At the bitter end of a ten-year slide into ever-cheaper productions, The Cannon Group sends stars David Bradley (a nice guy), Steve James (everyone’s favorite) and Marjoe Gortner (a stiff) to South Africa for an anemic entry in this series. Cannon is considered a ‘fun’ subject this year because of those funny documentaries that came out. Savant cut the trailer for this particular picture, so takes the opportunity to talk about the wild life and times in the Cannon trailer department.
American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt
1989 / B&W / 2:35 1:85 widescreen / 1:37 flat Academy / 90 min. / Street Date August 16, 2016 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring David Bradley, Steve James, Marjoe Gortner, Michele Chan,Yehuda Efroni, Alan Swerdlow.
Cinematography George Bartels
Film Editor Michael J. Duthie
Original Music George S. Clinton
Written by Gary Conway from characters by Avi Kleinberger & Gideon Amir
Produced by Harry Alan Towers
Directed by Cedric Sundstrom
Curtis: “Ninjas. (sighs) Not again.”
American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt isn’t much of a movie, and the truth is that it didn’t have to be. In late 1988 The Cannon Group was on the ropes once again. It had already sold off most of its quality product to Warners for home video distribution, and was still sinking. I was an employee at Cannon in Los Angeles for most of 1988, and every week was another crisis. Partner Menahem Golan split off and took the subsidiary company 21st Century with him: one afternoon I was told to look out the window and saw Golan with his loyal retinue, walking across the street to his new headquarters.
1988 saw the release of a few decent pictures, but Cannon no longer had the money to distribute anything properly. Both Powaqqatsi and the excellent Shy People were just dumped. The idea of a mainstream Cannon film became things like Rockula, Charlie Matthau’s Doin’ Time on Planet Earth and various Albert Pyun movies, one of which (Cyborg) was a surprise hit. The distribution executive upstairs was forever furious. He couldn’t get Cannon films into theaters, and he couldn’t get the theaters to play Cannon trailers.
Cannon had made money with Charles Bronson, in awful sequels to Death Wish directed by J. Lee Thompson. They had another solid star in Chuck Norris, whose series of Missing in Action movies pandered to audiences in denial that we lost in Vietnam. Cannon ‘found’ Belgian martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme but couldn’t hold him; he moved on to greener pastures. The first two American Ninja pictures had little to praise except halfway decent action scenes. Like all of Cannon’s low-grade genre efforts, they were sold through excellent trailers (one by the late Marcel Mindlin) that jammed so many dynamic action cuts into 100 seconds that you’d think the actor Michael Dudikoff was a major draw.
American Ninja 3 was produced in association with producer Harry Allan Towers, who from the late ‘sixties forward moved from country to country, continent to continent, chasing governments that wanted to encourage investment in their film industries. In 1988 he was based in South Africa, even though reputable studios in the U.S. and Europe had joined a general boycott over oppressive Apartheid policies. Cannon had its own mini-studio in Israel, but suffered a money crunch and the need for product, any product in the pipeline. They contracted with Harry Allan Towers for a string of adventure and horror movies using actors willing to go anywhere for a job, even South Africa.
Actor Michael Dudikoff claimed that he turned down Ninja 3 for political reasons. The right thing would have been to promote the American Ninja’s sidekick Curtis Jackson to the top spot. The popular actor Steve James was deserving and audiences thought he was funny, but I doubt that Cannon ever considered elevating a black martial arts actor to star status. Enter unknown body builder / martial artist David Bradley, who had the muscles and good white looks to take over.
