Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989)

When I was in school, ninjas were the height of cool. There were always one or two guys in my shops classes that were secretly making ninja weapons when they should have been working on their assignments. I witnessed guys making “numchucks” or nunchaku sticks in wood shop. I saw guys making throwing stars in metal shop – and had to duck a few times when they threw them at me. I even remember some persistent geniuses making weapons out of the raw materials in electronics shop. I don’t recall anyone making weapons in food shop (or cooking class as some people called it), but that didn’t mean food shop wasn’t a dangerous place  – and not just because there were knives and forks around.

In my first year of junior high school, students were forced to try ALL of the shops classes – regardless of which ones might have interested them. I guess it was almost like a sampler year; we spent a few weeks in each shop to give us an idea of what it would be like to take any one of those classes for a full year (or half year as the case might have been). This meant that my friends and I were forced to take sewing and cooking, alongside more traditionally “male” activities such as sawing wood and building speakers for telephones (it should be noted that not too many years before that, guys weren’t even ALLOWED to take those shops – and vice-versa for girls). As it turned out, many of us guys decided that food shop was actually the best place to be. Not only was it fun to learn how to bake a cake or make Jamaican Patties, but it meant that we got to eat a free meal at the end of each class. What could be better than that?

Another positive side effect of being in food shop all afternoon was that there were very few psychopaths trying to make weapons and hurl them at us. I won’t go so far as to say that there were none, because two of the most annoying troublemakers in the school decided that they liked to bake their cakes and eat them too. The class was divided into several kitchens, each one with two to four people in it. My kitchen included a good friend of mine, Kevin, and a couple of other decent guys. The kitchen next to us featured the two troublemakers. One of the troublemakers was physically smaller than Kevin and me, but he was always getting in our faces – perhaps because he felt he had to prove himself. He walked into our kitchen on the first day and put Kevin into a headlock while we were seated at our table. I got up and told him to get out. He said something unfriendly, but I grabbed his arm and carefully led him out of our kitchen. I say carefully, because I was trying to diffuse a potentially bad situation. I was studying Tae Kwon Do at the time, and probably could have wiped the floor with this guy, but he had a lot of friends – many of whom were much bigger and more dangerous than him.

After he was gone, Kevin got up from the table and said “That guy smelled like dried piss.”

We both laughed, and from that day forward we always referred to that guy as Dried Piss.

“If he smelled so bad, ” I asked, “then why did you just keep sitting there? Why didn’t you do something?”

“I considered calling him an asshole,” Kevin said.

I laughed and said ” Next time help me kick him out.”

The other troublemaker, and kitchen-mate of Dried Piss, was the de-facto leader of all the troublemakers at our school. He was larger than Dried Piss – and larger than us, too. He wore a stupid looking bandana around his head, and liked to cause trouble for me in particular. He was clearly more dangerous than Dried Piss, but I was fairly confident that my martial arts training would serve me well in a fight against him. My bigger concern was the gang of goons that he would send after me in retaliation. Part of me wanted to fight him anyway – and for a while I was convinced that a showdown between us was inevitable – but that’s part of a much larger story that did not ultimately play out in food shop.

Stupid Bandana would periodically invade our kitchen, and I would carefully shove him back out. Over time I got less careful, and I’m still not sure how the situation never escalated further than smirking and insulting words aimed at Kevin and me. Perhaps on some level Stupid Bandana knew that it would be a bad risk to fight a trained martial artist. He was one the people who made ninja weapons in wood and metal shop, but he was certainly no ninja and I think he knew that. Perhaps he was afraid that my non-weapon-building friends and I might be – if not actual ninjas – whatever the Tae Kwon Do equivalent might have been. We weren’t, of course, but we enjoyed watching ninja movies. Enter the Ninja (1981), Revenge of the Ninja (1983) and Ninja III: The Domination (1984) were the holy trinity, of course. We discovered American Ninja (1985) a little bit later, but for some reason I did not watch any of the sequels until very recently

American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989) is not the continuing saga of Joe Armstrong, American Ninja, as played by Michael Dudikoff. Apparently Michael Dudikoff was originally supposed to be in this movie, but he was feeling “burned out” on martial arts and didn’t like the fact that the movie was going to be filmed in South Africa while apartheid was still going on. Dudikoff did return to star in American Ninja 4: The Annihilation (1990).

