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American Ninja Retrospective

by david j. moore


For any young boy who One-sheet theatrical poster for American Ninja 3.

grew up in the 1980s, watching AMERICAN NINJA (1985) on television or on video countless times was a staple of life. If that wasn't enough, sequels followed over the next decade - four to be exact - to be enjoyed and revisited. The American Ninja film series has inspired legions of fans to take an interest in the martial arts.

Decades later, the word ninja sends chills down the spines of men who, as young boys, once imagined themselves Text Box: One-sheet theatrical poster for American
Ninja 3. (courtesy of david j. moore)
in the black shoes and ninja-yoroi garb so indelibly personified by actors like Michael Dudikoff, David Bradley, and Sho Kosugi in a slew of ninja films throughout the 1980s. Films such as ENTER THE NINJA (1981), REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983), and NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984) were marquee titles starring Japanese martial artist Sho Kosugi, all featuring high-flying heroics and impossible displays of martial artistry, collectively giving the fantastical notion that ninjas trawled urban city streets and belonged to deadly cults intent on conquering the world by sheer force.

When The Cannon Group (which found success producing the Kosugi Ninja vehicles) decided to put a spin on the Ninja title by adding American to it, movie history and pop culture would never be the same. Several serendipitous occurrences worked in parallel for AMERICAN NINJA to click into place. Cannon had a script called AMERICAN NINJA that was supposed to be the next vehicle for Chuck Norris. Norris, who was under contract with Cannon, passed on it, which left a vacancy in the title role. "He didn't want to do it," says Sam Firstenberg, director of the last two Kosugi films at Cannon and the first two American Ninja pictures. "Chuck Norris didn't want to be covered up in black. So we said, 'Let's cast!'" An open casting call for the lead role for the American Ninja culled over 400 young hopefuls. "When Michael Dudikoff walked in," muses Firstenberg, "I remember the moment ... it was like, 'Whoa! This is the American Ninja!' The way he talked, the way he behaved, his body language, everything."

Dudikoff, who has garnered a wide fan base for his portrayal of Joe Armstrong, the mysterious title character of the film, went on to star in three of the five American Ninja films and dozens of other films, many of which were produced by The Cannon Film Group. "I was at the right place at the right time," Dudikoff remembers. "They did a worldwide search for American Ninja, and I got that part because I was ready. I was able to perform karate, but I was more into Aikido and Judo, and street fighting. It was very different, but Mike Stone taught me. I got in there and studied and was prepared."

Mike Stone, who had been a champion martial artist and an expert martial arts trainer, worked on the first four American Ninja films in some capacity as either a stunt man, stunt coordinator, or as an actor. Stone's contribution to introducing the ninja into modern pop culture is undisputed. Firstenberg relates, "The birth of the western ninja movie occurred because Mike Stone came to the office of Cannon in the early 1980s. He came to (Cannon producer) Menahem Golan and said, 'Let's make a ninja movie!'" That movie became ENTER THE NINJA. As the popularity of Cannon's ninja-themed action films rose, Menahem's idea to "Americanize" the ninja was a masterstroke, despite the fact that Dudikoff wasn't an accomplished martial artist. "He is not a martial artist in the sense that Sho Kosugi or David Bradley is," explains Firstenberg. "He didn't have any formal training, but he was very athletic. We had Mike Stone with us, and he choreographed the fights. He said, 'No problem; Michael will pick up the moves.'" Firstenberg further asserts that Menahem was fully onboard with Dudikoff as the star. "He saw what I saw in him. Steve James (who played Dudikoff's sidekick Curtis Jackson in the film) walked in and he was a martial artist, but a style I didn't know. When we paired him with Michael, they had good chemistry, and he was hired."