My assessment of Ninja 3 mostly states the obvious about a film (and most of a genre) that aims at what reviewers used to call ‘undiscriminating audiences’ — people that will watch anything. Ninja 3’s story is juvenile pap of the sort that might appeal to 6 year-olds that get hyped up when TV’s He-Man shouts, “I’ve got the power!” Evil cardboard mastermind The Cobra (evangelist fraud-turned actor Marjoe Gortner) is in cahoots with the evil general Andreas (Yehudi Efroni), who coincidentally murdered a young kickboxer back in 1980, during a raid for the box office receipts of a martial arts contest (!). That incredible cash score has financed The Cobra’s insidious evil mad lab on a Caribbean island. The slain kickboxer’s son has grown up to become international karate star Sean Davidson (David Bradley). Sean, Curtis Jackson (Steve James) and Dexter (Ivan J. Klisser) are invited to the island by the lovely Chan Lee (Michele B. Chan) for a competition, unaware that The Cobra and his nasty assistant Dr. Holger (Mike Huff) have staged the contest to lure the best fighters in the world, to prove that their new scientifically-enhanced Super Ninja warriors can best any normal human. Chan Lee is the secret leader of Cobra’s invincible army of Ninja assassins. She uses the art of disguise to impersonate various people — the Minister of Interior’s secretary (Adrienne Pierce), and Sean’s own sensei, Izumo (Calvin Jung).
Credited with the original story is none other than ex- I Was a Teenage Frankenstein Gary Conway, in a second career as a writer. South African director Cedric Sundstrom re-wrote the script, but it’s difficult to detect any real writing — the only dialogue is awkward exposition, usually telling us what we just saw or restating the obvious. Attempts at humor are pathetic. As directed, the actors sound as if they’re talking so the recordist can get an audio level — there’s no pacing or comic timing, and people barely seem to be addressing each other. A scene where they meet some women in a street cafe is so un-directed that Steve James just sits down and starts caressing the hand and arm of a total stranger. Other scenes are disconnected verbal pronouncements, none of them convincing:
Dev: Let me get this straight — he’s selling out to a terrorist? That’s wholesale slaughter!
Chan Lee: Exactly.
Curtis: That sounds like real bad news to me.
Chan Lee: Hey, don’t underestimate that man he’s not called The Cobra for nothing.
Dev: It’s your call Curtis.
Curtis: OK doll, let’s go kick some ass.
One doesn’t expect great acting in these things, but what we get is the bare minimum. Marjoe Gortner hits rock bottom in his film career, that’s for sure; the supposed camaraderie between the three hero leads is nonexistent. All we get are declarations of revenge and setups for righteous killing scenes. The worst Hong Kong chopsocky epic is better.
But the audience comes to pictures like Ninja 3 for action and the release of hostile energy. Since Ninja are identity-challenged masked nobodies, they appear to have no human rights. It’s all for the better because our heroes kill them by the bushel — snapping necks, stabbing them and tossing them from great heights. I have a feeling that the group scenes simply hired all the martial arts clubs and classes that could be found in Durban, or better yet invited them to participate for free. I’ll bet that the action scenes feature the same five or six kickboxer-karate stuntmen, who fight and die over and over, ad infinitum.
The action is terrible, but it’s not the performers’ fault. These are very special Ninja that cleverly do not use any of their special skills. In fact, being a Ninja seems a real liability. They announce their presence at all times, usually performing some fancy spin or tumble from a high railing, and then politely waiting so Curtis or Sean can whack them with a high kick. The direction is okay, but the camerawork ignores the fact that the really good Hong Kong-based martial arts films do a lot more: the Chinese filmmakers vary camera speeds, use frame-snipping trick editing and more elaborate special effects to create convincing rapid-fire fight action. The first two American Ninja pictures at least had a couple of scenes each of amusing dance-like choreography. The fighting here often looks like a rehearsal. They are kicking feet and swinging weapons about as fast as can be while also being reasonably safe — but when filmed at normal sound speed, it all looks s-l-o-w. David Bradley is buff and moves well, despite being in the second half of his thirties. Big Steve James entertainingly overacts the exertions of fighting. But almost everything is patently fake. Bad guys wait their turn or balk so that the heroes have time to strike them. The pantomime would be good for small children, if necks weren’t being snapped.
