Welcome back to Unsung Anniversaries, where every week we look back on films celebrating birthdays that might not be getting widely recognized.
Last week I cancelled Unsung Anniversaries simply because the film we chose to cover ended up being covered by everyone and their mother – Joe Dante’s 1989 unsung suburban horror comedy classic The ‘burbs – so with nothing new to add to the discussion and at least half a dozen pieces written on it already, I just threw in the towel. Also, the highest profile anniversary from last week – 1994’s Reality Bites, Ben Stiller’s directorial debut – was something that was just too big, heralded, and quite frankly really boring to elicit much enthusiasm. Ditto the original 1984 Footloose and 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or Mike Judge’s late-onset juggernaut Office Space from 1999, which should have been the most obvious choices for anyone to cover that no one ended up covering. (Although quite a bit of ink was spilled on Bill and Ted at the end of last year.)
I tracked down copies of Lassiter, True Believer, and October Sky, but none of them were really interesting enough to write about. Well, October Sky was, but it would also require a lot of research and reading that I couldn’t do in a single day. I astoundingly couldn’t source a copy of the 1999 cult classic Jawbreaker in time (even though I also covered the director’s most recent effort G.B.F. for a festival last week). I also couldn’t find any copies of the Meg Ryan 2004 boxing drama Against the Ropes, Denzel Washington’s debut as a leading man in The Mighty Quinn, or William Friedkin’s extremely underrated 1994 basketball drama Blue Chips. I had no desire to relive the tedium of Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen or Welcome to Mooseport. I guess I could have done Eurotrip (which a lot of people asked for when I said I was starting the column), but outside of the genius of the song “Scotty Doesn’t Know,” I realized there wasn’t much to talk about. Plus, I already did one 2004 movie for this column and I wasn’t in a rush to head back there.
This left one back-up option: On Deadly Ground, Steven Seagal’s eco-action movie against big oil AND his directorial debut. As I sat there watching Seagal and Michael Caine embarrass themselves over and over again, I remember just getting so angry about how much time and energy I had put into The ‘burbs already and just cancelled the whole bloody thing. If I had known I wasn’t going to see a single anniversary piece for Footloose or Office Space I would have just done those instead.
So out of that frustration comes this week’s “action packed” case study that I severely doubt many people will care about enough to run out to their local library and research.
American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt
Release Date: February 24th, 1989 (25th anniversary)
Opening weekend box office: $222,252 (#15, 140 screens)
Other noteable films opening that weekend: Absolutely nothing in wide release, but Carl Reiner’s Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool and Lloyd Kaufman’s The Toxic Avenger II both opened in less than 40 theatres COMBINED. Neither did better than this picture. The ‘burbs held onto the number one spot at the box office for the second week in a row.
Days in Theatrical Release: N/A
Final Domestic Box Office Take: $902, 152
Estimated Budget: N/A
How I remember first seeing American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt: I had NEVER seen beyond the second film, and I was kind of stunned to realize there were actually five of them. I only watched it for the first time last week.
Hopefully 80s schlockmasters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and their legendary 1980s running of Cannon Films needs no introduction, but for the sake of expediency, just know that in addition to producing nearly every Chuck Norris film made in the decade that they were probably the most infamous production company in the world. They often moved between cheaply made action and exploitation flicks (Crack House, the Exterminator films, the ridiculous third and fourth Death Wish movies), huge big-budget gambles (Cobra, Masters of the Universe, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, King Solomon’s Mines, Over the Top, the Brooke Shields starring Sahara), urban themed entertainments (the Breakin’ films, Rappin’, Salsa, technically two films about the Lambada released in the same week)and some quite ballsy art-house choices (Runaway Train, Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear with Woody Allen and Molly Ringwald, Barfly, Powaqqatsi, 1986 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Assault).
But one of the things they have been best known for was their proclivity for producing martial arts flicks. While the best example of these films is probably the discovery of Jean Claude Van Damme for Bloodsport and Kickboxer (although technically his big screen debut with in the first Breakin’ as a dancing background extra), Cannon still managed to pump out not one, but two franchises dealing exclusively with ninjas.