A fan favorite, Steve James, who played the muscular Jackson in the first three American Ninja pictures, was much loved and admired by those who worked with him. "Steve James, what a great guy," Dudikoff responds. "All he wanted was to be the first black action hero. He wanted to make a big impression on the kids. He tried so hard." Firstenberg, equally fond of James, remembers, "He was a good friend of mine. He was a sweetheart of a person, a gentle giant. There are no words to describe how pleasant he was." Director Cedric Sundstrom, who directed James in AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT (1989), also reflects on James: "I liked his presence. I liked him as a person, and I really, really enjoyed working with him. Unfortunately, he didn't do AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION (1991), which I was a bit upset about." Judie Aronson, who played Patricia Hickock, the love interest in the original AMERICAN NINJA, remarks on James, "He was an interesting guy. He was very serious about his work and even more serious about his workouts." Dudikoff laughs over a memory of James. "I remember doing this scene with him where he had his shirt on, and then in the next scene, I asked him, 'Steve, why do you have your shirt off for this scene?' He looked at me and said, "My brotha, let me tell you something. I've worked real hard on this body. My shirt came OFF!" I would just laugh, and we'd hug. We were like best friends. Having him and Sam Firstenberg, it was just so fun to go to work every day." Steve James left a lasting legacy on film when he tragically passed away at age 41 in 1993.

Behind the scenes: Steve James, Michael Dudikoff, and director Sam Firstenberg on the set of American Ninja. (courtesy of Sam Firstenberg)
Behind the scenes: Steve James, Michael Dudikoff, and director Sam Firstenberg on the set of American Ninja. (courtesy of Sam Firstenberg)

Filming on the first film took place in the Philippines during the dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Filming commenced for over nine weeks of principle photography, with authentic locations deep in the jungle. Judie Aronson recalls the adventure she had filming some scenes: "Taking us to the Philippines was quite an experience. Although we had people doing our stunts, there were a lot of things we had to do ourselves. I remember where we were running away from the ninjas and we had to jump off a cliff into the water. We really did that!" she laughs. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, my god! I can't believe we're going to do this!' I was really feeling everything that character was going through. Obviously, I wasn't running away from real ninjas, but I was scared to death in that scene! It was a blast! I wanted to do it again!" Dudikoff recalls his own misadventure on the set: "I got malaria doing the first one. I had to be in that black outfit and it was 115 degrees. When you have malaria, you sweat profusely. I would have to get undressed, get into another outfit, and I'd fight, and then I'd have to take the wet costume off and put on a dry one. Until finally, after fight after fight and being dizzy, I had a convulsion. They laid me on the roof of a car and I felt my body jumping like a fish out of water. I found out that I had malaria. It was tough, but working over there in the Philippines was great. If I found out that I could work there again tomorrow, I would go."

In the development stage, AMERICAN NINJA had a treatment by Gideon Amir and Avi Kleinberger that mapped out the story, which screenwriter Paul De Mielche would go on to flesh out and script. Amir, who was partners with Kleinberger, admits that the subject of the film was a little foreign to him at first: "I'm from Israel, so I don't know anything about ninjas, and the introduction that Menahem gave us was that we didn't have to know a lot about ninjas, just that only a ninja can kill a ninja!" He laughs. When De Mielche was tasked with writing the script from Amir's and Kleinberger's treatment, he had some reference to draw from a previous scripting assignment, which helped him tremendously to accomplish his task. "I'd been previously approached to write a ninja movie based on a book by Eric Van Lustbader," De Mielche says. "It was called Ninja. I'd read that book. Because I'd read that book, it was an inspiration to me while I was writing AMERICAN NINJA. Menahem Golan had a good instinct about what was coming next, and I was referred to him because I knew what I was talking about when it came to ninjas." De Mielche's take on why the era of the ninja movies was so popular and why AMERICAN NINJA, in particular, remains a favorite, is because they are, in essence, simple. "There's a well-known writer who wrote in an essay that the beauty of ninja movies is you know the difference between the black and the white," he says. "They're very moral, in a way. The good guy wins because he's the good guy. There is no grey area. You know why the bad guy is bad and why the good guy is good. AMERICAN NINJA captured that." As the American Ninja movies moved on without De Mielche, Amir, and Kleinberger, actor and screenwriter Gary Conway (Land of the Giants, Over the Top) took the reigns of writing the scripts for the first two sequels. "After I wrote OVER THE TOP, which was bought by Cannon, they asked me to reconceive or reimagine the American Ninja series, which I was attracted to," says Conway. "I had previously written some scripts dealing with ninjas, and AMERICAN NINJA II: THE CONFRONTATION (1987) gave me an opportunity to do something in the vein of James Bond. I loved the original James Bond atmosphere." He goes on to say, "At the end of the day, I think the American Ninja series had a sense of reality to it. It's become more and more successful. I tell you, I get more and more people mentioning it to me. The audience likes it because of the mood and the atmosphere of it. If you can put yourself in Michael Dudikoff's shoes, you can relate to most of what's going on." Conway emphasizes the human and realistic side of the franchise: "The relationships are what help make a film. Especially if you're not going to rely on special effects. You've got to rely on a sense of humanity. Steve James was a really good guy and a really good actor, and he had a good presence. Mike Dudikoff was really terrific too. I think they brought it. That's the one thing that a writer can't bring to it - it's the one element that is translated by human beings, a certain charm and attractiveness. They both achieved that. What I liked about it - and what I ended up not liking about the James Bond movies - is that they weren't playing it tongue and cheek; they were playing it pretty straightforward. If you think about it, the American Ninja character is not doing magic. There's a reality-based premise to the whole thing. Nowadays, we're burdened with incredible special effects that take you away from these interesting moods."