Throw in weak synth music, flat lighting and bad sets and you get the whole picture. American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt is for enthusiastic Cannon fans that are somehow nostalgic for the pictures of this kind. The lack of polish on this particular picture really pops out when Dev and Curtis drive a limo up to the Evil Lab, and jump out ready to do combat. We see The Cobra’s defender guards shoot their guns into the air, and then wait so that Curtis can shoot them all down, in three separate groups, with three bursts of automatic rifle fire. James makes sure he poses while firing, grimacing and flexing his muscles. It’s pathetic. Yes, the conservative in Savant sees in this an evil conspiracy against American male children: first, violent, macho-imperative cartoons like He-Man, Master of the Universe, then silly but violent goofball action pictures like Ninja 3, and then on their sixth birthdays, an initiation into their older brothers’ violent video games, that teach disrespect for human life in general. Oh, yes, there’s trouble in River City, my friends…
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt is a fine transfer of this very plain-wrap picture, with the gaudy colors of the tacky sets popping just as they should. Director Sundstrum does use some dramatic lighting effects during Sean Davidson’s final ‘spiritual’ self-cure against The Cobra’s evil mind-altering injection. The thin soundtrack is in good stereo.
Olive is to be commended for coming up with such good extras. The featurette Strike Me Deadly gives us director Cedric Sundstrom explaining his background in South Africa. He was an assistant on the superb Zulu Dawn, so gets a pass in my book any day. He oversells the movie a tiny bit, but that’s nothing compared to producer Avi Lerner, who blabs out some nonsense comparing Ninja to Batman. David Bradley doesn’t appear, but Michael Dudikoff lets us know that he was also supposed to play Spiderman, in the infamous unfilmed Cannon version co-written by Ted Newsom. Gary Conway shows up just long enough to say that his script wasn’t used.
We do see David Bradley’s thirteen-minute VHS audition tape. His line readings are from hunger but his kickboxing is great, and he definitely has the required fine-tuned action figure body.
Sing a Song of Cannon in the 1980s
I partly reviewed American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt for selfish personal reasons: I cut Cannon’s theatrical trailer for it sometime in 1988-1989, in 35mm on a Steenbeck editing table. It took weeks, not because the job needed the time but because my boss told us to not to rush because she had no other work for us, and didn’t want us to be laid off. I didn’t write the voiceover script, but I guess I’m responsible for Sean Davidson being referred to as Sean Cunningham on the audio track, because I didn’t catch the discrepancy. Nobody’s feature dialogue sounded very exciting or strong, so when I heard that Marjoe Gortner was downstairs doing some dubbing, I asked him to read his trailer lines again, louder and more forcefully. Already put out by his contractual obligation, he barely cooperated.
I tried not to imply that his feature reads were lousy, but I’m a bad actor too, and I would guess that an ex-revivalist huckster can all but read a person’s mind. My only disappointment with the trailer transfer on the disc is that the music is too low. Did they use a 3-stripe and rebalance? Perhaps they dipped the level because they weren’t sure about music clearances. That’s too bad, because the excellent music we commissioned from Jim Cushinery was originally LOUD, and made the chopsocky fighting seem much more exciting than the droning feature soundtrack. Honest.
I worked in the wonderful Cannon trailer department for about a year and a half, starting by cutting TV spots for their abortive Fairy Tale series and staying on to cut many, many promos for their sales and pre-sales efforts at film festivals like Cannes. The Cannon Group was a fun place to work if you didn’t mind the unpleasant security people (ex- Israeli soldiers). They had beautiful audio facilities and we did most of our mixing in-house.
