Now in the hands of… an American?

As a footnote to our American Ninja celebratory gripe-fest, here’s a mystifying trade ad from what has to be the early part of 1985, wherein Cannon heralded an upcoming project:

Right studio, right producers, right creative team, right title, right logo. BUT… what the hell?

Now trade ads are always talking shit. They run in industry-only newsrags promoting movies as if the deals are set in stone, sometimes implying they’re in the can, but the reality is these ads are often window dressing for the money hunt. Would-be producers work these things up to stir interest or tip on-the-fence investors over the edge. More often that not the movie promised never gets made or mutates into something way different.

So was “American Ninja” a Sho Kosugi lvehicle at one point, or were they just coyly suggesting that he might be involved in a pending deal. Or did they just see his image as their’s to use regardless of his involvement or lack thereof? Kosugi had left Cannon at this point for what turned out to be far less greener pastures, so maybe this was an attempt to lure him back?

The “American Ninja” title has a shadowy history of its own, too. I have an image stuck in my head of one of these trade ads I saw years ago wherein a Chuck Norris project carried the same name, and would kill to find it somewhere (if it even exists). Maybe it became The Octagon? Kosugi’s own 9 Deaths of the Ninja was called “American Ninja” in some European markets. And the American Ninja we know and love was actually called “American Warrior” during development and as late as the trailer, changing titles at the 11th hour (the ‘Warrior’ title remained in some foreign releases).

A mystery indeed. Too bad I’m the only guy in Hollywood who actually cares about this stuff…

UPDATED:

Man thanks to VN reader Dan for the following clarifications:

“in regards to the whole Sho Kosugi / American Ninja thing, here’s how it went down from what I remember reading and subsequently pieced together. The trade ad you have of Cannon’s “American Ninja” project featuring Sho was likely done before he left Cannon (possibly during post-production on NINJA III), so they undoubtely planned to have their #1 ninja star in the film (possibly in the role that went to Tadashi Yamashita). After Sho left Cannon they planned to getChuck Norris to star as the “American Ninja” (as seen in the attached trade ad), but obviously that didn’t work out and they got Michael Dudikoff. Meanwhile, Sho filmed his first non-Cannon movie, a film with the working title “American Ninja”, which was written and directed by “Enter the Ninja” 2nd Unit Director Emmett Alston. The movie was released as “9 Deaths of the Ninja” and Cannon’s “American Warrior” was therefore able to reclaim the “American Ninja” title and did so (at least in most markets). By the way, you can’t really tell from the attached pic, but the ninja gi Chuck is wearing is the same one worn by David Chung, Lucinda Dickey, and Alan Amiel (their fight double) in NINJA III… The Black Ninja outfit which is really grayish-green. Pretty wild, huh?”

AMERICAN NINJA: Selective memory helps

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25 years ago this weekend, Tim March, my brother Seth and I were dropped off at a theater in Worcester, Massachusetts for an afternoon matinee of American Ninja. The ‘craze’ was actually in the process of ‘jumping the shark,’ Tim and I were getting jobs or landing girlfriends, finding better stuff to spend money on than Black Belt magazines. It was starting to get kind of embarrassing to be caught running around the woods with homemade nunchucks. It just wasn’t the early 80’s anymore.

Time to grow up? F-that! We were there with bells on. Why? Because we were DEDICATED! (translated: DORKS)

The story of a man and the balisong he loved. MICHAEL DUDIKOFF was a bit too Timothy Van Patten-y for our tastes, but with this flick and AVENGING FORCE following shortly after, he proved himself an 80's B-icon.

The lights go down, popcorn being devoured, 80’s synth score blaring. Ninja on the big screen!

During the initial fight (and the fact that black suits and swords were on screen in the first five minutes is a testament to the smarts of Sam Firstenberg), there was a bit where two ninja tie-up a GI with chain in a niftily executed piece of what the Japanese call Hojōjutsu.

Tim leaned over to me and whispered “Holy shit! This is real!!!” and for a minute we thought a more realistic and credible ninja flick was upon us.

