
And due to his success in the genre, Sam Firstenberg was referred to as the go-to guy for
ninja films during the 1980s. He explains whether this label was accidental or if he embraced the genre as his own. “When
I set out to become a movie director I did not even dream that one day I will end up in action, it was accidental. But once
I was deep in I found it to be full of fun and cinematically rewarding. Creating an action sequence is pure cinema, a short
story told by only visual means with not one word spoken. That’s a real problem to solve, a challenge, and I love challenges.”