The two American Ninjas: Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) and Sean Davidson (David Bradley) in American Ninja 4. (courtesy of Cedric Sundstrom)
The two American Ninjas: Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) and Sean Davidson (David Bradley) in American Ninja 4. (courtesy of Cedric Sundstrom)

While the American Ninja franchise grew to satisfy a voracious pop culture appetite, Michael Dudikoff stepped away from starring in the third entry, AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT, which was shot in South Africa under the direction of Cedric Sundstrom. Instead of recasting the role of Joe Armstrong, the decision was made to create a new American Ninja. Cast in the role of Sean Davidson, ex-karate champion David Bradley (real name Bradley Simpson) was granted the lead role. Bradley, trained in Karate Shotokan, Kempo, Tai Chi, and Aikido, would carry the American Ninja franchise to its conclusion through the fifth entry, AMERICAN NINJA 5 (1993). "According to what I heard from Cannon," remembers Sundstrom, "Michael Dudikoff's contract with them was up, plus I don't think he really wanted to do any more at that point. So Cannon said, 'Let's keep Steve James, but find a new American Ninja.' We looked at new people; we held castings in L.A. (there was no local casting in South Africa for that part) and one of the people we saw there was David Bradley. A thing that had struck me with Michael Dudikoff was that he was good looking; he seemed to be able to do the moves, but there's also a vulnerable quality, so I was looking for that. In the casting tapes, they just did a reading - no physical stuff - but in that reading, Bradley had vulnerability, and had the qualities I was looking for. Then, when I looked at his resume, I saw that he was, in fact, a black belt, so he'd achieved something, and that reassured me about the physical aspects."

Though Sam Firstenberg did not direct Bradley in an American Ninja film, he did, however, work with him four times after Bradley assumed the lead role in AMERICAN NINJA 3. "David was already around (in Hollywood by the time AMERICAN NINJA 3 was made)," Firstenberg remarks. "He was a good martial artist. He was like another Van Damme." Dudikoff distinctly recalls meeting Bradley before he became an actor: "You know what? When I first met David Bradley, he wanted to be in the movies so bad. He was working at a car dealership. He was selling Porches on Wilshire Boulevard. Cannon was right down the street. I was at Cannon doing some ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) work, and I took a walk during lunchtime and met David Bradley just down the street. He said, 'Man, I would love to do that martial arts stuff in a movie.' I said, 'Well, do you do any martial arts?' He said, 'Yeah, since I was a kid.' I said, 'You know what? I'm going to talk about you.'" When asked why he didn't continue on with AMERICAN NINJA 3, Dudikoff shrugs, saying, "I love to act, and I felt like I wasn't given that opportunity. I just felt like this ninja stuff wasn't going anywhere. If anything, I'm frustrated because I didn't get (to do) what I was capable of doing."

