There is a spot in my heart reserved for American Ninja.
I'm not sure exactly when I first saw the 1985 movie that dared to cast Michael Dudikoff as an American ninja, but it was sometime during the late '80s, amid what can only be described as my “ninja phase” that involved the consumption of every movie, book, television series, comic book and action figure with the word “ninja” in its title.
Nine Deaths of the Ninja? Saw it. Revenge of the Ninja? Saw it in theaters. (Twice.) Ninja Magazine? Bought it, ripped out the pages, and pasted them all over my bedroom walls.
Even so, I don't harbor any misconceptions about the quality of American Ninja nor its prospects for inclusion in the National Film Registry. It is -- to put it kindly -- a very bad movie. But for some reason, this story of a soldier with a mysterious past who brings down an entire school full of ninja terrorists with the help of a kindly old Japanese man and Steve James, the guy who played Kung Fu Joe in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, well... it spoke to me.
In fact, the movie spoke to me so often that I had to buy multiple VHS cassettes of American Ninja over the years, because I kept wearing them out. (Thankfully, it's available on DVD now. I'm not sure I could've justified spending any more money on that movie.)
And when it comes to love affairs with bad movies, I know I'm not alone.
While I don't know anyone else who shares my affection for American Ninja, I do know lots of people who like certain movies more than anyone ever should.
And if you're reading this, you probably do, too. But it's okay -- you're in good company.
This weekend's kickoff of Fantastic Fest -- an annual celebration of genre movies that tend to fly under the radar (often on their way to “cult classic” status) -- is what got me thinking about all of the virtually unknown, relatively unwatched, and frequently underwhelming genre movies I've consumed over the years. Sure, there are a few cinematic success stories on that list, but for the most part my movie-watching tendencies resemble the eating habits of a goat.
Basically, I'll watch anything. (Especially if it has ninjas.)
That's why, even though American Ninja makes a strong case for being the gold standard (though the chrome standard is probably more accurate) of bad films I've obsessed over, it's one of many on a crowded list.
In last week's column, I waxed poetic about Condorman, the Disney film about a bumbling comic book creator who becomes a superhero that was one of my earliest bad-movie obsessions. As I got older, my list of Hollywood “comfort food” grew to include films like Krull, Howard the Duck and The Beastmaster, to name a few. Over time, cheesy genre films that would make today's Syfy original movies look like Citizen Kane became some of my favorite sick-day screenings.
Heck, the complete works of Chuck Norris still occupy a place of honor on my former VHS -- now DVD and Blu-ray -- shelf.
Here's the thing, though: I've never really considered my favorite bad movies “guilty pleasures.” I want to share them with people. Unfortunately, there are about as many people who appreciate the finer points of Howard the Duck as there are people who look forward to a dentist appointment.
It's probably for the best, though, as our reasons for liking the dregs of Hollywood tend to be of the personal variety.
The memory of running around the neighborhood in black pajamas with a stick sword and pinecone shurikens, for example, looms large over American Ninja for me. Likewise, every frame of The Beastmaster conjures thoughts of lazy Saturdays in the winter months curled up on the floor watching Marc Singer defeat an evil sorcerer with help from a pair of ferrets.
For me, bad movies can be chicken soup for the soul. They're a reminder of simpler times, when acting and script and cinematography didn't matter as much as ninjas and robots and cool-looking monsters. And they're also an important counterweight when it comes to dealing with the modern movie world and all of the minutiae that come with contemplating, analyzing and otherwise critiquing it.
It's all too easy to get caught up in the search for the perfect cinematic experience, and there's no shortage of movies -- and studios -- claiming to provide it. But if what you're really looking for is something to put a smile on your face for a few hours, sometimes all you need is a bad movie that comes with good memories.
Oh, and possibly a few ninjas, too.
Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and is still not quite sure how he ended up writing (and talking) about comics, video games, and movies for a living. His personal blog can be found at MindPollution.org, and you can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.
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