90 minutes of multi-colored ninja on monkey bars and wrist-mounted laser guns later… not so much.

A little red-in-the-face over the seemingly inevitable goofiness the American genre clung to, we exited the theater kinda knowing it just wasn’t going to get any better from then on. So, like proper blindly loyal geeks unwilling to blaspheme the cause, we panned for gold and found a lot to love in American Ninja. Quarter century of perspective later, some of it actually holds up.

It starts with Mike Stone.

The unsung hero of the American craze, Stone actually left the ninja business behind after his pioneering work on Enter the Ninja. American was his return to the hood, albeit behind-the-scenes and/or doubling for various ninja cannon fodder.

Stone choreographed the film, but he certainly didn’t need to coach karate and weapons master Tadashi Yamashita, whose “Black Star Ninja” ranks with the 80’s best martial villains.

Never mind all the fights, Black Star’s wacking of a padlock with twin swinging kamas is one of the coolest ninja scenes ever! He’s totally bad ass, and carries the movie single-handedly. But then,  aw shit…

The selective memory FAILS and you remember the fucking machine guns and lasers he resorts to using. LASERS?!?! God, if one single moment, one brief second of celluloid, was the moment the ninja craze was injected with a smelly, cheesy poison that slowly killed it for the next five years, the laser shot was IT.

And don’t even get me started on the Rainbow Ninja Coalition…

Do I even need to rant here?

The ‘Ninja Land’ training compound shit just killed us. When Ninja III: The Domination was released in 1984, Tim and I dragged our posse of high-school friends to it, and my rather anti-ninjite friend Patty coined the term “Caca-Ninja-Movie” with which she tormented us for years. A year later, when the colored ninja gymnastics show started here, there was Patty’s voice in my damned head chanting “Caca-Ninja! Caca-Ninja!” and for fuck’s sake she was RIGHT!

But then… at the end… is this pretty damn good ninja battle with a huge body count, and Mike Stone doubes for John Fujioka as a whirlwind of black and red death. And Steve James goes all Ram-Bro with an M-60 machine gun then punches a big Bolo-looking dude in the junk, and its all awesome again.

AN's climax is a genuine BATTLE with better choreography and editing than any other point in the film.

Steve James. Taken from us in '93 by pancreatic cancer. What a loss.

But then again… Dudikoff breaks a bow and arrow over his knee for no reason and they blow up a cheap model helicopter and Judie Aronson never gets topless. DAMN YOU AMERICAN NINJA! I try to love you and treat me like shit, even in front of my friends! My mom warned me about you, why didn’t I listen? I swear to god if you don’t stop drinking I’m moving out of this trailer.

In ninja movies, arrows aren't shot to kill, they are shot to be CAUGHT! Then broken defiantly. Was anyone ever actually hit with an arrow in an 80's craze flick?
I fell in love with Judie Aronson in WEIRD SCIENCE and then again in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER. Those two hooded goons seemed perfectly capable of getting that shirt off her, BUT NO! We're in PG-13 land now...

All right,  all right. Enough bi-polar projecting. Let’s look at American Ninja for what it really was – a franchise reboot that from a studio perspective actually worked. You’re Cannon and you have a great thing going with Kosugi, but he wants more control and bolts. You’ve got more projects lined up, you know anything ninja is BANK right now, so what do you do? Find another star.

The star is unproven though, so you cheapen the production to risk less money, and to cast a net over a wider audience you take out the gore and boobs and silly it up a bit to make things kid-friendly and foreign market compatible. And what do you get for your efforts? A modest hit and a four-sequel franchise that lasts into the early 90’s on home video. THAT is successful business.

Prototype costuming done for the in-studio shot footage used in the trailer. Textiles improved for the final. If nothing else, some nice effort was put in on AN's costuming.

So happy 25th American Ninja!

We’ll continue this celebration in the following days with a quick look at some pre-production strangeness and Matt Wallace returns to talk sequels.

In the meantime, you can pick up all the glorious Dudikoffness on DVD right in our Amazon store here.

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