Author’s note: the next three entries’ titling, including this one is an extended riff on the Final Fantasy game series. An inevitable joke since I chose Roman numerals to number this series. If you don’t get the joke, look it up if you care enough to find out. If you do get the joke, well then you do.
It’s time to return to the glory of 80s’ action cheese, where the adrenaline is matched only by its commitment to stupidity of varying degree. There were many sources for the especially tasty 1980s flavor of this cheese and one of the best purveyors was the American-Israeli film company Cannon-Globus or The Cannon Group. Last featured in my covering of the glorious NINJA trilogy, this often maligned side of filmmaking for the time would actually create some works that won respect or even acclaim, begrudging or otherwise. One of the films to be featured down this long pipeline will be Runaway Train. Basically Unstoppable, that OK Chris Pine/ Denzel Washington vehicle, but with a lot more balls.
Say what you will about Jon Voight now, but back when he appeared in this essentially “Mad Max but Train” flick, you couldn’t help but respect his integrity in seeing that kind of production through. As the excellent documentary “Electric Boogaloo” would delve into, Cannon were THE creators of fun, often not great B-movies of the era. Some were just plain bad, no cult following to really mitigate matters, others approached so bad, it’s good or reached an alternative plain of existence where they were good in an entirely different way.
Before we delve into two of these movies, starring one of the Cannon mainstays Michael DUDIKOFF, let’s tap into a non-Cannon B-film that had actually died in production in 1984 but was resurrected last year for all the world to see. Presenting: John Liu’s once thought lost NEW YORK NINJA.
New York Ninja (1984/2021)
As far as I can tell, the biggest modern additions to allow New York NINJA to be released in an acceptable state is a massive redubbing of all the dialogue. This is especially true for the original director, writer and starring actor John Liu. I seriously doubt that Liu’s voice then and now sounds remotely like the dubbed voice, now voiced by kickboxing legend Don “THE DRAGON” Wilson.
We will probably never now how bad or (maybe ?) good the original performances were, but when you get into the bad acting of this 2021 cut, you know in your heart that the intention was to go for an overblown, decidedly not good take. Knowing it was intended to be bad, to capture the likely result of what this film would’ve been like had it actually made release in 84′ certainly gives it something of an edge in defense from any real criticism. It has a surprisingly great critical reception with the understanding that they know it’s supposed to be bad and that in doing so, it’s fulfilling its creative vision.
More than Cannon’s NINJA trilogy or the to be discussed next AMERICAN NINJA, New York NINJA shares a possibly unintentional identity with one of the cult greats of bad 80s action, martial arts based or otherwise: a film I love so much I got a poster of it: The Miami Connection.
Like NYN, Miami Connection was produced in 1987 by a South Korean-American man called Y.K. Kim. As that film will showcase well, his grasp on speaking English was not the best and it only makes the movie better. This guy was heavily involved in the whole thing, not unlike John Liu or for that matter, Tommy Wiseau.
Miami Connection and New York NINJA’S biggest connective tissue is not the similarity between creative heads, it’s use of martial arts and sharp weaponry to bring justice to ner’do’wells or that the acting is bad. It’s that both have plots and villain motivations that are hard to follow as all hell. Miami Connection eases you better overall through the confusing if even existent plot structure through its charming elements, one of which being its completely unironic, uncynical devotion to friendship and family above all else. The signature song, “Friends”, is a banger of a song to listen to, whether in an ironic or unironic mindset.
New York NINJA does not have those same strengths in carrying me through its muddled plotting. For that reason, whether the “bad” here was on purpose or not, I consider Miami Connection the superior movie. Some things about the synopsis are quite simple, certainly enough to hook the inclined like myself if they heard it.
Crime sweeps over the great city of New York. The Police are powerless to stop the roving gangs of eccentric thugs harassing, haranguing or worse the good people of the city. Women are especially prone to these street-level monsters and one Asian-American man, Liu, and Nita, his hot Caucasian wife, learn this ugly reality.
The poor woman is found by a gang and killed. Liu, upon learning of his wife’s fate, screams in the most hilarious manner fathomable up into the air, “WHHHHYYYYYYYYYYY???!!!!!!!!!!!” Trust me, it’s funny. Now, having lost the one he loves most to the worms of the Big Apple, he takes up his Ninjutsu Code and becomes: THE NEW YORK NINJA.
