From Cedric Sundstorm, director of the crap-fest that is American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt comes the slightly less crappy follow up, American Ninja 4: The Annihilation, which sees superstar action hero extraordinaire Michael Dudikoff return to the role that made him a household name. Whereas David Bradley was the star of the third film, this time out Sundstorm had the good sense to get 'The Dude' back in the spotlight, but also to keep Bradley on for continuity's sake. The end result? An entertaining mess of a film that packs in a whole lot of action throwing common sense and realism out the window… where it belongs!
An American ninja named Sean Davidson (David Bradley) is sent in to save some members of the Delta Force Team being held hostage by a former British soldier named Mulgrew (James Booth who starred alongside Dudikoff a couple of years earlier in the amazing Avenging Force) who has gone rogue and plans to build a nuclear bomb in a suitcase. Mulgrew has a seedy Arabic cohort who helps him out with his evil plans. When Davidson makes the scene, it doesn't take him too long to get his ass kicked and in turn join the ranks of the hostages he was sent in to save. How on Earth do the forces of good solve this dilemma? Why, call in Peace Corps. veteran and American Ninja numero uno, Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) to go in there and fix what's broken – mainly Mulgrew's head!
Armstong trucks on over there and ends up teaming up with the members of a penal colony who oppose Mulgrew and his fascist ways. But what they don't count on is that Mulgrew's got an army of ninjas guarding the old monastery he calls home who won't hesitate to kill anyone who threatens their master. Will Armstrong and the penal colonists be able to save Sean Davidson and the rest of the hostages and stop Mulgrew from blowing up New York City with his suitcase bomb before it's too late?
Okay, first things first, there are a lot of things very, very wrong with this movie. I can overlook the anti-Arab sentiment in the film, after all it's a product of its time and that's a typical element of many of the Cannon films we all know and love. You just have to accept it. I can look past the fact that David Bradley has the charisma of a rock and that Michael Dudikoff looks like he's phoning in his performance – that's half their charmed. I can look past the logic gaps like the fact that Armstrong is at one point in the film referred to as Davidson's friend despite the fact that, as far as we know, they've never met before and I can even look past the fact that Michael Dudikoff doesn't even appear in the movie until the half way mark. But what I can't look past is the absence of the one and only Steve James. Davidson has a black sidekick in the film and if I had to guess I'd say that this role was written for James, after all he'd played Curtis Jackson in the first three films in the series, why not the fourth? Well for whatever reason James doesn't appear in this one and instead we get a carbon copy Steve James wannabe and you know what? It really does hurt the movie. James brought a cool sense of charisma and slickness to the series and without him here, cast against Bradley's stone cold demeanor or Dudikoff's calm and collected psuedo-philosopher posturing, the contrast between the characters isn't there and it just isn't as much fun.
Missing Steve James factor aside, however, this one still manages to be an entertaining film. While you'd think that the producers would have given the two stars more screen time together, when they eventually do team up to take on the evil ninjas it's worth the wait. There's plenty of gratuitous violence and completely unrealistic stunts and combat scenes. The Delta Force characters are an interesting touch (pay attention to some of their names) and the sets that it all goes down in are so poorly constructed that they almost make the movie look like a high school play at times. The last half hour of the film is ripe with unintentional hilarity, all leading up to a great showdown with an evil super ninja, and regardless of how flawed the film is – and make no mistake, it's very, very flawed – it's completely entertaining.
American Ninja 4: The Annihilation gets a 1.33.1 fullframe transfer which suits the movie just fine as it looks to be its original aspect ratio (didn't this one go straight to video? I think it did). The colors look okay and the black levels aren't half bad but Warner Brothers obviously didn't put any real effort into sprucing up the image at all as there is some fairly heavy grain and a little bit of softness to the picture. It's probably a pretty safe assumption that the master used for this DVD was the same master that was used for the laserdisc transfer. Overall though, everything is perfectly watchable, just don't go into this expecting a reference quality transfer cause that ain't what this release is all about. Edge enhancement and mpeg compression aren't a big problem, but the lack of serious detail in the image is a little off putting at times. Much like with Hellbound, things could have been worse, but they sure could have been a lot better.
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soundtrack is decent enough, if rather unremarkable. Dialogue comes through cleanly and there aren't any problems understanding any of the performers. Bass response is pretty weak but you'll hear it when it counts – in the action scenes. There are no alternate language tracks, subtitle options or closed captioning options on this release, though there are one or two scenes in the film where the Hebrew dialogue is translated into English through some burned in subtitling.
This release is completely barebones and in fact, the only option off of the menu at all is 'play movie' – there isn't even a chapter menu (although the film is divided up into chapters, you can only navigate them with your remote's next chapter button).
While not the worst in the series (that'd be part 5), American Ninja 4: The Annihilation is pretty horrible, though not without its fair share of unintentionally hilarious moments and poorly staged ass-kicking action and the end result is completely enteratining in spite of itself - consider it, along with the first two films in the series, a guilty pleasure. If you dig on Cannon's later output, or consider yourself a connoisseur of Mr. Dudikoff's prestigious output, pick this one up.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.