The Action/Adventure Section: AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT (1989)

 

The Action/Adventure Section
A regular column that will exclusively highlight and review action movies. The most likely suspects? Action cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. But no era will be spurned. As the column grows, the intent will be to re-capture the whimsy of perusing the aisles of your local video store with only ragingly kick ass cover art to aide you in your quest for sweaty action glory. Here we will celebrate the beefy. This is a safe place where we still believe that one lone hero can save humanity by sheer force of will and generous steroid usage.

Taglines:

– Now his most deadly enemy … is time.

– Evil with no cure. A warrior with no fear.

Many months back I partnered up with my buddy Victor Pryor in order to tag team The Action/Adventure Section column as a way to bring his voice into the mix, and also to keep it going in spite of our busy schedules. But also to ensure that I always have a valid reason to keep watching low rent action movies for the rest of my foreseeable future. Adulthood can kind of suck in that things like rent, bills, and common sense often get in the way of watching largely forgotten action gems and then spending enormous amounts of time and energy writing about them on the internet. But with this column firmly in place, easily where I do some of my own favorite work on Cinapse, I have a safeguard against reason or logic prevailing. For as long as I can possibly manage it, I want to be watching deep cut or long forgotten (or even beloved) action movies and writing about them… for the people.

And so, after revisiting American Ninja a while back, and checking out the second installment for the first time just the other month, the time has finally come for me to share some of my thoughts on American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt. Strap in, guys.

Whereas revisiting the first film was something of an eye opener in that the movie isn’t as good as my dozens of childhood watches had recalled, I found myself in movie heaven with American Ninja 2: The Confrontation. Sadly, the enjoyment drop off was staggering here with Blood Hunt. I guess perfectly monikered director Cedric Sundstrom is simply no Sam Firstenberg.

Interestingly, despite having seen the first one a few dozen times and falling deeply in love with the second, I have to admit that all three films are virtually identical… which calls into question just how I can love the second film so much and be so disappointed by the third. But never you mind that. Here in Blood Hunt, just like in every American Ninja movie thus far, you’ve got a tropical locale, a white ninja hero, and Steve James in sidekick mode as Curtis Jackson, running rings of charisma around his inferior leading man. There’s a corrupt, white-suited villain in this tropical paradise, and in the end there will be a large siege on that villain’s compound where good will triumph over evil. Along the way there will be a legion of ninja soldiers led by a super tough evil ninja master who will display his (or her! Shaking things up!) skills by beating up a bunch of their own people in front of an audience of hand-wringing villains, as well as some sweet ninja training sequences. The films are staggeringly, almost mind-numbingly similar in overall plot trajectory.

Only Blood Hunt manages to deliver extremely little actual entertainment value due to a missing ingredient or two. One those missing ingredients is Michael Dudikoff, here replaced by David Bradley (playing a new American Ninja who requires his own backstory to explain how white ninja masters just keep popping up all over the place) as Sean Davidson. Look, to be honest, Dudikoff wasn’t the most charismatic lead on earth, nor did he have any discernable martial arts skills. So his loss shouldn’t matter too much… except for daggonit… that was MY American Ninja. Dudikoff has been synonymous with this role for my whole life. Never mind that Bradley brings some actual martial arts skills to the table… I want my James Dean stand in. Perhaps Bradley would have won me over had the film not been missing an even more key ingredient: a script. Gary Conway is credited with writing the film, same as the one before it. But I challenge anyone to find even a modicum of sensible motivation or interesting plot development here in this movie.

Perhaps I’ll break that down a little bit. As I’ve already mentioned, the movie involves Bradley and James being heroes and eventually sieging a compound infested with ninjas and saving the day. This much is guaranteed by the franchise title on the marquee. But weirdly, here Curtis Jackson no longer has any affiliation with the military and he and Sean Davidson are simply visiting this tropical isle for a martial arts tournament. This tournament is IMMEDIATELY abandoned and never once returned to. It is almost comedic. Jackson and Davidson have a sidekick tagalong called Dex (Evan J. Klisser) who sucks to an unholy degree. He’s one of the worst comedic sidekicks I’ve ever witnessed on film.