Why two ninjas franchises? Because Menahem Golan really fucking loves ninjas. The first of the two began with the Franco Nero starring Enter the Ninja in 1981 (directed by Golan after Charles Bronson refused to let him direct Death Wish II), continued with Sho Kosugi in Revenge of the Ninja in 1983, and ended with the now somewhat legendarily cheesy Lucinda Dickey starring Ninja III: The Domination. The second began the year after this predominantly headlined by white people ninja epics ended. And to just underline the whiteness of their ninja films, they also decided to underline just how their new protagonist was also an American.
Begun in 1985 under the direction of one of Cannon’s most prolific “in-house” directors, Sam Firstenberg (who did the last two Ninja films, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and a couple of the Delta Force films), the cheapie action franchise (all budgeted at around a million dollars or less) was a star vehicle for budding action superstar Michael Dudikoff, a model and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt that Cannon seemed keen to groom into the next big thing after he popped up in bit parts in commercials and in the films Tron and Bachelor Party. He was also hired because Norris passed.
The first two films (one in 1985 and the other in 1987) concerned the exploits of US Army soldier Joe Armstrong, a ninja trained badass who fights the good fight for the US of A in The Philipines and The Caribbean, respectively, with the help of his buddy Curtis Jackson, played by Steve James in a role that would seemingly define the entire series even more than the leads would. Neither of the first films were particularly all that spectacular in terms of set pieces or for being box office or home video successes, but they did have a certain amount of patriotic swagger and good will thanks to the chemistry between Dudikoff and Jackson (even thought by Jackson’s own admission, their personal relationship was kind of rocky). They were forgettable, for sure, but at least they were somewhat enjoyable in the moment.
Firstenberg, who really knew his way around this kind of a picture, didn’t return for the inexplicable third entry in the series. Neither did Dudikoff, citing not wanting to get burnt out and the fact that he didn’t want to return to South Africa, where the second film was made and where the apartheid struggle was beginning to reach its apex after decades of battle. Black actor Jackson would have no such qualms about returning for the third film, but it was also to be the last film in the series he would take part in.
Replacing Firstenberg was South African director Cedric Sundstrom, best known for directing Oliver Reed and Robert Vaughn in the not so well remembered drug trafficking film Captive Rage (a.k.a. Fair Trade). Stepping in for Dudikoff was David Bradley (getting the job after No Retreat, No Surrender actor Kurt McKinney declined), a budding actor and former karate champion from Texas with even fewer credits to his name than Dudikoff. The lack of experience Bradley brought to the production – both as an actor and as a capable, trained stuntman – certainly showed, and for the fourth film a deal was struck to bring Dudikoff back to try and save the franchise (with the production moving ever so slightly to Lesotho) by placing him alongside Bradley. That movie essentially put the franchise in the ground until 1993 when the extremely desperate by this point Cannon simply titling a different Bradley vehicle with the title American Ninja V seemingly for the hell of it.
But it’s hard to really fault Bradley, Sundstrom, or even the absence of Dudikoff for American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt turning out as dull and silly as it ultimately did. It was a film that never should have been made in the first place, and it came at a point where Cannon was getting so desperate for a hit film that their decision making process just seemed bizarre. It’s an example of a film that should be dumb fun on paper, but instead looks like it was something incredibly tedious and boring to produce.
