American Ninja 4: Annihilation (1990)

Country: United States
Director: Cedric Sundstrom
Starring: Michael Dudikoff, David Bradley, James Booth, Dwayne Alexandre, Robin Stille, Ken Gampu, Jody Abrahams, Franz Dobrowsky
Writer: David Geeves (James Booth)
Music: NictenBroek

Sheik Ali Maksood (Ron Smerczak) has a grudge against the West. He also has a nuclear device that will fit into a suitcase (which he allegedly intends to set off in New York). The US President sends a team of Delta Force soldiers, to the un-named African country, where Maksood is hiding out, to retrieve the weapon.

However, what the Americans don’t realise, is that Maksood also has a army of Ninja training at his secret base. The ninja surround the Delta Force team, picking them off one by one, until only four remain. They are captured, and a video tape is send to the US, saying unless the government pays a 50 million dollar ransom, the soldiers will be killed.

A rescue mission is launched and G-6 agent, Sean Davidson (David Bradley – the ninja from American Ninja 3), and his sidekick Carl Brackston (Dwayne Alexandre) are sent to the un-named African country to rescue them. They parachute in and meet their contact, who happens to be a boy named Pongo (Jody Abrahams).

Maksood’s chief of security is a mad sadist, named Mulgrew (James Booth – who also worked on the script under the name David Geeves). Mulgrew hears about Davidson and Brackston, and goes searching for them (with the aid of an army). In a small village, our heroes are given shelter by a WHO nurse named Sarah (Robin Stille). Mulgrew’s search proves fruitless.

American Ninja 4
Michael Dudikoff is Joe Armstrong - American Ninja #1

But of course, Maksood also has an army of ninjas on hand, and they quickly track down our heroes. A fight ensues, with American Ninja, Davidson, killing many of the attacking ninja. But he can’t hold them all off. Davidson, Brackston and Sarah are captured and taken to Maksood’s fortress. However, Pongo manages to flee.

At the fortress ninja training is taking place, and it is revealed that Maksood has a whole variety of different colour coded ninja – red, blue, yellow, black… and my favourite the white nuclear ninjas.

American Ninja 4
David Bradley is Sean Davidson - American Ninja #2

So with Davidson’s capture, what will G-6 (and for that matter, the American government) do? They call on Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff – the star of the first two American Ninja films). Armstrong has retired from the ninja trade, and now works for the Peace Corps as a teacher. He just wants to be left alone. But once he hears how his friend, Davidson, has been captured, he has little choice but to go in and rescue him.

American Ninja 4
Evil Ninja have the American Ninja surrounded

But even the original American Ninja needs some help, so, with the aid of Pongo, he teams up with a gang of outcast rebels, who look like rejects from the Mad Max 2 – The Road Warrior. They storm Maksood’s fortress and much ninja mayhem ensues.

American Ninja 4
One of the numerous 'falling ninja' in American Ninja 4

The first American Ninja was only a B-Grade, low budget affair – albeit hugely enjoyable (I like the second film best). Applying the law of diminishing returns (and therefore diminishing budgets), then it is fair to say that American Ninja 4 probably had less that a shoe-string budget. But most of that non-budget is up on the screen to be seen – mostly ninja uniforms, haircare product and explosions.

American Ninja 4
White 'Nuclear Ninja' load the atomic device on a helicopter

It is interesting to see both American Ninja together in the one film. David Bradley as Sean Davidson is clearly the superior martial artist – his fight scenes are more convincing than Dudikoff’s. However, Dudikoff, as Joe Armstrong, has the screen presence that Bradley lacks, and the film feels more alive in the second half when he is on screen.

The film isn’t high art and never tries to be. It simply tries to deliver a modicum of martial art entertainment and generally it succeeds (well, at least for undemanding viewers – and I guess I am one of those).

American Ninja 4: Annihilation (1990)

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)

Country: United States
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Starring: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Michelle Botes, Larry Poindexter, Gary Conway, Jeff Celentano, Jonathan Pienaar, Bill Curry, Dennis Folbigge, Ralph Draper
Music: Michael Bishop & George S. Clinton

American Ninja 2 is a huge improvement over the first film in the series. It is fast, furious and funny. Yes, that is right, it is funny. The series developed a sense of humour, which considering the silliness of the story, is very welcome. Also Dudikoff and James are much more relaxed and confident in front of the camera. Particularly Dudikoff, who displayed the acting skills of a plank of wood in the first film.

The story starts on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, and three US Marines who are stationed there to protect the US Embassy are racing along a coast road on motorcycles. Before I go any further, let me explain that being stationed at St. Thomas is not like the usual military posting . It is pretty cruisy, with the Marines not required to wear uniform, and seem to spend much of their time, surfing and seducing the female population (the bulk of which, it would appear, spend their whole life clad in bikinis).

The motorcycling Marines stop at a bar for a drink, only to to accosted by some burly locals. Naturally enough a fight ensues, and two of the Marines are knocked out. From the back door a team of black clad Ninja (what is the plural of Ninja? Is it ‘Ninjas’ or is it still just Ninja?) enter the bar and hoist the unconscious men over their shoulders. Then they carry them out the back.

The remaining Marine, Tommy Taylor (Jonathan Pienaar) had been a part of the setup. It appears that he is being blackmailed, as the as yet unknown bad guys are holding his wife hostage. Of course, Taylor reports to his commanding officer (a man known as Wild Bill) that he was knocked out, and does not know what happened to his fellow Marines. However, at the bar, a young boy named Toto was hiding behind a pinball machine, and he witnessed the whole abduction and also reports it to Wild Bill.

The two abducted Marines brings the total of missing Marines to four, and two others disappeared of a motorboat, and Wild Bill makes his report to Washington, telling the tale of the strange black clad Ninja. He asks for help. And what does he receive? A squad of Marines to take control of the situation? No. Two Army Rangers, Sergeant Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) and Sergeant Curtis Jackson (Steve James). On a Marine base, Army Rangers aren’t exactly welcome, and immediately the two men are treated as interfering interlopers. However, as anyone who has seen American Ninja 1 would know, these two men have had experience at fighting teams of Ninja before.

For those not familiar with the characters, let me explain. Joe Armstrong was brought up by a Japanese man, who passed on the skills of Ninjitsu. Now he is the only American who knows the secrets of the Ninja. He is the American Ninja. Curtis Jackson is the enthusiastic amateur. Don’t get me wrong, he is a good martial artist, but good martial arts are nothing compared to the skills of a Master Ninja.

Of course, it isn’t long until turncoat Taylor tries to set Armstrong and Jackson up, and on a beach, a team of Ninja come for them. Naturally our boys fight them off, but of course, their resistance marks them as a threat, and the villains of the piece target them for extermination.

As for the villain, well he’s Leo Bourke (Gary Conway) – known to all and sundry as The Lion. The Lion is the world’s biggest drug dealer, and to stay Number One, he has a plan to create a SuperNinja Army. Utilising misguided bio-geneticist, Professor Sanbourne the Lion’s plan for world domination is close to coming to fruition. On Blackbeard Island, Sanbourne is close to completing a bio-engineered army of SuperNinja, all of them with ultimate fighting skills encoded into their DNA. That’s where the kidnapped Marines come in – they provide DNA for the SuperNinja. Of course, Armstrong and Jackson have to stop them and spend the climax of the movie beating up a whole swag of Ninja. The Marines get involved too, and lots of things blow up.

I cannot stress how much fun this movie is. Sure it has it limitations in budget, and some of that shows on the screen – for example when the Lion is addressing his team of SuperNinja, and outlining his plot for world domination, his corporate logo (half lion/half shuriken) looks to be drawn on a blackboard with chalk. But generally the film acknowledges its limitations and finds ways to work around them. Dudikoff is not a naturally gifted martial artist, so many of his action sequences are more of a typically American action film style; such as bar-room brawls and car chases, or more traditional fisticuffs. It is only at the end that he has to go Ninja, and use swords and knives.

As I mentioned at the top, Dudikoff and James were much more relaxed this time around and work off each other well. James gets the best of the comedy routines, and as the titled American Ninja, Dudikoff is front and centre during most of the action scenes.

Of course, a movie made in 1987 will have dated somewhat in its style. The haircuts and music in particular have an ’80s cringe factor, but you have to expect that sort of thing, and allow it to wash over you. If you can do that, and if you’re in the mood for some low budget Cannon Film (the sign of quality!) hijinx, then American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, dishes out all that could be expected from a film of its kind, and in fact, probably surpasses all expectations.

