The Series Project: 3 Ninjas

Welcome back, dear readers, to the latest installment of The Series Project. The last seven weeks, you’ll likely note, were devoted strictly to horror movies, all in preparation for Halloween. Not only did I take a 20-film and five-week-long odyssey through all the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th movies simultaneously (a task only outstripped by my coverage of the 24-film James Bond cycle), but last week was a special bonus edition of The Series Project, wherein I covered the three Basket Case movies.

As I have stated limply throughout these various essays, I have a few simple and arbitrary rules when it comes to long-running film series: The first rule (the Prime Directive, if you will) is that they should be at least five films long, as it won’t be until the fifth film in a series that it will really be firmly cemented as an extended phenomenon. Well, I broke that rule last week by covering a three-film cycle. And, seeing as I want to time out next week’s Series Project to coincide with the theatrical release of the franchise's fifth part (and you can start your speculations now as to what series I’ll be doing), and seeing as I have one week to blow, I figured I’d cover another beloved film series that has a mere four parts.

At least that’s some of the rationale behind my four-in-one-day marathon of the corny ‘90s kid flicks that go by the simple moniker of 3 Ninjas. The rest of the rationale can only be chalked up to my own odd instinct toward cinematic masochism.

Yes, dear readers, I have now watched all four of the 3 Ninjas films, and I have returned, bruised and bloodied, to give you my findings. These films are talked about often by people of a certain age, i.e. boys who were 9 or 10 when the first film hit theaters in1992, but I’m willing to bet few have seen all four of the films, nor have they seen all four in a single day the way I did. Well gird your loins, sirs, as it’s time for me to take the plunge, and report what I found in the pizza-flavored, jams-wearing, “psych!”-spewing psychological miasma of the ’90s 10-year-old boy. These are safe, (in)sane action comedies for kids. They are rife with cartoon sound effects, broad slapstick humor, and the kind of violence that seems cool in a movie, but would leave people bloodied and hospitalized in real life.

A quick rundown on the movies: The titular ninjas are brothers Samuel, Jeffrey, and Michael Douglas, about 13, 12, and 8 respectively, who spend summers with their Japanese grandfather Mori (Victor Wong from Big Trouble in Little China) who teaches them in the ways of the ninja. The three title kids are Caucasian, and their mother (Margarita Franco) is supposedly half-Japanese, although she looks Italian. At the outset of the first film, Grandpa gives them their ninja names, by which they’ll be addressed throughout the rest of the films. Samuel becomes Rocky, Jeffrey becomes Colt, and Michael becomes Tum Tum. Very Japanese. With their ninja names in place, the three boys will go on various violent misadventures, usually involving a bad guy who can be defeated with a liberal use of child-on-adult violence. Many, many crotch kicks ensue. I wish I had kept track of testicular trauma, but I can say with confidence that an average of five adult males is kicked in the crotch in each of the 3 Ninjas films.

There were four films in the series, all of which had theatrical releases. They were also all money-makers for the studio that made them. None of the three actors who play the boys will remain throughout all four films, so we’ll have a rotating bevvy of non-descript white kids who can’t act very well. Although each of the kids are pretty good martial artists. Celebrity guests won’t appear until the fourth film, although reliable character actor Vincent Schiavelli appears in the third.

Anyway, onto the first film.

3 Ninjas (dir. Jon Turteltaub, 1992)

Director Turteltaub may be recognizable, as he is the mastermind behind the modest Disney successes National Treasure and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He’s also the guy behind Cool Runnings, Phenomenon, and many other semi-notable films in the pop culture firmament.

Let me get you into the mindset of these films before I dive into the story. 3 Ninjas came out at a time when ninjas were creeping around pop culture the same way zombies are now. I recall back in the late 1980s how every kid played ninja-themed video games, watch contraband ninja movies on late-night cable, and how some of my more resourceful friends managed to get their hands of real-life ninja weapons, such as throwing stars and nunchaku, better known as nunchucks. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were everywhere; you couldn't turn your head without seeing a piece of Ninja Turtles merchandise. There were a lot of schoolyard discussions as to what the true philosophy of the ninja was, and how they were or perhaps were not royal assassins for the Japanese court.

