The American Ninja films have defeated me by this point. I thought my love for Cannon Films, action movies in general, or ninja movies specifically, would guide me through this journey unwavering. I had a good enough time with the first two, being reminded that the first film really isn’t all that great in spite having seen it one million times, while falling head over heels in love with the second film. Steve James did his damndest to keep me engaged by the third film. But with no Steve James to be found, I’m sad to report that American Ninja 4: The Annihilation’s subtitle might be referring to how definitively the film pounded my interest in this franchise into submission. I almost hate to waste an entry of The Action/Adventure Section on a film that has so few highlights. But I remain firm in my resolve. I felt strongly that after 3 films and a podcast, I had to close out this franchise in writing. Granted, there is a film lurking out there which is occasionally referred to as American Ninja 5. But a man’s will can only be tested so long before he cracks. And being that American Ninja 5 was intended to be some wholly other picture starring David Bradley which ultimately got a name swap in some regions and doesn’t even feature Bradley’s American Ninja character Sean Davidson (but does feature Pat Morita), I’m tapping out here. I have more important films starring Sho Kosugi to get around to next.
The big selling point of American Ninja 4 is the teaming up of both previous American Ninja stars, with Michael Dudikoff returning as Joe Armstrong for a final go-round along with Bradley’s Sean Davidson. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie where it was so abundantly clear that one of the leads was only on set for about a week. Blatantly featuring Bradley as the lead for the vast bulk of the screentime, American Ninja 4 has a bizarre structure in which Bradley more or less plays the captured princess, waiting in the ninja castle to be rescued by the real hero. And that is the entire plot of this 99 minute film. Knowing that this is the plot going in makes this all the more excruciating, as fully half of the movie is spent following Davidson and his cadre of misfit heroes’ attempt to themselves rescue a group of soldiers who are being held captive by a sadistic villain who has an army of evil ninjas at his disposal. The failure of Davidson’s mission is an eventuality which, in a better film, would have perhaps taken up a couple of minutes of screen time. Oh, and yes, you did read that right. American Ninja 4 is a movie about a team of special forces being kidnapped by ninjas, leading to a rescuing team of ninjas being kidnapped, leading to Michael Dudikoff being dusted out of retirement in order to rescue two groups of people who have now been kidnapped. It’s like a Russian doll of diminishing returns… only ninjas.
I shouldn’t be so harsh, perhaps, because while some elements of this movie being exactly the same as the others results in crippling boredom and depressing write ups on the internet, other repeated elements comforted me like a warm blanket. For instance, American Ninja 4 sees fit to continue the trend of a generic villain who has a compound that must ultimately be sieged. Our villain this go-round, James Booth as Mulgrew, actually sports a riding crop which he uses to whip people and parade his hatred for Americans and the British people. There’s a middle eastern oil baron villain alongside of him and all of this has something to do with a nuclear weapon that is small enough to fit in a suitcase, or something. But this thread is remarkably underdeveloped, what with so much of the runtime being consumed by rescuing the people who tried to rescue the people that originally needed rescuing.
The soul crushing monotony of it all is also broken up by one of the most hilarious paths of diversion ever trodden by an American Ninja film… a Road Warrior homage! Since Armstrong (who was coaxed back into commission to save Davidson by being interrupted from a lesson he was teaching to small children about “the environment”) is flying largely solo, he needs some support in the requisite raid on the compound. Accompanied by his pre-teen “contact” (who somehow escaped capture in the last failed mission because the screenplay needed him to), Armstrong pretty much stumbles across a haven of rogues who appear to live in a George Miller-inspired post-apocalypse compound, complete with hilarious bondage gear which is probably supposed to look tough. After proving that he has the best ninja skills, he convinces these wastelanders to storm the compound with him as he finally dons the ninja mask (for at least 60 seconds of total screen time) and tries not to be the third wave of kidnapped rescuers.
Let me tell you, never is one more certain that the bondage gear isn’t what makes the Mad Max movies great than when one watches American Ninja 4. As these weirdos storm the compound, after jumping into a half dozen modded cars which are an homage to both George Miller and elementary school art projects, director Cedric Sundstrom captures them with all the kineticism of a toy train set. It is the least exciting “bondage clad wasteland warriors storm the compound” sequence in cinema history. But amidst all that, offering its comforting embrace, is the familiar fact that almost certainly 3 of the final 4 American Ninja movies shot at least some of their climaxes on the campuses of a community college. At a certain point you are just pulling for things like this to brighten up your otherwise sullen movie watching experience. Ultimately Armstrong penetrates the compound and does a bunch of hilarious ninjitsu-shenanigans to get right up behind our captured heroes and free them to fight and escape. The whole bad ninja army is standing around in an amphitheater as their leaders wax eloquent about their briefcase nuke. Armstrong is literally walking around in a yellow ninja costume just stealthing all the guards as an entire amphitheater of ninjas stand wholly unawares. It is so brazen it almost works. It is also right around here that Armstrong catches a ninja’s arrow in his teeth, which might be the single greatest moment in all of these films. Then after that they all save the day or something. I think the wastelanders help, and I’m pretty sure a helicopter explodes at some point.
In total, Michael Dudikoff and David Bradley share maybe half a dozen shots together on screen. And while Bradley’s character takes up the bulk of the screen time letting his dead end story be told, it is Dudikoff’s Armstrong who gets to show up halfway through the film, save the day, spout a couple pieces of philosophy, and walk off into the mist after rescuing the princess. Neither actor is a compelling screen presence, making the absence of Steve James’ Curtis Jackson (the absolute MVP of the previous 3 films) all the more acute. At least with James the films had a sense of humor and an element of surprise to them. American Ninja 4 has remarkably little to offer barring a horribly executed, but somehow still ballsy, Road Warrior homage and a fumbled team up between two charisma-vacant leads that don’t even really ultimately team up. It is as though the cover art of our movies lies to us or something. But since I know that can never be the case, American Ninja 4 just leaves me feeling beaten, crying out for mercy, wondering when it will all end. Fortunately, it ends now.
And I’m Out.