I cannot argue that this is a spy film, as our heroes are Army Rangers, rather than spies. However there are many familiar espionage tropes – particularly when our heroes storm the villains lair. The glass booths used by the Lion to create his new army of genetic SuperNinja could come out of any ’60s Eurospy flick (particularly Lightning Bolt).

Michael Dudikoff also starred in Avenging Force as a retired secret service operative.

Composer, George S. Clinton did the incidental music for Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and its sequels.

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)

Avenging Force (1986)

Country: United States
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Starring: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, John P. Ryan
Writer: James Booth
Music: George S. Clinton

Every film lover has guilty pleasure films. Mine are a bit more embarrassing than most – and Avenging Force is an embarrassment even for a person who has a selection of regular embarrassing films in their closet. Avenging Force is crap. I know it and I admit it, but strangely this film and I are connected. Not in a physical sense, but in that nebulous sort of way that happens when somebody likes some thing or someone for no apparent reason. I can’t work out what draws me to this film, but I have watched it so many times since its release in 1986 (I won’t tell you how many, or you’ll just throw things at me and call me names) that I consider it cinematic comfort food.

You may be thinking that I like this film because it stars Michael Dudikoff and Steve James, the stars of American Ninja, and while I can relate to what you are saying – I do have a soft spot for American Ninja – I have to say that I think Avenging Force is a superior movie. American Ninja, may have a cool, sort of Rebel Without A Cause vibe to it, but it also has a cold aloofness to it, that Dudikoff’s inexperience as an actor at that time could not rise above. But Avenging Force has a heart, and while the cliches are piled on thick and fast, most of the time they work, almost like visual shorthand. And by this time Dudikoff had learnt to relax in front of the camera too.

The plot concerns Larry Richards (Steve James), a black American who is running for a seat in the Louisiana Senate. Richards also happens to an ex intelligence operative who used to work with a young agent named Matt Hunter (Michael Dudikoff) for a department called G-6. Hunter, too, has retired from the service. He retired after his parents were killed in a car bomb explosion. He now lives on a ranch, bringing up his kid sister, Sarah (Allison Gereighty) – with a little bit of help and guidance from his grandfather (Rick Boyle).

In New Orleans, it’s Mardi Gras time, and Hunter, Sarah and Grandpa head south to help Richards with his election campaign. Upon arrival, Richards explains that he has received some death threats from a right wing organisation called Pentangle. Richards also explains that he has not taken the threats seriously, as crank calls and threats are all par for the course, for a black politician in the deep south.

During the Mardi Gras parade, as Richards and his family travel through the crowds on board a float, a team of assassins make an attempt on his life. They succeed in shooting Richards’ son, but Hunter intervenes and fights the assassins off and saving Richards’ life.

Later, Pentangle regroup and set up another attempt on Richards’ life. This time, teaming up, both Richards and Hunter fight off the Pentangle hoods yet again. However, during the battle, Richards is shot in the arm. It is decided, for Richards, and his family’s safety, that they should leave the city for a while. The location they choose as sanctuary is Hunter’s Texas ranch. But Pentangle aren’t done yet. Not by a long shot, and they perform a large scale assault on Hunter’s farm, killing everybody except for Hunter and his sister, Sarah.

Chuck Norris also played a character called 'Matt Hunter' in Invasion USA
There is a reason that they let them live. Pentangle are not only murderous right wing fanatics, they also have a hunting club – their favourite quarry are human beings (a variant on The Most Dangerous Game). They let their enemies loose in the Louisiana swamps and then hunt them down for fun (and the occasional side bet), killing them in a violent and a merciless manner. Impressed with Hunter’s resilience, Pentangle believe that Hunter would be a worthy target for their ‘hunt club’ and they kidnap his sister as bait to ensure that he participates. Hunter doesn’t have much choice. He must compete in their barbaric game or Sarah willed be killed.

