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This may be a little controversial, but Michael Dudikoff inspires me to do more in life. Sure, his martial arts vehicle The American Ninja series is pretty much the bro-kid stepchild of the genre, but that doesn't mean he isn't one of the great b-movie ninjas. According to legend, the film could have gone another way with Chuck Norris as the milky Kung Fu soldier. This would make sense, as Norris had already starred in several films for the same studio (Cannon), had military experience, and holds belts in several branches of Kung Fu. But that wasn't to be--for whatever reason, Chuck declined. Looking for alternatives, they held auditions and landed on Michael Dudikoff, a guy with no former training in hand to hand combat. At that time, he was usually cast in smaller roles as a comedic homie or boyfriend, but he had done some time in modeling and was slated to play a tap dancing apocalypse survivor. I'm sure they could have made this work with lesser fight scenes or lousy editing, and it could have been drastically different--instead, fate interfered in the form of Mike Stone. With the legendary fight choreographer’s help, Dudikoff was effectively able to shape himself into a martial artist. While transformation isn't unheard of in cinema, the Dudikoff that came out the other end was entirely convincing. At least to little RevTerry. I actually felt betrayed when this truth was learned in years later. That is until I realized how inspirational this was--with ambition, hard work, and the right teacher, Dudikoff had gone from catwalks in his underwear to jump kicks. It's probably a little problematic since I'm sure there were a few American Ninjas available that were not blond or ginger. Actually, I have no idea why they picked him, but he rose to the challenge (at least he didn't take the job straight from Bruce Lee). I'm not a former male model, and I have never been on Happy Days, but to scale, that still means I could be capable of quite a bit more myself. Life could have typecast Dudikoff as a pretty-boy or a sort-of zany side character, but dodging that, he became one of the most memorable VHS ninjas of my childhood. He played Joe Armstrong for two more films (1,2,4), and I enjoy them all to varying degrees. However, in my opinion, he really hit a stride with American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987).
Having moved up the ranks since American Ninja (1985), Joe (Michael Dudikoff)
 and Jackson (Steve James) are now rangers in the Army. For whatever reason, this means they are dispatched on an investigation when several marines go missing on a tropical island. Upon arrival, they are met by two grunts in Hawaiian t-shirts who had been expecting fellow marines. Once the military branch confusion is settled, Charlie (Larry Poindexter) and grumpy Tommy Taylor (Jonathan Pienaar) take the super-rangers up to meet Wild Bill (Jeff Celentano) the commanding officer. Once at the base, they learn that Tommy had been with the soldiers when they disappeared, and along with a young local boy, was the last to see them. The duo quickly picks up leads (I mean other than the shady ass Tommy) by using charm and Kung fu, which eventually point to a secret science project helmed by international drug dealer "The Lion" (Gary Conway). As it turns out, The Lion is dispatching goons for human ingredients to his unstoppable army of Frankenstein ninjas. Asskicking insues as it is up to Jackson and Joe to stop the genetic remixing and free the island from the clutches of the evil Lion. Also, there is some romance in there somewhere, though it just leads to Joe catching a blow dart with his bare hand.
Forgoing the simmering machismo duologue of the first film’s set-up, American Ninja 2 presents a story with minimal discussion or character development. The first one took care of all that inner turmoil, and now we just have the full-fledged American Ninja and his homie Jackson as a traveling power-duo on the government payroll.  After the intro's over-orchestrated bar kidnapping, our heroes arrive on the scene like TV detectives in their third season, with the chemistry to match. It's ready-made for cable action-marathons, padding out its rambunctious throwdowns with the corny warmth of an early Jean-Claude Van Damme film. In more than a few ways, the plot resembles the first movie, though more tropical, caffeinated, and detached from reality. The supernatural might be involved, there is some Star Wars-like ghost mentoring, and it gets into some science fiction with the central conflict. Every turncoat bad-guy acts the part from square one, which doesn't matter because you know (at some point) they will get kicked, punched, or tossed around for justice. I guess you could say, there is mystery involved, but ultimately, the answer to any question is ninjas or super ninjas.  Essentially, the first quarter boils down to a buddy-comedy remake of The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) with better fight scenes (I said it. What?). It doesn't seem to be hiding its James Bond influences, almost telegraphing nods with a wink in some cases. Similarly, a lot carries over from the director's previous "Ninja" entries for Cannon Group, re-heated as a more self-aware cultural hamburger. Towards the middle, it goes full-blown Ernst Stavro Blofeld revealing a motivation that is equal parts cheap Universal Soldier and the Ninja Turtles cartoon. Despite the increasingly erratic subject matter, the whole picture keeps the same tone and energy while cramming in super-science and bioengineered ninja/marine hybrids. It moves fast, but assuming you have seen the movies it borrows from, the story is entirely coherent. Anything goes, but the missing logic is smooth and consistent. Past the Our Man Flint (1966) routine and the second hand John Henry allegory, it's a cheesy American Kung Fu flick first. It hits all the action sequel cliches, sheds its character building, and takes its returning players to their comical extremes. I mean that in the best way possible. American Ninja 2: The Confrontation is the Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995) of good-bad ninja films.