Cannon appeared to have quite a sales scheme going — they pre-sold movies at festivals like Cannes by getting foreign distributors to put up money ahead of time. To sell un-filmed movies, which often existed only in treatment form, we advertising editors would cut elaborate, expensive promo reels. Cannon had a distribution contract for a home video outfit, and therefore possessed feature masters of hundreds of UK-produced pictures. For a proposed drama about The Falklands War, I remember being instructed to ‘borrow’ documentary footage of jets and ships blasting away, cutting it together with dramatic Dimitri Tiomkin battle music from The Alamo, and slapping on a growling narration track by the legendary Don LaFontaine. Investors were enthused by our ‘trailers’ for films that didn’t exist, and plunked their money down over booze in the Cannon suite. The rumor was that much of the money collected for these new productions was actually being used to finish other movies where funds had run out.
A flow of promos from the advertising department was key to Cannon’s method, which is why we were left alone to do our work and were paid so promptly. By contrast, the unlucky assistant editors working on features just down the hall were often stiffed for weeks on end. Visiting actors looking for the executive floors often wandered through, lost, which is how I met Robert Morse, Lawrence Tierney and Dom DeLuise, and saw people like Jack Nicholson at the elevator. I was later told he was trying to interest Cannon in his expensive The Two Jakes project). Other celebs showed up in person to demand payment that had been ‘slowed up’ in accounting. Lawrence Tierney was a pretty intimidating guy!
Most editors now work in isolation, or are also producers or directors who must edit for themselves. Back in the 1980s, on 35mm film and linear tape-to-tape editing rigs, editing was labor intensive and required a team. Thus I often worked with a score of colleagues. The camaraderie and competition felt like something out of a Howard Hawks movie. At Cannon we really felt we were working for Yo-Ho-Ho Films Limited, but by and large we gave them honest value. Of course there was a project assistant who was told to re-submit his weekly time card one week when we were working a lot of overtime to finish a ShoWest reel. He had put down something like 176 hours, and a week only has 168. Oops.
We had big advertising department parties. Most of the editors were ten years younger than me, and many had talent. It was a breeding ground for some top editors and film advertising people. Even if I mostly had to work on things like the inexplicably awful Chuck Norris picture Hero and the Terror, it was a great gig: at age 35 I was finally nobody’s assistant, and was showing the department how they could save thousands of dollars in on-line edit sessions, with cost-cutting tricks I had learned in TV commercials.
My great boss Richard Smith hired me because he needed somebody for those sweetness-and-sugar-plum Fairy Tale spots, and all he had were kids who cut gritty trailers about revenge and killing. The sense of humor around the shop was ripe, for sure. Menahem Yoram caught editor Mark Lowrie with a paste-up poster for Masters of the Universe, altered to read “Hamsters of the Universe.” A fuzzy-headed rat took the place of Dolph Lundgren. Either Menahem couldn’t read English well, or he graciously chose to ignore it. When Cannon had no money, the department filmed and Mark Lowrie edited a music video for the notorious Barbarian Brothers movie. It turned into a big picnic. If Olive ever releases The Barbarians (director Ruggero Deodato) they must locate Richard Smith and Mark Lowrie’s music video. Or ask me for it, as I know who has an excellent copy.
When things got desperate I took a page from Mo and Yo’s playbook and promoted myself a leg up and out of Cannon. I called Ad Week magazine and said I was cutting a revolutionary trailer for the movie Powaqqatsi. The resulting two-page color spread got me several offers for work in trailer boutiques. Cannon was full of great experiences. I met Barbet Schroeder cutting TV spots for his Barfly and asked him if he really threatened to shoot himself when Yoram Globus didn’t re- greenlight the movie. I took direction from the guru-like Godfrey Reggio and gave voiceover direction to Peter Ustinov, for radio spots for his Agatha Christie movie Appointment with Death. Lesson learned: Ustinov didn’t need direction, just someone to ask him to read the copy and stop entertaining us with non-stop jokes.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt
Supplements: Making of featurette, with the director, producer, story writer and Michael Dudikoff and Gary Conway; David Bradley audition tape, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 29, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson