What the world needs now is not, apparently, love, but an "American Ninja."
At least that's the thinking at the Cannon Group, where producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus are doing to the film world what Aaron Spelling for years has been doing to television.
Cannon's three previous ninja films -- "Enter the Ninja," "Return of the Ninja" and "Ninja III: The Domination" (with its bow, albeit brief, to "The Exorcist") -- were all pretty spiffy affairs, full of top-notch martial encounters and bare-bones plot manipulation. "American Ninja," on the other hand, suffers from too much talk and too little action.
The problem is that to introduce the idea (and therefore the probable further adventures of) an American ninja warrior, Cannon has had to fall back on two filmmaking traditions it's not all that comfortable with: plot and character development. As a result, it has come up with a lumbering, overloaded vehicle when what's needed is a sprint car of a movie.
The next problem is the casting of Michael Dudikoff as American ninja Joe Armstrong. Dudikoff, a splendid physical specimen, sort of a James Dean on steroids, spends too much time posing like the fashion model he once was. Six foot two with eyes of blue, he comes across as the strong, silent type, for the wrong reason: his voice lacks the authority of his body. As a result, Dudikoff's lines come out closer to Pee-wee Herman than to Chuck Norris.
The action is set in an Army camp in the Philippines, where Dudikoff has just been assigned. When his convoy, including the base commander's daughter, is attacked by local rebels, the heretofore silent and surly Dudikoff ignites, driving the rebels off. At this point, and for no good reason, the convoy suffers a second attack at the hands of a band of ninjas. Grabbing the girl (Judie Aronson), Dudikoff escapes through the jungle and returns her to the base.
As he skedaddles into the jungle, the bad Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita) hisses in great Peter Lorre fashion, "Who isssss he? He posssssesssssses great ssssskills!"
At this point, the plot thickens with various French, Japanese and Spanish accents, and a black market weapons deal provides the thin subtext of motivation most action films demand. There are the standard trappings -- the weapons czar's fortress estate, the ninjitsu school for his private army, Dudikoff's black sidekick (Steve James).
At one point, Dudikoff and John Fujioka, playing the Japanese soldier who raised him, interrupt an attack on the crime lord's estate for tea and reminiscence, but eventually a Big Battle takes place. The finale is okay, but neither as stylish as the rooftop climax in "Revenge of the Ninja" nor as apocalyptic as the entire "Shogun Assassin" series.
The ninja/martial arts sequences were choreographed by Mike Stone (who has done better).
Let's just hope Rambo doesn't go to the Philippines for a little R&R.
American Ninja, at area theaters, is rated R.