I knew nothing about American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt prior to last Friday, and I had expected David Bradley to be playing the same character, Joe Armstrong, that Michael Dudikoff had played. Much to my surprise, he plays a different guy named Sean Davidson – who is also referred to as The American Ninja at times. Steve James, who reprises his role as Curtis Jackson, does not know Sean Davidson at the beginning of this movie. At one point he says to him “Are you a ninja?” and Sean answers yes. “That explains a lot…” Curtis says.

So, it’s like Curtis makes an easy transition from best buddy of Joe in the first two movies, to best buddy of Sean in this one. I’m not sure why they didn’t just have David Bradley play Joe Armstrong, the way Roger Moore took over the role of James Bond. But in some ways, it just adds to the inspired lunacy of this movie, so I guess that’s a plus. It also paved the way for American Ninja 4: The Annihilation to feature BOTH David Bradley and Michael Dudikoff playing their respective characters. I haven’t seen that movie yet, but if it isn’t cinematic gold then something is wrong with the universe. 

American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt is not as good as the first two movies. David Bradley is a really good martial artist – perhaps better than Michael Dudikoff, but Dudikoff is a better actor than Bradley. The story is relatively ludicrous – which could actually be a good thing – and Steve James doesn’t have enough to do in this movie (although he is great at what he does). In some ways they should have just made a movie about his character. Having said that, American Ninja 3 is still quite entertaining for anyone with a taste for this kind of late ’80s insanity. One of the characters makes use of disguises in ways that are a constant source of delight. And who doesn’t love watching scores of incompetent ninjas getting knocked around the screen?

All in all, American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989) is a very pleasant way to pass a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. While it may not have reached the heights of other third-in-the-series vigilante action films (hello Death Wish 3 (1985)), it continued the flow of quality ninja entertainment from The Cannon Group – a veritable fount of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that has rarely – if ever – been equalled.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: One-Armed Boxer / The Chinese Professionals (1972)

When I was 13, a friend of mine enrolled in Tae Kwon Do classes, and he immediately began trying to convince the rest of us to join him. At first I was resistant to the idea, which is weird because I enjoyed watching martial arts action movies. I loved Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee and the hugely popular ’80s ninja films. I also liked the idea of knowing how to do those fancy moves, and being able to defend myself. There were a lot of bullies roaming the halls of my junior high school – and they often roamed in packs, which made standing up to them seem like a bad idea for for anyone who didn’t savour the thought of taking on seven or eight guys at once. Chuck and Bruce and Sho Kosugi would do it in the movies, and it seemed kind of magical to me. It was almost like those guys had superpowers.

In light of all this, I’m not sure why I said no when my friend Doug urged me to sign up for Tae Kwon Do classes. Maybe because I knew that guys like Chuck and Bruce spent years studying martial arts, and I didn’t want to do that. So instead I took books out of the public library – books about karate and judo and generic “self defence” – and I hoped to learn some tricks from them. They tended to have comic-book-like panels of photographs showing the reader how to do the various moves. I remember looking at those pictures, but I’m not sure if I ever tried to copy the moves.

My other friend Doug had exactly the same reaction as me (minus the books). We talked about the pros and cons of taking classes with Doug and somehow agreed that we didn’t want to do it. I also talked to my Dad about it. I said really smart things like “Why would I need to take classes when I can simply watch the movies and read the books and learn how to do things that way?” My Dad explained to me in a very polite and reasonable way that I was an idiot. I don’t remember all of then finer points of his argument, but it included things like: “There’s a difference between reading about something and actually doing it.”

After a few weeks of deliberation, my friend Doug and I both decided to join our other friend Doug in studying Tae Kwon Do.