Let me say I have never been to New Orleans, so my impression of that city is based solely on films, books and music, which I’ll freely admit is hardly a substitute for the real thing. However, even if all the films I’ve seen, books I’ve read, and CD’s I have listened to are not a true reflection on New Orleans, they still have created a very flavoursome alternate universe. It’s a city and a flavour that is not like anywhere else – at least in the media. And maybe it’s this flavour that draws me (almost hooks me) to Avenging Force. Maybe it is the sequences with colourful Mardi Gras floats drifting down through the streets, accompanied by swinging brass bands. The buildings in the background, with their overhanging verandas seen to close in on the streetscapes, creating a roof, sealing in the vibe, and as the parade moves through the street, everything pops and sizzles.

Or maybe it was the sequence featuring the swampy backwoods Cajun settlement. In the film, the settlement is supposed to be a unfriendly place, but the food (the cooked crays), the Zydeco music – washboards, accordions and violins – pounded out on real instruments, and dancing create an environment with a definite sense of community. A family in fact. So while Dudikoff’s character Matt Hunter, upon his arrival, is made to feel unwelcome – which make the Cajun’s seem hostile – would he be treated any different in your home if he gatecrashed a party? I think not.

Or maybe it is the swamp locations. To me it looks like it was filmed on location in the swamps. The trees are all gnarled and twisted, and the water looks green. And you can almost feel the heat, even though in many of the scenes it is teeming with rain. In a world where everything is becoming more artificial and homogenized, seeing something earthy and real is appealing. The fights look dangerous, not necessarily because of the combat, but because of the terrain. One false step, could have you sprawled on your belly in mud and at the mercy of the enemy.

The plot to John Woo's Hard Target is remarkably similar, right down to the New Orleans locations.
As you can see, there is nothing definite about why I like Avenging Force, and I could spend equal time pointing out its flaws, such as poorly choreographed fight scenes and gaping plot holes, but that would be nit-picking. Plenty of films have bad fight scenes and plot holes, but most of those films don’t create a mood and an atmosphere. Avenging Force does. Is it an existential action film? Maybe that’s pushing the envelope a little too far, but it certainly creates its own world above and beyond the the film’s limited framework and the established tropes of the genre. And if you’re wondering just what genre this film is, at it’s heart it is a simple revenge flick. But it is more than a revenge flick. It’s about right and wrong, the past and the future, and it’s an endurance test. And if you need more, you could say it is a martial arts movie – but I would also suggest that as far as martial arts movies go, Avenging Force is not a great one.

In Avenging Force, some viewers may find the violence and some of the villains repugnant. And I can understand that. The reality is that the film is just another exploitation flick from Cannon pictures. So yeah, violence sells, so there is a healthy serve of violence in the flick. But it is not that much different to the other mid ’80s action dross that was being pumped out at the time, starring Stallone, Schwarzenegger or even Chuck Norris. The violence here is all rather cartoonish, with the villains wearing silly masks in the swamps – and amplified by the acting, which is over the top, especially by John P. Ryan as the chief villain, Glastenbury, who appears to have a high old time, ranting and raving like a megalomaniac should.

Avenging Force, despite the fondness I have for the film, is no masterpiece, and as a spy film it is pretty weak. During the course of events, ex-spy Hunter is called back to his old group G-6 and is asked to rejoin and assist them. At that time he refuses, saying he’ll do things his way, which he does. However, by the end of the film (and the ending is a little bit open – but I won’t spoil it here) Hunter appears to rejoin his old team so he can shut down Pentangle for once and for all. By the end of the film, he is a spy again – albeit one with a very personal agenda, and one who is not going to play by the rules. So even as a spy film, it is very much a revenge flick.

As a bit of trivia, for those who like such things, Hunter’s old boss, Admiral Brown, is played by James Booth (Hooky, I’ll make a soldier out of you yet!) Booth also wrote the screenplay, having previously worked on the screenplay of American Ninja 2: The Confrontation. He would also appear with Dudikoff in American Ninja 4: The Annihilation. Ninja 4 appears to have been written by a gentleman named David Geeves, and as James Booth’s birth name is David Geeves-Booth, it is fair to assume he also wrote it as well. Should we blame Hooky for Dudikoff’s ascension as a B-grade movie star in the mid 1980s? Or should that honour go to director Sam Firstenberg?

As I said at the top, Avenging Force is one of my guilty, very guilty pleasures. I don’t expect you to share my enthusiasm for it – and nor should you, but as a cheap exploitation flick, I think it punches well above its weight.

Avenging Force (1986)