Mostly in broad daylight, he dons his all white uniform and confronts the many gangs of the city and shows them justice as only a NINJA can provide. One sequence involving roller-skates is quite amusing, to say the least. He becomes a bonafide vigilante, and he is embraced essentially as a superhero. Despite committing lethal vigilante acts against the criminals of the city, the people love him. Merchandise, especially for the kids, is created and distributed across town.
Liu finds it both amusing and hopeful, thinking it can inspire New York’s people to rise up and defend themselves, inspired by the NINJA’s example. It would be one thing if this was a non-lethal vigilante like Batman, Spider-Man or Daredevil. Instead, he is like the Punisher, but far less grimacing and more, well, NINJA than not.
While the public authorities have their qualms and apparently little more than that with an American citizen taking the law into their own hands, the rest of the non-criminal public can’t get enough of him. He is stopping what the NYPD seems completely incapable of even starting to do. I was going to make a joke about the Uvalde PD and I think it would still be allowable since I’m explicitly mocking them, not anyone else, but any connection to a group of dead kids makes me uncomfortable. It’s like a 9/11 joke where the punchline is aimed squarely at the terrorists and no one else.
However, dark forces within the rotten underbelly of NYC conspire to stop the New York NINJA from his plans to clean the streets with his katana, tanto, shruikens and what else. The lead bad guy is known only as The Plutonium Killer and he is something else. This guy apparently gets off on finding women taken off the street and exposing them to lethal levels of radiation.
He also points that radiation right at his face for pleasure. How this never kills him, never explained. The worst is that his face gets messier but otherwise he’s A-OK to keep being the most expensive serial killer ever. Why didn’t Doc Brown get his plutonium from him and his handlers? Ethics? Can’t be, he did go to Libyan terrorists in the end. But this guy’s not an ocean away, come on Doc!
Why does the Plutonium Killer and his handlers/ assistants, one who looks like Agent Smith crossed with a College age Yuppie, want to kill the New York NINJA? I guess it’s preemptive, as if the NINJA keeps on cleaning the city, eventually he will run into their bizarre and counterproductive form of human trafficking eventually. Turns out to be a wise assumption, as Liu does eventually start to target the trafficking ring, as it connects to his wife’s fate.
I will admit, good chunks of my memory for this film are shoddy. I did see it awhile ago, recorded on TCM. The dubbing might’ve done a number on sometimes understanding all the dialogue and I wish I could’ve had subtitles. It does end on quite a note I can tell you. I was first made aware of New York NINJA by the Double Toasted people, as part of their Bad Movie Roast segments, possibly the best reason to be subscribed to their YouTube channel. Their dunking of NEW YORK NINJA showed off a lot of the highlights of the film, so they weren’t as fresh or surprising when I saw the film in its entirety.
The funniest moment of both the movie and their roast was at the end, with the hilariously bad way the NINJA does in the bad guys. It is almost literally a cartoon. I won’t spoil it, so check the film out or watch Double Toasted’s deep dive on it.
Of course I recommend checking out New York NINJA. If you have already seen Cannon’s trilogy, it is a must. For the kind of “quality” I expect and desire from these movies, it’s not as good as the NINJA trilogy or the aforementioned Miami Connection. It’s not as good as the film coming up, but it is still good enough to see. If nothing else, seeing a film resurrected out of the blue thirty-seven years later is still an accomplishment in some way and viewing it honors it as such.
American Ninja (1985)
Michael Dudikoff, who is totally a dude, stated on the Electric Boogaloo documentary that he put his all into being Joe Armstrong, the titular Ninjutsu Yank. This was his first starring role and he wanted to show to the rest of the world that he was committed, he was hungry, he was a man who could get the job DONE.
Well, thanks to the works of Cannon, he is at least remembered. He created a legacy through his time with this beautiful schlock. I won’t lie, based on the two movies here to feature him, Dudikoff is actually a pretty good actor. Ironically, it was likely the stigma of being in numerous Cannon productions like the first, second and fourth American Ninjas that sunk his chances of reaching more prestigious work. This was not the Roger Corman School of Acting. Still, his undeniably confident presence with both American Ninja here and Avenging Force next does make him into what I think is a convincing and in some ways actually understated action hero. Perhaps in truth, too understated.