Before kicking off the American Ninja series, Sam Firstenberg had already directed three films for Cannon Group, including the second two "Ninja" films and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984). The year before this sequel, he would also direct the same two stars in the military action flick Avenging Force (1986) for the studio with one of the same screenwriters, James Booth. I'm not totally sure, but I think Dudikoff has fewer lines than in the first one. The star mostly just stares intensely and knocks people out. You can always tell who is on the good team because he smiles at them often. He has definitely been practicing, as his moves are noticeably fluid and displayed prominently. In his second phase of martial arts evolution, Dudikoff seems to be taking on the persona of a monk who only communicates with one-liners and flying limbs, leaving his partner to do the conversing.  I don't know how much they chill outside of work, but there is a magic chemistry between Dudikoff and James that makes Riggs and Murtaugh look like strangers. It helps that Steve James is exactly the kind of partner you want to take on an island-vacation/ass-kicking crusade. James is already a b-movie veteran at this point and has done his share of Kung Fu, starting with Bruceploitation feature Enter the Game of Death (1978) in 1978. Another Golan-Globus go-to Gary Conway plays the nefarious "The Lion." Conway’s career spanned four decades of western outlaws, Vikings, and teenage Frankensteins. He also worked as a writer on the film and penned the story for Over the Top in the same year. My favorite Jason, Kane Hodder, is listed as a stunt performer. I couldn't point him out to you in the film, but I'll add "ninja safety expert" to the list of reasons why I love him.
While the first American Ninja could have easily been renamed Ninja 4 and added to that series, American Ninja 2 defines a more bubbly self-aware handling that will stick around for the remainder of the series. This still includes tributes to classic Kung Fu cinema, although the attempt to emulate is taken less than seriously. There's nothing too flashy in the camera work or framing, as it stays pretty generic outside of a few visual callbacks. The restrained work in this area transfers well to the fight scenes and stunts. There is little done to heighten the action in editing, letting it speak for itself in satisfying plentiful portions. While being eccentric and overboard, the fights are solid as fuck and are probably the most realistic aspect of the film. The choreography contains enough grit to be felt appropriately wrapped in the fun-loving and unrealistically clean-cut demeanor of the film. It's not brutal or graphic and is closer to an STV kids movie than any action cinema classic, but without fail, it is entertaining, fluid kick-dancing. With the spontaneous dojos and resort-like island as the setting, each fight scene gets a Dead or Alive 3 worthy background. For a movie about supposedly stealthy hunters, it takes place almost entirely in open daylight, which makes the black uniforms stand out against the beautiful blue sky in every attack. The soundtrack seems like it has been chosen from pre-made Casio beats, cruise line-ad background music, and random canned brass instruments for that extra ninja-y flavor. Altogether, it's sturdy, expertly fashioned junk food with more exciting brawling than reason. Firstenberg and the studio had b-movie action down to a formulaic science by this sequel's release but were still handing out films with a goofy-ass soul as well.
American Ninja 2: The Confrontation is a fully stocked Kung Fu vacation to the island of cliche action-movie sequels. It amps up the energy, increases the amount of fan service, and throws in some science fiction instead of an attempt at character drama. The result is always entertaining, wonderfully dumb, and full of comic book-worthy plot points. I'm going to go out on a limb and proclaim that it is the best of the series. Here, Michael Dudikoff brings his A-game and carves out Joe Armstrong as one of my favorite ninja-trash icons. If Dudikoff can be Joanie's boyfriend on Happy Days, a model, comedic relief, and a brooding Kung Fu detective, we could all stand to step up our game.
1h 30min | 1987
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Writers: Gary Conway, James Booth

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