The death rattle would begin for Cannon in early 1988, shortly after Bloodsport would be released and mark really the last major high point and glimmer of hope for the studio thanks to its eventual success on home video. All of their major franchises with the exception of American Ninja had seemingly run their course. Bronson was in no rush to make Death Wish V, which wouldn’t be made for Cannon when it debuted with a hopelessly ill looking Bronson in 1994, but it would be made by the Golan owned 21st Century Film Corporation. Norris was kind of done with franchise work following the awkward, out of order prequel Braddock: Missing in Action III (although the unfairly perceived failure of the actually really great serial killer thriller Hero and the Terror did lead to him coming back for Delta Force 2 in 1990). There would definitely not be a Superman V after they botched their one shot with the character. They would lose the rights to make a sequel to the still not very successful Masters of the Universe (the sets for which would be recycled for the Van Damme sci-fi thriller Cyborg). Their attempts to get a Spider-man movie off the ground with hack director Joe Zito never panned out, and the final results of their crack at making a Captain America film were even more disastrous. Buys for Cannon product from distributors were dropping dramatically almost overnight, and previous help from Warner Brothers and MGM with distribution had all but dried up. They were a studio notorious for drumming up massive hype, writing grandiose cheques their asses couldn’t cash, and worst of all their biggest mouthpiece, Golan, would be gone before the end of 1989 in a particularly nasty split with his former partner.
So where does something like the bafflingly titled Blood Hunt come into play when talking about the history of the downfall of Cannon? Sadly, it’s a bit of a footnote the more I actually delved into the actual production, but it seems completely endemic of the laziness of the once… um… great (?) production company.
First of all, there was no script when they started filming. In an archival interview in the third issue of the short lived Action Heroes magazine in 1989, franchise stand out James (who was enough of a cult favourite to be mentioned on the cover) seemed almost baffled as to why he even did the film in the first place.
“Cannon has this weird way of doing things.” James explained about his work on a different Cannon film, P.O.W.: The Escape. “They take a good script, rewrite it for the budget, and so [by the time] I get the script, I [would] think, ‘Where’s the story?’ As for Blood Hunt’s lack of any script: “By that time I had Jackson down cold. I knew how to do him and what people expected from the character. It was crazy, though. Ninety percent of my dialogue was made up by me on the spot. And the scene where I fight the four ninjas with the broadsword originally read ‘Jackson fights one guy.’ But I told the stunt coordinator, ‘Naah, give me four guys.’ I knew a little bit about broadsword fighting, but I learned basically everything that’s in the movie on the set.”
This scriptless wonder would cast novice Bradley, who honestly looks scared shitless to be acting in a leading role, as Sean Davidson, an American martial arts master who trained as a ninja after watching his kickboxer father get gunned down in a robbery gone bad – a sequence where Bradley has to do ADR over an actor playing a younger version of himself. Sean, now a karate champion, is travelling to a martial arts tournament on the island nation of Triana, where he meets up with Curtis and new and very weak comedic relief buddy Dex (Evan J. Klisser). The tournament, however, is a ruse designed by a scientist and terrorist known only as The Cobra (Marjoe Gortner, who we’ll get back to in a bit) to find a “super human” to test out a biological weapon on that’s designed to induce insanity in its victim (or something like that, I honestly stopped giving a crap about anything that happened after about 20 minutes).
It takes a full hour for The Cobra to actually inject leading candidate Sean with the super vague viral weapon, but even less time to abandon the fact that there’s a tournament that was supposed to happen. Sean thinks he has run into his former instructor on the island, but it’s really a female master of disguise (Michele B. Chan) who’s the de facto leader of the other super ninjas under The Cobra’s employ.
The film overall is so listless and aimless that it can’t get its idiotic and threadbare premise right. It’s the kind of film where at the first sign of trouble, Curtis and Dex offer up their help without question or a second thought, but then no one involved with the production has any clue what to do with them. There’s a lengthy, poorly shot, and incredibly dull sequence where Sean and Dex take a plane to get to where they need to be, while Curtis rides on ahead in a truck. Aside from there absolutely being enough room in the fucking truck for them to not need the plane in the first place, it’s a scene that reeks of nothing but potentially padding out the film to a semi-respectable 90 minutes. And then after that bit of unconvincing and utterly pointless aviation, Sean goes off on his own in a search for answers, literally leaving Curtis and Dex back at the truck all night with absolutely nothing to do. They keep getting cut back to solely to tell the audience that they are giving Sean more time, and both actors seem openly pissed to be there because they know their scene isn’t going anywhere. The picture below is from the end of that scene where they finally decide to spring to action and the look on James’ face is a priceless bit of incredulity. They could have at least given these guys some funny banter or something, considering that James is playing a “fan favourite” and Klisser should be hamming it up.