Joe Armstrong is an Army Private at an American military installation somewhere in the Philippines. The U.S. Colonel’s daughter is kidnapped by, what else, NINJAS during a convoy. Thankfully Armstrong is there to strongarm those dastardly NINJAS and actually manages to rescue and bring back the daughter back to the installation before the 30 minute mark! That obviously means, by the logic of cinema, that this won’t be her last hostage situation.
The skills he uses to dispatch the NINJAS and get the colonel’s attractive daughter back causes suspicion amongst the troops back at base. Those skills weren’t in any of their training. One of the most suspicious, Corporal Curtis Jackson, soon becomes Armstrong’s best friend and ally after a one on one bout where he gets to see his Karate skills used on him and good.
There is a very heartwarming connection here as Jackson is played by Steve James, a real life martial artist and was Dudikoff’s best friend in life. Dudikoff was the one to convince Cannon to not only feature him here but in later American Ninjas and Avenging Force. The real life friendship angle is much more strongly felt in Avenging Force. Tragically, James died at only 41 from pancreatic cancer a month after I was born in 1993. Had he lived, he could’ve endured as an black 80s action legend alongside Carl Weathers, Bill Duke , Mr. T and Keith David.
Together, the two of them unravel a conspiracy where the nefarious Black Star NINJAS are under the employ of the black market kingpin Victor Ortega and based on the guy’s name, would it surprise you terribly that much of what he smuggles are drugs? More significantly, he smuggles weapons and one of those weapon’s clients is the Colonel himself. DUN DUN DUN. The Colonel’s name, William Hickock, and lifestyle screams Texan and he wants to arm dissidents and terrorists so there’s an excuse for ‘Murica to swing it’s Florida-sized tallywacker around and show the world what’s what. Why this guy would need to create an excuse while Reagan was in office is a question meant for greater minds.
Eventually, the Colonel’s beautiful daughter, who of course by 80s’ cinema law starts a romantic relationship with our hunky hero, gets wind of the conspiracy and that is what gets her kidnapped again, against the Colonel’s wishes this time. Only Joe Armstrong and Curtis Jackson can save the day. But wait, you ask. When is this American going to NINJA?
Well, the answer lies with Ortega’s kindly gardener for his opulent estate. In truth, he is a Japanese holdout soldier, a veteran of WW2 who refused to believe or accept Japan’s surrender for years after. How did this particular soldier holdout? What else, with ninjutsu. Eventually, he accepts the hard truth but refuses to return home. He makes a new life for himself in the Philippines. One day roughly a decade ago, he comes across a lone white boy out in the jungle, with no parents in sight.
This orphaned boy is brought up by the soldier and learns not just karate but the ninja way. Eventually the boy grows up into Michael Dudikoff and seeks a new path in life with the skills he was taught. He decides serving the stars and stripes is the honorable path, in spite of his master/ father figure’s….strained relationship with the U.S. Now, the hour is nigh and to truly stop Ortega, save his dear Patricia and be a mostly All-American hero, he must don the armor of the NINJA and take on Ortega and his NINJA forces alone.
At first, at least. Even with the awe inspiring power of the NINJA, it is still too much for Joe. Not too surprising, seeing as how he faces other NINJA. However, the Colonel attempts to redeem himself and launches an all out military assault on the estate. Curtis Jackson is of course along for the ride, packing heat riding on a jeep with a light machine gun blazing.
The third act of American Ninja is essentially the best GI JOE movie yet made. You have a bare-chested African-American soldier packing serious heat, like in the toyline/cartoon. You have NINJA enemies on both sides like the Joe’s Snake Eyes and Cobra’s Storm Shadow. And there is plenty of explosions, soldiers running in guns firing, and a general compulsion to salute the flag. There really should be a cut of the film where this clip’s tune is interlaced with the climax:
The film ends in just about the most appropriately expected way not just a NINJA film but a GI JOE-like film should end. It’s predictable, but wonderfully executed. All the slower, NINJA-less moments fall away to how perfectly this conclusion fulfills Cannon’s action movie mission statement. Again, for the ultimate NINJA action, you have their trilogy, but for featuring various microcosms of the Cannon touch, you could do much worse than the first American Ninja.
But what about the other ones, four in total? I’ve heard the second one, subtitled The Confrontation, is worth watching as it has also attained cult status. Based on the trailer I saw, I would want to watch it as we have the dream duo of Dudikoff and James kicking ass once more. Sadly, on no platform or service I had could I find a way to rent and watch American Ninja 2, not even YouTube. I guess this movie will have to remain sheathed for the time being.
The other three are not considered worth watching, even by defenders of the kinds of movies these are. Dudikoff was replaced as the lead for 3 and 4 by David Bradley (No, not that David Bradley). Dudikoff costarred for the fourth movie so there’s that. The fifth movie, despite involving NINJAS and David Bradley is barely considered to be part of the series, due to originally being a whole other movie not connected to the first four and he plays a different character than before.
So, watch the first two movies, if you can, is the recommendation. It is a key component of a NINJA to not overstay your welcome after all.
Avenging Force (1986)
Dudikoff’s next film after American Ninja is actually meant to be the sequel to one of Chuck Norris’ most recognizable movies, with or without Cannon’s involvement: Invasion U.S.A.
In that movie, our boy Chuck plays Matt Hunter, a retired U.S. super soldier living a peaceful life in the last place a normal person like me would want to be in: Everglades Florida. However, vile Communist forces destroy his stilt-home and kill his war buddy, almost taking him down with it. Almost. Those dirty Commies, get this, launch an invasion of America, attacking the Deep South, the place most likely for the average American to be packing.
They waste precious resources on this already suicidal attack by firing rocket launchers into Norman Rockwell neighborhoods during Christmas time. Strategic targets, schmegic largets. Norris’ Matt Hunter begins a one man mission to stop the Communist invasion and kill their ringleader, who has a deathly fear of him, and for good reason.
At the admittedly pretty epic final battle where the Communist invasion force is cornered and defeated in downtown Atlanta, the ringleader Rostov is taken out by Hunter with an unfoldable rocket launcher and blown the hell up. Cannon was really in to this idea in 1985 as the same year Charles Bronson would dispose the lead bad guy of Death Wish 3 in the same way.
But that’s the background of Invasion U.S.A. How does it connect to Avenging Force? The main character is called Matt Hunter. That’s basically it. No mention is made of how, I’m guessing a year ago, there was a stupid but no less real ground invasion of the United States. Hunter played by Dudikoff looks entirely different from Norris, talks differently and his mannerism is distinct enough from Norris. Aside from being calm under pressure, badass killing machines with a hankering for justice, there is no connection to the Hunter of Invasion U.S.A. Fans of both movies basically separate the films as not being in connection with one another easily.
Instead of living in the worst place for a human to live in Florida (arguably), Matt Hunter now lives in a different American swamp, Louisiana boys and girls. Within driving distance of New Orleans, he and his teenage sister co-own a ranch with James’ Larry Richards and his family. Larry’s running for U.S. Senate and that makes him the target of some very, very unpleasant fellows.
During a Mardi Gras celebration, assassins start lighting up the parade with the intention of killing Larry and his family. Dudikoff’s Hunter dispatches of them in a battle that goes from the street to the rooftops. They soon learn that an extremely right wing cult called the Pentangle is responsible for the attack and want to bring down Richards and anyone else in their way for their horrid plan for America.
What is the Pentagle’s platform? Anti-immigration, extreme gun rights and you guessed it, anti-minority. The Pentangle is deadly clear that if you ain’t white, you ain’t right. It’s not explicitly stated, but they consider Matt Hunter to be little more than a race traitor. In fact, the politics of Avenging Force are distressingly relevant despite dating back from 1986. We now live in an era where the extreme Far Right have been ascendant in this country.
Whether it started under Trump with MAGA or there were earlier seeds, we now live in a frightening time when it comes to the positions of those in power. Look at the likes, with both their words and their actions of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tom Cotton and Ron DeSantis and you will see something familiar in the words and actions of those who make up the Pentangle.
