American Commando Ninja (1988)

People criticize Joseph Lai, Betty Chan and Godfrey Ho for the quality of their cut-and-paste ninja nonsense but, as this blog can testify, these films – by their very nature – can sometimes produce greatness. I thought that, left to their own devices with a full-length no-budget ninja script to shoot on videotape, the results were far worse but thanks (as ever) to Jesus from Golden Ninja Warrior Chronicles, I’ve since found out that this movie is also something of a con job. It’s apparently part of a Taiwanese TV series (as yet unidentified) that was chopped into two “films” – this and Born A Ninja – then redubbed and released by their company AAV. I went into American Commando Ninja (aka Silent Killers) as a veteran of these types of film yet still came out a broken man. I don’t want to speak too soon, as there are still hundreds to get through but I think this might just be the worst ninja film ever made…

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I’m going to have a crack at deciphering the plot but it’s particularly weird and incoherent. It opens with a Japanese ninja called David being sent to China on the trail of the ever-present secret formula. It’s apparently something that evil scientist Tanaka invented as a biological weapon in WWII. Also on Tanaka’s trail are some Russians, a Triad boss named Martin and a pair of plucky young female martial artists, Brenda and Becky, whose parents were killed by Tanaka’s formula during the war. Let’s put aside, for a moment, the fact that this film is shot and set in the late 80s and that Tanaka looks about 35 and Brenda and Becky about 23 at most (we will, I promise, come back to this). Let’s also put aside, forever, the fact that Brenda wears a pair of shorts fashioned from a Confederate flag…

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Becky captures Tanaka pretty early on and forces him to go to the place where he’s hidden the secret formula (hilariously, to really throw everyone off, it’s buried in HIS OWN BACK YARD). She gives him a shovel and tells him to get digging for it and, if it’s not there, he’ll have dug his own grave (probably the best line in the movie). Just as he retrieves it, however, all the other people on his trail show up at the same time and have a massive fight.

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This sort of makes sense until, out of the blue, a completely random dude in a neon orange top rocks up, calling himself Larry and proclaiming himself master of the kung fu style known as Hocus Pocus (I’m not making this up). This means he can shoot flames out of his fingers and do tricks with wires. David is so awestruck by Hocus Pocus Style that he proclaims Larry his equal and insists they team up. While these two bros merrily bond over a meal at a nearby restaurant, Tanaka (and everyone else) vanishes and the chase begins anew FOR NO GOOD REASON. It’s like they had enough script for these first 20 minutes (which should’ve logically concluded with the back yard fight) and the rest was just made up as they went along. Who Larry is, what his motivations are or why he’s there at all are questions never answered. In fact, the film ends on a note that makes me wonder if he was David’s imaginary friend all along… That would make as much sense as anything else in the film.

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As for Brenda, her lifelong mission to avenge the death of her parents during WWII is eventually undermined by a climactic scene in which David explains to her “If your parents were killed in WWII that would make you at least 40 years old. Are you 40?” She shakes her head sadly as she realises HER ENTIRE LIFE HAS BEEN A LIE… but it took David’s cold, hard logic to make her see it! “Are you 40?” NRRRRGH. MY BRAIN HURTS. THIS IS A SCENE THAT REALLY HAPPENS.

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And I haven’t even got to the part where they decide that in order to use the formula you will need to be in possession of “THE GOLDEN HORNS” (which, sadly, we never actually see because these goobers running around with gold horns strapped to their heads would’ve added some much-needed life to the proceedings). The whole mess concludes with a fight on what looks like a Buddhist Crazy Golf course.

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At first, I found the fact that it was shot on video quite exciting because video always feel more “real” than film. It was almost like watching an IFD film but “Behind The Scenes”. In fact, it’s rare seeing choreographed martial arts on video at all and even though the fighting here is largely quite average, it’s interesting for at least five minutes. Of course, when the fact it’s SOV is the only thing worth recommending it for, you know you’re on shaky ground.

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The rest of American Commando Ninja is brain-batteringly bad. It’s hard to describe exactly what’s so uniquely cretinous about American Commando Ninja versus any other lesser quality Lai/Ho effort (Godfrey Ho, incidentally, is credited as “Story Developer” on this) but, at times, I thought I might cry from how much it hurt to watch these non-actors slowly delivering dialogue that made no sense (“I got some news for you! Good news! says one. “Goose?” replies the other). I wondered if maybe it was some kind of mental reprogramming experiment.

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At other times, I thought I might die laughing from either the low quality of the stunts (a man is apparently pushed from a moving car although all we see is one man in close-up pushing thin air and the other then rolling around in the middle of the road for what feels like a lifetime) or the incredible late 80s fashions (almost everyone wears bright neon and/or garish Hawaiian patterns). The disco sequence, seemingly shot in someone’s hotel room, is particularly special (I’d love to know what the song is – sounds like an Asian David Byrne fronting Boney M singing about “a tiger of the night”) but none of these scant entertaining elements are enough to fix what is mostly a very tedious experience.

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There’s almost nothing to anchor this to the reality of what normally constitutes a film. The dialogue feels like someone reading aloud from the worst translated subtitles you’ve ever seen, the static videography could’ve been done by a corpse clutching a camcorder, the story is utterly unfathomable. If I can take any comfort from American Commando Ninja (EVEN THE TITLE IS NONSENSE), I’m just glad that this and Born A Ninja are (as far as I know?) unique in the AAV canon and the only shot-on-video made-for-TV ninja films they ever put out. Although now, inevitably, someone’s going to comment and tell me there are more… and, inevitably, I’m going to watch them…

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6 thoughts on “American Commando Ninja (1988)

  1. This review was stellar! I actually laughed out loud at work. Kudos.

    Sorry the movie was such a stinker, but hey, I at least loved its write-up.


  2. Pingback: Born A Ninja (1988) | Ninjas All The Way Down

  3. Something that always bugged me about the tape cover to this travesty (which I admit to watching many times while obsessed with ninjas as a teen in the mid 1990s), was that they couldn’t even get the drawn-on cartoon blade right. It’s nowhere NEAR connected to the rest of the sword.

    Fantastic review!


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