But I guess the tournament was devised as a front to draw the world’s most powerful martial artists out to this island run by the villainous “Cobra”, who plans to sell some kind of biological warfare compound to a bunch of greedy warlords. But he needs the strongest and most virile warriors he can find on which to test the serum. In case you are counting, yes, that means two American Ninja films in a row are directly about the attempted creation of super soldiers. Anyway, Sean is targeted as a potential guinea pig for this serum thing, so elaborate plans are hatched to kidnap him, including a lady ninja who is regularly referred to as a “ninjette” using masterful “lady ninja” disguise skills to pose as Sean’s master and feign being kidnapped.

In probably the greatest moments of the entire film, Sean witnesses his master being kidnapped and chases after this band of ninjas, resulting in the only underwater ninja fight I ever recall seeing in all of cinema history. Then, running back to find his friends again after he finds no trace of his master, the following exchange occurs:

Sean to Jackson: “I have a master. Izumo. He raised me since my father’s killing in the way of ninja.”

Jackson: “You’re a ninja?”

Sean: “Yes”

Jackson: “So that explains a few things.”

The thin skeleton of a plot from here out involves trying to find Sean’s master, then Sean getting kidnapped, and finally the requisite compound siege filmed on what can only possibly be a community college campus student union.

Our heroes stumble through this movie listlessly, often just happening upon action sequences by turning a corner and disturbing a nest of ninjas to fight. There’s a hilarious sequence involving paragliders (used to sneak onto the villains compound because nothing is more low profile than a paraglider) which involves no action at all but ups the production value with a few aerial shots. There’s some edited in audio clips that try to up the tension of the sequence with some kind of mid-air engine trouble, but it is clearly added in post to attempt to add a pulse. In my next favorite moments of the film after the underwater ninja fight, Sean is overtaken after he accesses the compound, but during that time we cut to Jackson and Dex just literally standing around and waiting… more than once! In an action movie, there are multiple sequences of our sidekick heroes talking about how they are waiting around. At one point Dex says “I’m really worried about Sean.” To which Jackson replies “Me too, but we need to give him more time.” This sounds like airtight logic. Except that there is no reason at all to give Sean more time. I suppose the reason they stand around so long is to give our ninjette (Michele B. Chan as Chan Lee) time to uncover her bosses notorious scheme and turn sides to support our hero. Chan Lee experiences the film’s single, solitary character arc and is easily the most well-fleshed out character of the entire film. So she’ll provide the spark our sidekicks need to quit standing around and go storm the castle.

In the hilarious finale, Sean finally dons the full ninja garb we all want to see and then removes it again within moments. David Bradley wants to show us all his face and his physique, whereas we all paid admission to see a ninja movie featuring ninjas wearing ninja outfits. Before there were A-list actors playing superheroes and finding every way possible to keep their faces out from behind masks… there were actors playing ninjas with equally passionate desires.

Injected with some type of deadly virus or something, Sean ultimately must square off against The Cobra in the worst mad scientist laboratory I have seen since Blackenstein. The set is literally a sound stage with some curtains in the background, a couple of lab tables, and some brightly colored liquids in vials. Obviously all those vials will get smashed (whew), and Sean will use his ninja meditation powers to sort of just “yoga” the poison out of himself, be transfigured like The Christ, and then dispatch of the mad scientist, who is somehow humorously set up as some kind of physical match for our hero… as though the audience is being asked to temporarily forget that our hero is a badass ninja who has mowed down dozens of other ninjas before this final confrontation with… a guy in a lab coat rustling around a bunch of stacks of paper.

Jackson is still in the movie, having finished standing around and participating in several action beats during the final siege. But he does get the final, closing moments of the film. Throughout American Ninja 3, there’s a bit of a meta-element with Jackson making repeated jokes about just how many ninjas he has fought over the course of three movies. It is a glimmer of life in a movie that is otherwise totally dead on arrival. So when Steve James closes out the movie with a winking quote, I have to smile and continue to wish that he was the lead of this franchise:

“Do you know how long I’ve been fighting ninjas? It’s been a long time, Pal.”

Cut to freeze frame.

And I’m Out.

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the author

Ed changed careers and moved halfway across the country from Maryland to Austin with his amazingly understanding wife just to figure out how to earn a living watching movies. He once heard it said that NY/LA are where you go to MAKE movies, but Austin is where you go to WATCH movies. And that is the truth. But seriously, if anyone knows how to make a living watching movies, please let him know. Twitter: @Ed_Travis