Enter the Revenge of the Blurays

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We finally have the original Cannon Films Sho Kosugi ‘ninja trilogy’ on good home video formats! Sure, its a couple decades later than it should have happened, and at a time when the public is giving up physical media in droves, but hey, we the children of the 80s craze who love these movies enough to own them are still stocking our shelves of discs, aren’t we?

Kino Lorber have just released Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja on Bluray, joining the superb Ninja III: The Domination Blu put out by Scream Factory last year.

Ninja-Blurays

The Enter disc is, honestly, nothing special. The only extra is an already familiar trailer. There’s a marginal improvement via format, but its not a profound leap from the DVD-on-Demand disc MGM has had available, or the print streaming on Netflix and the like. It may even be cropped a little too much on top and bottom, but I’m not claiming to be an expert on aspect ratios and transfers.

Revenge has had a few different DVD releases where aspect was a serious issue though — some prints are a square “Open Matte” transfer that actually gives more image on top and bottom than the filmmakers intended. It’s neat for seeing some extra choreography here and there, but the image is small on widescreen TVs. Other widescreen prints have also been released on triple feature DVD packs that suffer somewhat from compression, so all in all the new Blu is worth buying just for the proper image alone.

But with his disc Kino Lorber also gives us full-length commentary from director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert. They talk some nice shop about stunt work in the analog age, having freedom from studio pressure while shooting out in Salt Lake City, Utah, and how legit dangerous some of the gags were, especially in the hi-rise building sequences. They pay nice homage to the fact that this film is often overlooked for making history with a sole Japanese lead actor, hint at what a direct sequel-that-never-happened would have meant for intended bigger player Keith Vitali, and Firstenberg’s memory for how many days it took to film a scene is like a steel trap.

Alas, the disc is otherwise barebones. A behind-the-scenes gallery promised in press releases and package copy is either missing or hidden in menus I can’t find, so that’s a red herring. I or myriad other sites would have given them considerable stills and marketing materials for a gallery had they asked, and Lambert is a veritable font of still materials, so no excuses.

In fact, I’m miffed enough at this to compensate by presenting some rare alternate take and missing scene stills myself, courtesy of MGM’s electronic press kit from years back (see more over at IMDB):

Revenge-lost_2 Revenge-lost_4 Revenge-lost_6

Here’s a couple from the cut scene (you see it briefly in the trailer) of National Guard snipers dispatched by Braden before the final duel:

Revenge-lost_3 Revenge-lost_1

This is the same “da-fuq???” look I had when the stills gallery turned out to be absent from the disc:

Revenge-lost_5

There’s also a missed opportunity, and I can’t fault them too much as it’s probably a significant rights issue, to present the superb Rob Walsh synth score as an audio bonus. Again, were these films put out at the height of DVD when labels heavily invested in extras, this would have been a given. We take what we can get in 2015.

BUT… despite any geek-gripes, we’re wholeheartedly recommending this new disc. The Octagon and Enter may have come first, but Revenge is the movie that cemented the ninja craze. It’s running time is almost completely combat, chases or stunts plus it put weapons-play on screen no one had ever seen before, and that’s a real trick in the martial-exploitation realm. This is the best version of the movie available and it is mandatory viewing for any ninja nerd, so get to it!

Kino Lorber have also released the Michael Dudikoff/Steve James ‘Deadliest Game’-inspired Avenging Force on an extras-peppered Bluray, and are giving the same treatment to the duo’s first American Ninja flick, as hinted by Judie Aronson on her Facebook fan page. Dudikoff, Firstenberg, Lambert, Aronson and even Tadashi Yamashita reunited in the Philippines last year for a documentary shoot, joined by Steve James‘ daughter Debbi, who’s pursuing a doco of her own (read more at My Dad Steve James).

AmNin-bluray

Bitter as many of us are that these films were largely ignored or under-serviced during the DVD boom, when profound extras and deluxe box sets were aplenty, it is great to finally have them all in peak condition, and legit, too. Kudos to Kino Lorber!

 

Happy AMERICAN NINJA Day!

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There’s no better way to celebrate the birth of the USA than by looking back at a low-budget exploitation flick based on a Japanese martial art, produced by Israelis, shot in the Philippines.

READ ON, FELLOW PATRIOTS:

The seminal film reviewed by us here.

Who was the real “American Ninja” – Dudikoff, Kosugi or Norris???

Read Matt Wallace‘s take on American Ninja 5 here.

See the amazing African version of the movie poster here.

And check out some licensed merchandise for kids here.

Happy 4th!

AMERICAN NINJA rack toys

Little known fact – American Ninja is the only 80s boom film to have properly licensed mass-produced merchandise.