As Cannon faced a financial crisis and verged on complete collapse as a studio, a last effort to cash in on the American Ninja franchise emerged with a novel concept: Uniting the original American Ninja - Dudikoff - with Bradley, who had already carried a picture on his own, with the support of Steve James. AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION was put into production with Cedric Sundstrom at the helm once again. "Significantly, it turned out that Cannon was still owed one more movie by Michael Dudikoff, whose contract had been renewed in the interim," says Sundstrom. "So they said, 'Here comes the challenge: We're bringing Michael back!' They had a script, which they sent me, but unfortunately it had Michael and David Bradley, but no more Steve James, which was a pity." The pairing of the two American Ninjas should have been a boon for the franchise, but ultimately it ended up more a Clash of the Titans behind the scenes, which is unfortunate. Sundstrom's thoughts on the pairing: "Initially, I don't think they got on well, to the point that David resented the fact that Michael had come back, and that now that he had proven himself as the American Ninja, the other one was coming back. And I think in his mind he didn't adjust to that too well. Michael thought, 'I am it and I'm back,' but he was more gracious about it, I think, than Bradley was. There were certain sequences that I shot, using doubles - from behind the double onto David, and then vice versa from a double onto Michael. But there was a scene where they had to be in it together, which was a nice fight scene where Michael seemingly fights with one of the Japanese, who then turns out to be Bradley - so he was fighting Michael Dudikoff. But, other than that, I kept them apart. There were certain memos going back and forth, that the producers wanted the buddy-buddy thing with Dudikoff and Bradley, but because of David's attitude, they'd lost that in the performance." Ultimately, in the story, Bradley's character is captured and in the action-packed finale, Dudikoff's character has to rescue him, which is telling of which of the two is the real American Ninja. "David resented the fact that the other American Ninja had to come and rescue him!" Sundstrom concludes.

Spanish lobby card for American Ninja. (courtesy of david j. moore)
Spanish lobby card for American Ninja. (courtesy of david j. moore)

The worldwide appeal of the American Ninja series continues to grow, amassing a loyal legion of fans who all seem to agree that there's something inherently special and unique about the films, particularly the original. Having spilled over into the pop culture radar and the martial arts community as a classic, its endurance and popularity still comes as a surprise to those who were involved in their making. "We found out [it was a pop culture phenomenon] when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started showing up," says Gideon Amir. "It was clear that it had become mainstream. American Ninja brought the martial arts aspect into a wider and a younger audience. In some way, these movies were movies that fathers and sons could enjoy together. That's what made it so appealing. It's not just a martial arts movie, but a tale of a young man." Gary Conway is equally complimentary towards the franchise and how it has stood the test of time: "At the time when we were doing [the sequels], we had no idea that they would go beyond the first showings. The idea that they would live on is sort of incomprehensible. If I catch them on TV, I watch them. They have a place. I think the [original] is a classic now." Judie Aronson adds, "We didn't even realize that it was the type of film that people would go crazy over. When you're a part of this, you don't realize what it is until years and years later. Then you realize that you were lucky to be a part of it. Turns out that this is one of those movies that means something to people." Sam Firstenberg, who understands the success of the original and the series as a whole, explains, "The success is not because the action is spectacular, it's because it's two love stories. One: Between Michael Dudikoff and Judie Aronson. It's innocent, they never go to bed. The second love story is between Michael and Steve James: Buddy/Buddy. Two good friends who would do anything for each other. This is the secret of the success of American Ninja."

The original American Ninja himself, Michael Dudikoff, wants to make one final thing clear to his fans: "I want to do another American Ninja. I want my fans to be patient. I want to find some really great martial artists and bring the series back. There's so much we can do with American Ninja. This is a pop cultural phenomenon. I get people all the time saying, 'I wouldn't have this martial arts studio or this dojo if it wasn't for you and growing up on American Ninja! Someday, I'm going to have an academy and a black belt, and I'm gonna have kids, and I'm going to teach them martial arts. I wouldn't have done it without you!'" Dudikoff pauses, smiling. "Talk about humbling. That is the biggest compliment I could ever have gotten."

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