One of the weird side effects of studying a martial art was that it made me see the movies differently. I no longer thought that the spectacular moves of Chuck or Bruce looked magical. I started to understand and recognize what they were doing. Even though Tae Kwon Do was different than Karate or Kung Fu, I still felt like I was seeing some of the same techniques that I was learning reflected back at me from the TV/VCR and the big movie theatre screen. In some ways it was great. It made learning from the movies actually seem a little more possible. It also made me feel like I knew stuff; like I had inside information, or that I had joined an exclusive club that included people like Chuck and Bruce and Sho –

Okay, Sho was a little different because he was a ninja, and ninjas used all kinds of fancy weapons like throwing stars and nunchaku sticks (more commonly referred to as numchucks or nunchucks by the bullies at my school who would try to make them in shops classes). Weapons were not a part of our Tae Kwon Do training, and our instructor had no use for them whatsoever. When I saw them employed in a movie, they still seemed somewhat otherworldly to me.

On the downside, learning a martial art in real life made watching the movies a little less exciting. The magic was gone, and I could only see the science or the art of what the performers were doing. I could still be impressed by the years of training and the amazing skills on display, but it was kind of like I had been allowed to peek behind the curtain and I now knew what was going on back there.

Fortunately, as school started to demand more and more of my time, and I got involved with things like playing in a band, my years of martial arts training came to an end. By the time I was immersed in film and theatre at university, going to those brutal hour long workouts three times a week was a distant memory to me (and unfortunately, it was starting to show in my level of fitness). This meant that the magic of movie martial arts started to slowly creep back into my life. It was probably the North American rise of Jackie Chan in the latter half of the 1990s that finally cinched it. I loved Jackie and I watched every film of his that I could put my hands on. There were others, too, but Jackie was my new hero.

I may have seen Jimmy Wang Yu in a movie at some point, but it was most likely back in the really old days of renting crazy martial arts films on VHS and Beta. He was not someone I really knew much about in my adult years. I had heard of some of his films, but had no memory of ever seeing them. When I stumbled onto a nice set of four Jimmy Wang Yu films somewhere in my movie buying travels, I knew that I had to pick them up.

One-Armed Boxer (1972) is the first movie in the set, and I decided to give it a go last #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. It brought back so many wonderful memories of the old school martial arts films that I used to rent with my friends when we were kids. It begins with a rivalry between two schools of martial artists, one of them honest and good (Jimmy Wang Yu’s) and the other one nasty and criminal at heart. I can’t name all of the other movies that feature this “rival schools” plot device, but I can tell you that my friend Ian and I spent many hours playing a video game called Rival Schools back in the ’90s – but that’s another story. Suffice it to say that this is a fairly compelling storytelling choice, and it works particularly well in One-Armed Boxer.

Also known as The Chinese Professionals, this movie features another wonderful (and somewhat familiar) plot device: the “bad” school, unable to defeat their rivals in an honest manner, bring in martial arts masters from all over the world to help them – each one from a different martial arts tradition. There is a Yoga master from India, two mystic Tibetan lamas, two Thai boxers, Judo and Karate experts from Japan — AND a Tae Kwon Do master! As someone who has a particular interest in Tae Kwon Do, I can tell you that it’s pretty rare to see it depicted in an old school martial film (at least in my experience). I do have one movie in my collection called When Taekwondo Strikes (1973), which I’m pretty pumped about – but that’s another story. 

I can’t really call myself an expert on martial arts movies, or Hong Kong movies – certainly not on Jimmy Wang Yu movies – but for my taste, One-Armed Boxer (1972) is old school martial arts action at it’s finest. The fact that it includes so many different styles of martial arts makes it particularly wonderful to behold. I haven’t even touched on the whole “one armed” aspect of this movie, but suffice it to say that it’s a big part of what makes The Chinese Professionals a #NotQuiteClassicCinema classic. If you’ve seen any of the “one armed” movies out there, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen any of them, then this is the perfect place to start. There is a sequel of sorts called Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976) which is considered to be even better, but I would still say start with this one. It will punch up any #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn, and possibly kick-start a whole new cinematic obsession. 

