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Ninja: American Warrior (1987)

Directed by Tommy Cheng aka Godfrey Ho
Imperial Entertainment VHS

Over a year ago, my friend gave a bunch of us a very special gift. It was the gift of ninjas. Actual, real-life ninjas. We got gift certificates to a bujinkan school, which offers instruction in the ancient samurai and ninja martial arts. According to the dojo’s website, “Weaponry, striking, grappling, choking and throwing as well as methods of leaping and rolling are all disciplines that are incorporated into our curriculum.” In other words, this is a real school for real ninjas. Those who need colored belts to prove their worth should sashay away and learn tai chi, aka the tofu of martial arts. The bujinkan dojo is inconveniently located outside the city, which makes sense if you think about it. Ninja schools are often remote. They’re either high on a misty mountaintop, deep in a magical forest or, in our case, Yonkers. We haven’t taken the lessons yet—mostly because we’re too lazy to take a commuter train. Clearly we are not meant to be ninjas. The way of the ninja is not for everyone, as proven by Ninja: American Warrior.

An international drug cartel is using Hong Kong as its distribution hub. Amazonia, a fearless, ass-kicking investigator, is committed to shutting it down. Please note that Amazonia is no Amazon; she’s Asian (read: not tall) with a full-bodied perm and righteous fists of steel. Amazonia has her eyes on the prize: the cartel leader, a ruthless, cold-hearted bitch named — what else — The Shrew. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong police enlist the help of John, a white dude who fulfills the “American Warrior” part of the movie title. John (and his moustache) must stop one of The Shrew’s most powerful henchmen, another white dude named Justin. He’s the biggest drug dealer this side of the Golden Triangle. I think we can all agree that Justin is not an appropriate name for a drug dealer. When you need to score skag, you don’t call up Justin. You call up Omar or Taboo or Smoothie. You might even call Daddy Fat Sacks, but you’d never, ever call Justin, the kid who played shortstop on your high school baseball team. But that’s neither here nor there. The two main storylines should intersect and relate to each other but they don’t, so Ninja: American Warrior feels like two movies rolled into one. Luckily, they’re both glorious opuses filled with flying kicks, harpoons, plenty of throwing stars, one severed finger, and a pregnant lady who gets stabbed in the belly. And, in addition, fucking ninjas!

Ninja: American Warrior strikes an entertaining balance between classic ninja badassery and decidedly un-ninja horseshit. Some ninjas fight a lady wearing yellow sweats and red Converse (because when you’re fighting, comfort is king). One ninja uses a smoke bomb to disappear. This is a classic move we expect from a ninja. Another one rubs his hands together and suddenly his fists catch on fire. This is also classic ninja! But then there’s a fight that goes down in a disco to the tune of “In the City” by the Eagles. I can’t think of anything less ninja than the fucking Eagles. There are also midgets in the disco, but sadly they don’t do anything. John, the American ninja, is about as un-ninja as you can get. He’s even less ninja than Michael Dudikoff. White ninjas are basically the white rappers of martial arts. They get no respect. Sure there is Eminem, Aesop Rock, and the Beastie Boys. But there’s also Snow, Fred Durst, and David Faustino. Yes, Bud Bundy white-rapped, as did Macho Man Randy Savage. Will Smith is basically a white rapper. What I’m saying is that John is a totally bullshit ninja. Our homeboy gets locked in a car. He’s unable to break the windows of what appears to be a Toyota Corolla. So he has to smoke bomb his way out. He should turn in his ninja membership card.

The best fight scene might be between Amazonia and Black Cougar, who’d be a formidable ninja if it weren’t for his white facepaint and blue eyeshadow. He’s actually less ninja and more drag queen, and he should probably change his name to Gloria Hole or Tequila Mockingbird. Though I guess Black Cougar is a good drag name too. Anyway, in this epic fight, Amazonia somehow becomes topless. But the sequence is edited tastefully so you only see a limited amount of boob (and zero bush). It’s skillfully cut, and I applaud the filmmakers for their careful attention to detail. But then moments later, there’s a scene where the stunt double looks nothing like the actor –- think a compact Asian stand-in for a lumbering, oafish John. Then, even later, a wonky mannequin stands in for a henchman and gets blown up. It’s incredible that director Godfrey Ho cared so much and so little at the same time. But this is what makes Ninja: American Warrior a real pleasure to watch, even through the corpse-like acting and extended Vietnam War flashbacks. It’s a movie that celebrates the sacred art of ninjutsu by dropping trou and unleashing a voluminous, drunken piss on it.

At this point, our ninja gift certificates have probably expired. But I’m perfectly OK with that. I know I’m not ninja enough, but I take comfort knowing that I’m still more ninja than Ninja: American Warrior.