Yes, I am saying that a dumb 80s’ action movie has a shockingly strong and prescient political message. To be honest, despite being placed under the category of “dumb 80s’ action”, Avenging Force is honestly not that bad or dumb. Maybe I’m missing something or I’m too enamored in the Cannon style of action/ drama cinema, but this is generally speaking a solid action thriller.
One component which adds to it being a “thriller” is that the Pentangle like to play a special game with enemies they capture. To their victims, including Matt Hunter and his sister, they sadly happen to be a fan of Richard Connell. Namely, his most famous work, The most Dangerous Game.
Donning a variety of creepy masks and grabbing their weapon of choice, the Pentangle members corral their “game” into the Louisiana bayou. Then, they get on a jet boat, enter the bayou and begin the hunt through the swamp individually.
It’s bad enough their targets have to navigate and survive in, you know, the Louisiana Bayou, now they have to deal with a bunch of predatory Conservatives. Hunter is a badass, no lie. But unlike the Norris Hunter, this one seems more vulnerable, more prone to making little mistakes that could cost him. The third act involving the Hunters vs Hunter involves desperate survival in the bog that leads to a no less desperate duel in the lead Pentangle’s mansion involving antique weapons. I thought it was quite thrilling stuff.
The film ends on a surprisingly intelligent, not naïve note about the kind of enemy Hunter is facing. He learns that the Pentangle’s reach goes further into the American government then at first thought. The metaphor at play here is not exactly subtle but it’s no less stirringly on the mark for it. In a more typical 80s/90s’ action flick move, Hunter coldly tells the Pentangle member hiding in plain sight that he’s coming for the whole organization and then walks towards the camera as the credits start rolling. Accompanied by some sweet 80s’ synth music that keeps you in that determined mood, like Hunter.
Avenging Force is possibly neck in neck with the NINJA trilogy for the best I’ve seen of the Cannon Group catalogue. It’s B-movie action is well executed, it’s themes and messages is more than you would expect. Even its handling of certain cliches endemic to both the genre and the time period don’t quite happen the way you think they would
. You’re probably guessing that Steve James’ Larry Richards, an African-American politician, is going to die. Well, I’m not saying you’re wrong. But the film actually surprises you when it happens and in terms of how it’s framed. You are likely expecting him to be bite the bullet earlier than it occurs. It’s not free of 80s’ convention but it’s also not beholden either. I give the heartiest recommendation so far for the not-sequel to Invasion U.S.A.
Now, let’s cap it off in the expected fashion, with a Bollywood film.
Meri Jung (1985)
As I watch more and more of Bollywood’s extensive number of worthwhile films from the 1980s’, I keep thinking of declaring a single movie to recommend if you only have time to see one to get an idea of the Indian film industry’s tenets and trends at the time. Considering the often daunting runtimes, that’s not an unreasonable consideration.
To be featured in a later part is Karma, which while I wouldn’t call it the quintessential 80s Bollywood film, it is possibly the most patriotic film of them all. Hell, it might be one of the most patriotic films I’ve ever seen, regardless of what flag it salutes. There is also Shakti, which as a filmmaking effort, might be the best overall movie, no matter how it relates to ticking off the boxes of being Bollywood.
For a film that showcases the conventions of the older Bollywood experience, in that it has the musical numbers, the dance numbers, contemporary moralizing, dastardly villains you can’t wait (and you will wait) to see get comeuppance and this not having exactly the best staged but no less engaging action, Meri Jung has you.
This is also the time to talk about one of the most prolific figures of 80s’ Bollywood. Every other Bollywood film I’ve talked about and more has had Anil Kapoor, as you can see from the header above. This guy is just awesome. His youthful face and well-kept almost Tom Selleck mustache helps make him a distinguished leading man as he is here. No, his name is not Meri Jung. That’s Hindi for “My Battle“. What a battle it is.
Arun is a man who has lost so much. His father, innocent of a crime he didn’t commit, is nontheless tried in a court and sentenced to death by hanging. The prosecutor who convinced the jury to condemn the father to death is actually someone you might recognize if you’re not from India. G.D. Thakral, the utterly scummy and proud of it attorney that torments Arun and his family is played by Amrish Puri. Still don’t know, how about this?