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: That Man Bolt (1973)

Back in the late ’80s (or maybe it was the early ’90s), I remember coming home from work just before midnight, making myself a late night dinner/snack of frozen pizza, and sitting down in front of the TV to watch whatever happened to be on. There were a couple of channels that showed movies at midnight, and I would often put one on, not even knowing what it was if I missed the opening credits, and get caught up. On this particular night it was That Man Bolt (1973). I knew who Fred Williamson was, and had already enjoyed movies like Vigilante (1982), Black Caesar (1973) and Three the Hard Way (1974), but I had never heard of That Man Bolt.

I knew right away that I was onto something, when Fred’s character, Jefferson Bolt, was told by a mysterious government figure that he would have to work for them if he wanted to get his valuable (perhaps incriminating) documents returned to him. This mysterious organization had kept Bolt locked up for a week while they searched his home for the important papers. In the end, they had to use a metal detector to find his safe – which, as we can all see, was hidden behind a picture on the wall.

I think I fell off my chair. laughing. They couldn’t find a safe that was hidden behind a picture on the wall?! Every safe I’d ever seen in the movies had been hidden behind a picture on the wall. But these guys were checking, where – behind the sofa? Under the kitchen sink? And if it hadn’t been for the use of that metal detector, the location of Bolt’s safe would still be a mystery to them.

I was less than ten minutes into That Man Bolt, and I knew I’d struck cinema gold – and without the use of a metal detector.

That Man Bolt was probably made to cash in on the recent success of the so-called Blaxploitation genre. Movies like Shaft (1971) were very successful and led to sequels like Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973). Apparently, Universal signed Fred Williamson to star in three movies as Jefferson Bolt, so they clearly intended That Man Bolt to be the start of a movie series (or franchise, as people now say). It probably also helped that Fred Williamson had been successful in Black Caesar (1973), which had led to its own sequel Hell Up in Harlem (1973).

Universal seemed to be aiming for something a little closer to the James Bond, international intrigue kind of feel as opposed to the more typical urban crime setting of many Blaxploitation films. James Bond. Jefferson Bolt. Bond. Bolt. Coincidence? Look at one of the tag lines found on a movie poster for That Man Bolt: “He’s “Bonded”! “

Setting the film in British Hong Kong, where Bolt lives, and casting British character actor Byron Webster as Griffiths, the mysterious government man who forces Bolt into service, gives the film a more British feel. And even though Bolt asks Griffiths if he is CIA, it’s obvious that he would more likely be on her majesty’s secret service.

Another market that the movie seemed to be aiming for was the martial arts crowd. Bolt is described as a black belt, and some of the movie posters say this:

SEE these famous MARTIAL ARTS experts in action: Mike Stone–World Professional Light Heavyweight, Karate Champion, Ken Kazama–Japan Kick-boxing Champion, Emil Farkas–European Black Belt Karate Champion, and David Chow–Former California State Judo Champion.

I suppose that the success of Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon (1973) may have had a hand in that.

Considering everything that it had going for it, That Man Bolt seems like it should have been a surefire success. I’m not sure how it did at the box-office, but none of the sequels were ever made, and Jefferson Bolt did not become an iconic character. As much as I enjoyed the movie on late night TV all of those years ago (and on home video several times since), the truth is that it’s not as good as it needs to be. It has moments of brilliance, and Fred Williamson is perfect as the charismatic, clever, tough and capable action hero. But it never rises up to the level of James Bond, Shaft, or Black Caesar. Perhaps if they had made the sequels, each one would have improved and Jefferson Bolt would have gone down in history. Even James Bond had an iffy start with Dr. No (1962). It’s a good movie, but most fans agree that From Russia with Love (1963) and Goldfinger (1964) were better. If they had simply stopped after Dr. No, would people still be talking about James Bond now? Who knows?

I have always had a soft spot for That Man Bolt (1973), and I’ve been a fan of Fred Williamson since I first saw William Lustig’s Vigilante when I was 12 or 13. So, Jefferson Bolt will always be a welcome visitor on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

And I, for one, wish that they had made the sequels. But oh well… we’ll just have to make do with one “Big, bad and beautiful” piece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema.