Friday, February 20, 2015

Worth Mentioning - This Isn't War, This Is Madness

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody witnesses different dangers in different jungles.


Low budget production company Cannon Films was started in 1967, but its most popular era is the 1979 through 1989 run cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus shared as heads of the company. Under Golan and Globus, Cannon churned out a steady stream of pure entertainment, including horror movies (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2),  teen flicks (Breakin'), and a live action adaptation of the Masters of the Universe cartoon/toy line, but what they were best known for were their action movies, which starred the likes of Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, Sho Kosugi, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

During its development, American Ninja was considered as a starring vehicle, at different stages, for Kosugi or Norris, but when neither of them ended up signing on, Cannon went searching for a James Dean type to star. They found what they were looking for in Michael Dudikoff, an actor they believed was so right for the titular role that they cast him even though he didn't actually know any martial arts.

The American Ninja himself is Joe Armstrong, a soft-spoken man of few words who has been suffering from amnesia for six years. He doesn't know who he is or where he came from, but he does know martial arts, and occasionally those skills get him in trouble. So much trouble that a judge has offered him a choice: enlist in the Army or go to jail. Joe opted to enlist.

Joe is stationed in a dangerous area in the Philippines where soldiers run the risk of running into rebel forces anytime they stray away from base. The movie wastes no time using this threat to jump into an action sequence, one which lasts for around 10 minutes because Joe has barely been able to fight off the rebels who attack a military convoy he's part of before the convoy is also attacked by a group of ninjas.

Led by a man known only as Black Star Ninja, these ninjas are the private army of wealthy gun runner Victor Ortega, who is seeking to steal military weapons so he can sell them off. Seeing Joe's abilities on display causes Black Star Ninja to develop a personal vendetta against the G.I., one which is further fuelled throughout the film as Joe continues to thwart Ortega's plans and whittle down the ninja army's numbers.

There is some variety to those ninjas as well. While Joe primarily fights the typical black-clad ones, you also get ninjas wearing gis of multiple colors - red, yellow, orange, blue. I was a ninja-obsessed child in the '80s, if a VHS box hinted that there would a character wearing a gi in a movie, I'd rent it, and the sight of these color-coded ninjas truly delighted me back in the day. I have to say, the delight hasn't worn off all that much. I wish the brighter colored ninjas got more screen time. At least Black Star Ninja has some tricks up his sleeve. Literally. A flamethrower on one wrist, lazers and projectiles fired from barrels over his knuckles.

Between action sequences, Joe gains acceptance from his fellow soldiers, earns a friend in Corporal Curtis Jackson (Steve James, an actor who did know kung fu), embarks on a romantic relationship with the base Colonel's daughter (Judie Aronson of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), and meets the man of his dreams... dreams which are actually flashbacks to when this man taught him martial arts as a child. A man so skilled that he can even teleport.

The story and character interactions are handled well enough that they hold interest between the parts we're really watching the movie for, which are of course the fights, and in that area the film certainly delivers. Dudikoff may not have had prior experience doing the moves his character was meant to do, and sometimes he appears a bit awkward, but for the most part he's convincing during the fisticuffs, surely thanks to movie magic pulled off by the choreographer, director Sam Firstenberg (Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo), and the five editors.

American Ninja is as B-movie as it gets, but never presents itself as anything other than a B action flick and is wholly satisfying because it delivers just what it promises: the spectacle of an American soldier fighting off a legion of ninjas. You know what you're getting into when you put this movie on and you'll probably enjoy it as much as you expect to. It has a concept that I expected to be fun to watch play out, and I do find it to be a whole lot of fun.

Thank you, Golan and Globus!

SNIPER 3 (2004)

Arriving nine years after its predecessor, Sniper 2 had been a bit of a surprising sequel, but once that door has been opened it's never very surprising when the sequels keep on coming.

Sniper 3 hit video store shelves just two years after part 2, and finds Tom Berenger again reprising the role of Thomas Beckett, who has earned back his rank as Master Gunnery Sergeant in the Marines. But the return to the Corps isn't going so well, and it's looking like he should have just stayed retired. Especially when a medical exam reveals that the occasional shake that has developed in his right hand is due to the loss of his pointer finger in the original film. There was nerve damage that may be leading to palsy, and the digitorum tendon is subject to involuntary reflexes, especially during moments of high stress. None of this is good news for a sniper to receive.

On the bright side, there is some hope in his personal life, as he's good friends with Sydney (Jeannetta Arnette), the doctor who checked his hand out, and there's a possibility that their relationship could grow beyond friendship. Beckett is already a surrogate father of sorts to Sydney's son Neil, delivering a speech at Neil's wedding reception that was left behind by Neil's father Paul Finnegan. Beckett served with Finnegan in Vietnam, where Finnegan was killed in action.

Or so his friends and family thought.

Beckett also served with a man named William Avery (Denis Arndt), who has gone on to become the Deputy Director of the NSA. Despite Beckett's age, physical issues, and disturbing psych evaluations, Avery handpicks his former comrade for a mission that will require him to travel to Vietnam and perform an assassination. Beckett is shocked to hear that the target is the man who saved his life in the war, the still-alive Paul Finnegan (John Doman), now known to the Vietnamese as The Cobra.

Finnegan was recruited by the CIA during the war. His death was faked so he could run heroin for the agency, the drug sales financing covert operations. His association with the CIA ended, but Finnegan remains a warlord in Vietnam, commanding a rogue army and running opium, weapons, pretty much anything illegal. But now Finnegan has started working with terrorists, so his thirty year criminal reign must be brought to an end.

Beckett accepts the mission, returning to Vietnam, to Ho Chi Minh City, which he still thinks of as Saigon. There, he meets up with his operation contact, a police officer named Quan (Byron Mann). Quan gets Beckett all set up to perform the assassination, telling him where Finnegan will be and where, and where he can take the shot from. But when the time comes, Beckett doesn't kill his old friend, shooting the criminal client he's meeting with instead.

This reveals that there are even shadier dealings going on than Beckett was informed of, leading to more gunfire and explosions. As Beckett resolves to bring Finnegan down with Quan's help, the mission even leads to Beckett once again going into battle in the jungles of Vietnam... and in the tunnels beneath.

Sniper 3 director P.J. Pesce is sort of a go-to guy in the direct-to-video sequel world, having directed From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter, Lost Boys: The Tribe, and Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball (not to mention a handful of Tremors: The Series episodes). Here, he was working from a screenplay by Ross Helford (who wrote DTV sequels to Wild Things and Single White Female) and J.S. Cardone (the remakes of Prom Night and The Stepfather), and the film they delivered is a very somber one that seems to primarily want to be a character study, but despite how much weight the dramatic moments are given, I didn't find them quite as effective as the filmmakers likely hoped they would be.

The movie feels achingly slow paced to me. Aside from a brief burst of action with Quan early on, which features slow motion slides across ice in a fish market (not exactly a thrilling spectacle), it takes until 45 minutes into the movie for anything exciting to happen. Although there are only a few points of interest between Beckett's arrival in Ho Chi Minh City and the assassination attempt, somehow that's a gap of 20 minutes of the running time. That's the impression I have of the movie as a whole: it somehow fills up its 91 minutes with not much going on.

Sniper took away Beckett's trigger finger. Sniper 2 gave him blurry eyes. Sniper 3 further declines his health with the nerve damage and tendon issues. That weighs on the character's mind, but ultimately the only point to all that is to give Beckett an idea how to kill someone in a clever manner.

The basic set-up is perfectly serviceable. A Vietnam veteran returns to the country to face off with a friend turned enemy and unearths long-buried, dark secrets in the process. That's great action/thriller stuff. The execution of it is just underwhelming.


He may have only had a budget of approximately zero dollars to work with, but independent filmmaker David L. Hewitt didn't let that get in the way of him making his own variation on the 1933 classic King Kong.

Hewitt's film follows circus owner Mark Remington, who is in debt and in danger of losing his business to a corporation that has been buying up major circus attractions left and right. Hoping to save his circus, Remington travels to the Congo to meet up with wild animal dealer Tonga Jack, who has told him of an "overgrown gorilla" that is believed to be living in the jungle there. Remington plans to lead an expedition to capture the gorilla, transport it back to the U.S., and profit from the people who will come in droves to see the beast.

Upon his arrival, Remington finds that Tonga Jack has been missing for months and his operation is now run by his daughter April. April fills in the story of the gorilla, the titular Mighty Gorga, that is worshipped as a god by a lost tribe in an area called the Green Hell, where there may also be a hidden treasure. April is having her own money troubles, so she agrees to go with Remington into the Green Hell in search of Gorga, as well as the treasure.

And so the bulk of the running time consists of Remington, April, and a few companions making their way through California locations standing in for the Congo, for a rather uneventful version of the Skull Island expedition in King Kong. Eventually they do indeed encounter the lost tribe, led by a Witch Doctor played by a white guy from California who has been lathered with bronzer, the Mighty Gorga, and just like on Skull Island, a T. Rex that the giant gorilla does battle with.

The film that inspired this one brought its creatures to life with very impressive stop-motion effects, and Hewitt got some legitimate optical effects on his filmography after this, but here we just have trick photography, a cheap gorilla costume (Hewitt himself plays Gorga), and a not-convincing-at-all T. Rex puppet.

The Mighty Gorga is a "so bad it's entertaining" movie, fun to watch to see how silly the creatures look, how bad the acting is, and how poorly written it is. I've been reading my way through the memoir of filmmaker Greydon Clark, who had an acting role in Gorga as Remington's brother, and in the short passage about The Mighty Gorga he says Hewitt came to the set every day having no idea what he was going to do or what he wanted. Having seen the result, it's no surprise to hear that the director was just winging it.

This type of movie is enjoyable to seek out and watch when you already know it's going to be bad. I'm not sure many viewers who paid to go to the movies in 1969 and had this play out on the screen in front of them would have been very happy about it.


  1. I actually went to the theater to see American Ninja back in '85. I haven't seen it since, but remember loving it back then, but almost nothing about what actually happens. Thanks for the refresher. Never bothered with Sniper 3 and don't plan to. On the other hand, I might have to dig up The Mighty Gorga. That one sounds like big fun.

    1. I envy your '80s movie-going experiences! I'd love to see American Ninja on the big screen.

      As with Hell's Bloody Devils, approach The Mighty Gorga with caution.

      - Cody

  2. This is really a wonderful post.