Image from YouTube (A man after your own heart.)
That’s right, the villain of the Indy film you either love or hate is here. And that’s hardly the only villainous turn from him in his career. Puri was actually a go-to guy to play bad guys in Bollywood. I don’t know if Spielberg or Lucas saw a Bollywood film featuring him before beginning production of Temple of Doom, simply heard that this particular guy would be good for the role or what, but it’s a strangely comforting thought Mr. Puri has been a big screen menace for both the Indian and American moviegoer.
Now you can say plenty about Temple of Doom’s handling of Indian culture, let alone Hinduism (Not the best), but man does Mola Ram leave an impression. Puri’s signature, controversial scene of pulling a poor guy’s heart out not only helped inspire the PG-13 rating’s creation but it inspired one of the earliest and most iconic “fatality” finishing moves in Mortal Kombat, which in turn helped lead to the creation of the ESRB rating system for video games. So in a Kevin Bacon way, Amrish Puri helped push the envelope.
What makes Arun’s and his family’s hatred for Thakral even more stark is that Arun actually found evidence that would be enough to clear his father’s name. He races back to the court room to prevent the hanging. He’s too late. In turn, Arun studies to become an attorney at law so he can judiciously get not revenge but justice on Thakral, not just for what he’s done to his family, including his mother who suffers a psychological breakdown, but for everyone screwed over by the indifferent criminal lawyer.
Arun begins to make waves as a justice-driven, law-abiding attorney who fights not for the most money he can get on a case (you know, like the stereotypical lawyer), but for the fairest outcome of the case. Alongside the supremely melodramatic subplot involving her mother’s condition, the seemingly Bollywood desire to be entirely, gloriously unsubtle flares up when Anil Kapoor’s Arun is on the court room floor, orating heartily his stance about justice, about what he’s fighting for. It’s here where the film’s opinion about how the Indian justice system should be better is most apparent.
But slowly yet surely, Thakral makes plans to ruin Arun’s life all over, not knowing he had already done so. A new case opens up over the supposed malpractice of a female doctor, who, shocker, becomes Arun’s love interest. Well after I had seen Meri Jung, very recently in fact, I watched Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, starring Paul Newman as an alcoholic lawyer fighting a seemingly impossible medical malpractice case, with him pitted against the slimy defendant lawyer played by James Mason in one of his last roles.
I won’t talk about The Verdict much as I watched it to be featured later on the 80’s Retrospective. But having just seen it, that Meri Jung has a plot element involving a doctor accused of malpractice involving a villainous lawyer versus heroic lawyer seemed quite peculiar. The Verdict released in 1982, Meri Jung in 1985. The details between movies are not exact and the malpractice case is the bulk of the Verdict, the one in Meri Jung is only in the second act, to help establish Arun and Thakral as being opposing forces and to start up the former’s relationship with the doctor.
Because the movie is 167 minutes and it’s been a good number of weeks since I’ve seen it, forgive me if I don’t recall every plot element or moment in general. You might have to get used to me making that apology as the series pushes forward. I actually want to spare you details on how the film reaches its third act here due to me positioning Meri Jung as being the sole Bollywood film for the curious but time-conscious reader to watch.
What else I can say is that the music, as is expected, is quite good. I was so compelled I checked iTunes to see if the soundtrack for this 1985 Bollywood movie was available and to my surprise it was, along with a good number of other soundtracks. The song that plays in the accompaniment of Arun showing off one of his other talents, with the piano, is the standout track. It’s a somber yet dramatic song about his family’s struggles, struggles for not just justice but just trying to live as happy a life as is possible in 80s’ India.
Meri Jung winning the “gateway” selection from me is also important due to Anil Kapoor’s appearence. Many consider Meri Jung to have one of his finest performances of his career and the presence of a more likely familiar face in Puri also helps ease it into being chosen here. If only it could’ve had other Bollywood heavyweights like Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan and then it would be overqualified.
Come for the Indian Judicial drama, stay for the sudden but welcome dancing and singing.
Next time: Dunno.