It’s a shame watching James, in what would be one of his final high profile roles before his tragic death on December 18, 1993 at only 41 from cancer, get thoroughly wasted until the film’s broadsword wielding climax. A character actor with extremely small roles on television prior to his appearance in the first American Ninja in 1985, James would show up in high profile films like The Warriors, Arthur, He Knows You’re Alone, Brother from Another Planet, Mask and Weird Science, just to name a few. 1985 would also establish one of his greatest friendships with a filmmaker in William Friedkin, who after casting James in To Live and Die in LA opposite Willem Dafoe would utilize the actor as one of the leads in his short lived TV series C.A.T. Squad. Friedkin would say of James, “[He was] one of the most nicest, toughest, and most professional actors I ever worked with.” James would also establish a working relationship with comedic filmmaker Robert Townsend, who would cast him in roles in Hollywood Shuffle and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. He would also pop up quite memorably as a voodoo priest in Weekend at Bernie’s II, and get a couple of starring roles in the civil rights/post-Vietnam period piece Riverbend and most noticeably as a badass cop opposite Reb Brown and John Leguizamo in Street Hunter, the latter of which is definitely worth a watch.
It’s even worse comparing James to Bradley every time they are on screen together. That could be why they’re so rarely ever in the same scene for longer than a few moments at a time, and when they are James has to do something goofy like wear a cowboy hat, or say something vaguely funny, or sport a T-shirt that says “Shalom, y’all!” When placed opposite of Dudikoff in the previous films, he had someone who could adequately give and take. Whatever one decided to do, the other could roll with it and make it work. Also, Dudikoff could convincingly fight on camera alongside someone like James, who actually had more martial arts training going into the franchise than either star did. In this film, every fight that involves Bradley seems to take place at not even half-speed, but one-third speed. You can actually see the man deliberately looking as to where he has to hit his marks, and all of his admittedly clean looking kicks and punches seem so softball that he looks more like someone posing in a black belt ceremony than an action hero. Compare all of this to James, who again barely knew how to use a broadsword when the film began, get a climactic fight scene where he’s swinging two of them at full speed against his attackers.
It’s this divide between the two film’s main characters and my post-viewing research that made me question something deeper than I probably should have questioned about Blood Hunt. If they had absolutely no script and little clue what they were doing when they went into this AND your franchise lead wasn’t returning, then why not just make James the lead and have the whole film revolve around Curtis’ character?
Well, it doesn’t take much research to answer that question, sadly. It all goes back to the company that made the film and its inability to let anyone of color be a leading man unless those leading men were singing and dancing, sidekicks, or villains. Really with the exception of Morgan Freeman’s pimp in Street Smart (which was Oscar nominated, and still not a leading role), Crack House was the most noteable film to feature an African American lead, and even that was a conservative reactionary film designed to make inner cities look like absolute irredeemable hell holes. James was inarguably the most charismatic thing about the entire franchise, but apparently you couldn’t be black and be the “American” ninja.
And that’s the other thing about Cannon’s ninja flicks that’s bothersome. They all have predominantly white leading roles for no damned good reason other than marketing their films to white people. It’s an issue that James hits perfectly on the head better than I ever could in the same aforementioned Action Stars profile:
“I might be biting the hand that fed me real well, [but] I got tired of seeing non-Asians doing martial arts. These ninja fighting arts are supposed to be real top secret, but the Ninja movies gave you the sense that every white guy in the world knew them. I also didn’t like the idea that every Asian ninja was bad. What we were doing were comic-book versions of ninjas, and I guess to a certain extent, they worked. They just weren’t real.”