These grocery store / pharmacy register tchotchkes were obviously for kids, despite being branded with the an R-rated film’s imagery. A “two-penny-toy” manufacturer called Fleetwood produced these in 1985, along with a blowgun target set and a Masters of the Universe-scale generic ninja figure with similar card art.

Interesting that they carry the logo of the decidedly non-kid-friendly film studio Cannon, meaning Fleetwood actually paid to use the American Ninja monicker. Can’t think that they sold any more of the these than they would have by saving those fees and going with simple generic ninja art.

AmericanNinja-RackToy_1

I dig the sketchy brush art used on the decals of the rubber suction shuriken. The hollow cheap plastic knife was molded off a popular piece of training equipment common to dojos in heavy rubber form.

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This rubber stamp set shows more of the above art, influenced by both Enter the Ninja and GI Joe‘s Storm Shadow I imagine.

AmericanNinja-RackToy_2 AmericanNinja-RackToy_3 AmericanNinja-RackToy_4

Think they paid Michael Dudikoff anything for his name and likeness?

AMERICAN NINJA II video store standee

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This 14″ cardstock counter display was given out to video stores to push the release of American Ninja II: The Confrontation in May of 1987.

The center unfolds to reveal this illustration, which is unique to this piece – it wasn’t used in the posters or VHS packaging.

Note to students of Japanese sword arts – DO NOT hold a katana this way. EVER.

An Open Letter to David Bradley

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Dear David,

They’ll call you the lesser American Ninja. They’ll say you weren’t even a replacement as much as you were a placeholder, a mask-filler brought in while Michael Dudikoff was auditioning for soap opera guest spots. They’ll say you didn’t take over the franchise after Dudikoff foiled the evil Super Ninja eugenics program in AN2 (aptly and hilariously subtitled The Confrontation); you were just keeping it warm for him.

I’m here to tell you something, David: BALLS TO THAT.

You need to take some personal inventory, son. Michael Dudikoff only made it as far as the Army Rangers. You were a top operative in the CIA. You facilitated Steve James’ rise from Dudikoff’s uniform-clad straight man sidekick to the bandana-wearing, double Chinese broadsword-wielding Afro Ninja he became when you stepped into the tabi boots as Sean Davidson, American Ninja 2.0. And lest we forget, on the Swayze Scale of 80’s-early 90’s action hero hair yours was Swayzier than Dudikoff’s by a factor of at least five.

Did Dudikoff battle the villains you did? Did he lead the Blood Hunt (a.k.a. American Ninja III) in his debut? Did he track down a cure after a feared international terrorist known only as “The Cobra” and played by former child evangelist and quasi-pop star Marjoe Gortner infected him with a deadly virus? In the process did he defeat said Cobra’s legion of clones, including the franchise’s sole hot female ninja assassin?

Dudikoff did not.

Now the hard part. They’ll say Dudikoff had to come save your ass (and the ass of your couldn’t-hold-Steve-James’-jock replacement black sidekick) in the fourth installment, a.k.a. The Annihilation. Fuck that. I choose to believe you simply had too much integrity and respect for the franchise to participate in that inexplicable second act Road Warrior-esque gangfight sequence for which they brought Dudikoff back. And you still gave us the third best “lone warrior constructing a tactical bow and arrow” scene in cinematic history, following only Arnold in Predator and Sly in Rambo: First Blood Part II.

You were one-half of the Big Blue Wrecking Crew. Never forget that.

Finally, David, I know you had no control over the decision to label your foray into ninja family films alongside the youngest of the Reyes clan and a post-Karate Kid mortgage-gotta-get-paid Pat Morita as the fifth American Ninja installment, despite the fact said film had nothing to do with the franchise. You were just another martial artist-cum-actor with rugged good looks trying to make his way. I forgive you.

The point is simply this, David. In a quintessential B-movie franchise, you were a purer B-movie actor than Michael Dudikoff could ever hope to be.

Sincerely,

Matt Wallace

(dictated, not read)

EDITORS POSTSCRIPT: Thanks again to Matt f’n Wallace for the guest spot. A smidge younger than me, Matt sprouted his exploitation genre pubes to a later fare of direct-to-video and cable fromage. His tolerances for Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson and Sasha Mitchell are of extraordinary magnitude. He has my gratitude for taking the four bullets for me that are the American Ninja sequels.These increasingly cheap and at times deliriously inept films lingered well into the kickboxing craze, embracing the worst parts of the original; primary-colored ninja, cheesy fortress dojos, increasingly silly ‘boss’ villains, high-kicking fights replacing anything resembling ninjutsu, etc. Despite the on-and-off presence of talents like Mile Stone and Steve James, each of these sequels was a nail in the coffin of 80’s shinobi-mania. They say ‘Only A Ninja Can Stop A Ninja.’ Well, starting in 1985, it took an American Ninja (or five) to stop the American ninja craze.

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.