Bad Movie Review (Extra Life 2018) – American Ninja

The Bad Movie Review series of posts are a set of posts written as the result of meeting a $1,200 stretch goal for Extra Life, an annual 24-hour video gaming charity marathon event that benefits children’s hospitals.

To its core, American Ninja, rated at around 5.5 stars out of 10, it’s quintessential 80’s movie schlock. It’s got the good vs. evil simple plot, the hero and a damsel in distress, a clear and present definition of how bulletproof said hero is (both literally and figuratively) and a hammy way of presentation that would make younger me gape at the screen in rapt attention but would make modern, older me roll my eyes in its blatant cheesiness. On a certain level, American Ninja is a self-contained product of the things that were popular in the 80’s, too – the “coolness” of the soldier type with crazy weaponry, action heroes with the personalities of bricks but with cool moves, and the “exoticness” of the East, however appropriate or inappropriate any of those elements were by today’s standards.

I think the badness of this movie shines through in the idea that a lot of the elements were just thinner than a piece of wet toilet paper and the fact that whoever put the movie together didn’t care for them, because hey – ninjas! Explosions! Weapons! Stuff that stood out to me as particularly head-scratching include:

  • The protagonist is named “Joe” (a clear nod to the popularity of GI Joe), and he is somehow an amnesiac/orphan/rebel that sidestepped the recruitment requirements for being in the military.
  • Joe starts out being unpopular for being the “emo loner”, but literally a scene after beating up fellow soldier with his cool ninja skills he’s completely accepted and treated like one of the guys. Ditto for the romantic interest, who only requires one look at shirtless Joe to not only forgive him for being rude to her but fall for him.
  • The fact that a ninja training camp is the means by which a stereotypical “evil foreigner” secures arms deals, usually in broad daylight.
  • How the ninjas don’t realize you need to use the numbers to attack one target to overwhelm them until the end of the movie.
  • How ninja magic is a thing – but that only the good guys know it, and only know to use it at the end of the movie.
  • How an American-trained ninja is somehow rarer than a unicorn, as if expats, exchange students, overseas workers and the like aren’t a thing and would never, ever sniff martial arts even as a casual hobby

I could go on. But there’s plenty more. To be fair, the modern popularization of a ninja has just a bit more depth than what was presented here. But it had to start somewhere, even if it was stereotypical and cheesy-bad.

Oddly enough (or perhaps to no surprise given the 80s), this movie would spawn a franchise, with 4 more movies, which I am confident have the same amount of action with the same amount of thin characterization and plotline, but it likely just goes to show how action really got somewhere in the era, and that for every well-known action movie like an Indiana Jones or a Willow that there were coattail riders like American Ninja.

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