With the exception of the aforementioned master-of-disguise female ninja who is a villain and later a hero and who was probably only there as the only token Asian person at all in the film, at least the villain here isn’t Asian. He’s an opportunistic white guy terrorist willing to deal with any number of the highest bidding ethnicities who would want to destroy the free market economy. Sadly, he’s also not even the most memorable character from a Cannon made production to be known as The Cobra. And while the villain is as shoddily “written” as the rest of the film, the person who plays him is certainly an interesting character actor in his own right, and someone who could have probably proven a better heavy if someone just gave him more to work with.
In 1948 at the age of four, Marjoe Gortner became a celebrity for something other than the acting he would take up in the 1970s. He became the youngest ever ordained Baptist preacher. Spurred on by his third generation minister father Vernon, Gortner became an international sensation; a revivalist who was delivering sermons from the pulpit and actually presiding over marriages at an age when most kids were just getting a handle once and for all on how to use the bathroom by themselves. He stepped away from preaching in the 60s when his father took off with all the money he earned, later resurfacing as a strange kind of hybrid preacher and rock star.
Very up front about how much money can be made from preaching the word of the lord, Gortner became the subject of the Academy Award winning documentary feature Marjoe, a film that when reviewed in The New York Times heralded Gortner as “evangelism’s answer to Mick Jagger.” A failed attempt to break into the record industry later, Gortner landed the role as the lead villain in the 70s disaster epic Earthquake. He would go on to pop up in such relics of the 70s and 80s as Viva Knievel!, Sidewinder 1, Starcrash, Mausoleum, and the soon to be released on Blu-Ray horror flick Hellhole as a demented doctor.
Gortner’s career was one that could never have possibly measured up to his early potential, and he hasn’t been seen on screen since Walter Hill’s Wild Bill in 1995. But here in Blood Hunt he seems to be tapping into something he hasn’t been able to bring out in quite some time – probably because no one is really directing him and he has no script at all to work from. In appearance and tone, The Cobra seems ever bit like a preacher kind of character; a charismatic leader who hardly ever has to raise his voice and simply swaggers into the room because he knows exactly where his plans should lead. It’s a remarkably confident villain who’s soft spoken enough to reassure the people around him, but cold blooded and logical enough to still seem threatening. Even his matter of dress – conservative looking suits with narrow collars – make him look like he probably would have had he gone ahead with his more “divine” career path. Much like James, he’s so much better than the rest of the film around him.
As for the fights, with the exception of the one big one James gets, they all suck. It’s just kick, punch, kick, stand, block, kick, flourish on repeat except done really, really slowly because either the dead eyed Bradley can’t handle it, or probably just as likely because Cannon couldn’t afford any kind of huge insurance policy on this one. The ninjas who wear hoods seem barely capable of fighting with any kind of discernible style or technique. They are just stuntmen obviously crammed into suits so they could take a punch in the unlikely event that one of James’ kicks or punches should accidentally hit them. They just stand around, throw up some kind of Illuminati or Roc-a-Fella hand gesture and then pose. That’s all anyone really does here is pose. Even in the one tournament fight in the film, the worst thing to happen is that Sean’s opponent is supposed to fly over the judges table, but instead he merely looks like he’s backing into the thing. It’s an effect made even worse by the fact that Sundstrom thought it would be cool to play it in slow motion.
Should we be celebrating it?: Nope. It’s possibly the dullest film ever made with the word “ninja” in the title. I should also note that although Bradley returns for the fourth film and James doesn’t, Dudikoff and his actual ability to fight offsets things well enough. It’s for die hard Cannon Films junkies and American Ninja completists only, but I wonder if the latter of those two things actually exists independently of the other. Dudikoff has also hinted that apparently there might someday be a return of American Ninja, and I have a hard time believing it could be worse than this one. But I guess if it turns people onto the careers of James and Gortner, at least it did something right.
Next Week: More action, fewer words, more of an all star cast, and one of the strangest running gags to involve a defunct candy bar.