However, since a lot of this ninja talk was being held by 10-year-old boys, there was a safeness to it all. Sure, ninjas carried swords and threw knives, but there was still a gentleness to their violence. Ninjas were closer, in our minds, to what the mutant turtles presented; i.e. hip-talking teenage surfer dudes with a penchant for pizza and Sunny Delight. One of the central little boy fantasies of the late 1980s and early 1990s was, well, the fantasy presented in 3 Ninjas: a kid-power polemic about eating fatty foods, breezing through school, besting bullies, landing cute girls (but in a Jr. High sort of way; this world is sexless), and, most importantly, becoming expert in martial arts, and using your skills to harm adults in black pajamas.

The story of this thing is a little hard to follow, ironically because it’s not very complex. Rocky (Michael Treanor), Colt (Max Elliott Slade), and Tum Tum (Chad Power) live with Grandpa (Victor Wong) during the summer, where the overweight man teaches them how to use weapons and beat others. Their parents (Margarita Franco and Alan McRae) don’t think much of their ninja training, although it seems they should be more concerned that their three sons are being trained to use lethal weapons. No guns in this world, but plenty of cutting implements. Anyway, Rocky is so named because he is strong like the rock. Like Usul. Colt is so named because he’s the wild horse of the bunch. Tum Tum, the youngest and easily the most annoying (no matter which actor plays him), is so named because of his obsession with food. Like the Ninja Turtles, these kids are pretty much personality free, only identifiable by their ninja color and their single assigned personality trait. Rocky is green, Colt is blue, Tum Tum is yellow.

The bad guy in this film is a slimy Marc Alaimo type named Snyder (Rand Kingsley) who deals weapons and runs a gang of black-clad ninja thugs. Mr. Douglas is a federal agent hot on Snyder’s trail. Snyder, in order to get Mr. Douglas to give up his chase, decides to kidnap his three ninja sons. I guess that’s pretty much the plot of this film. As the series continues, the plots will get either simpler or more complex, depending on how much brain power you’re willing to expend thinking about it.

Anyway, the kidnappers that Snyder hires are a strange creation, clearly spawned from a stygian pool of festering Capri Sun and Slime Pit Ooze®. They are metalhead surfer dudes who seem a few shades less interesting than Bill & Ted, but not nearly bad as Chu Chu Malave in the L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies movies. They are played by Patrick Labyorteaux, Race Nelson, and D.J. Harder, whose names sound like a cartoon fighting force in themselves. There is an extended sequence in the middle of the film wherein the three ninja boys, Home Alone-style, rig up their house with childish booby traps in order to fend off the kidnappers. There are a lot of shtoinks and boonks on the soundtrack as the kidnappers slip on jellybeans, and are beaned in the groins. It’s pretty hard to watch. By the time the kidnappers are force-fed laxatives, you’ll be hitting yourself in the head.

The boys are indeed kidnapped, only by a more capable thug (Toru Tanaka), and taken to Snyder’s ship superbase, where Grandpa soon goes to rescue them. The boys do manages to sneak about the ship beating men senseless, but the final fight will be between Snyder and Grandpa, who have a past of some kind. Snyder’s karate gi, by the way, is a slick burgundy number that seems to be made of silk or sharkskin. If you have a silk burgundy gi, I will now argue, you are perhaps not a super ninja. The boys also take down a bad guy by issuing a knockout punch that involves hitting a guy in a dozen points throughout his body. One of the hits they must issue is a severe kick to the crotch. I would think repeated beatings to the testicles would trump any ninja knockout secret punch. Grandpa may as well have told them to wail away repeatedly at a man’s balls. That’s the ticket.

3 Ninjas was a hit, and is, oddly, well beloved by many people I have talked to. I’m guessing that the Kid Power lessons paired with the safe violence was appealing to the kids who saw it at just the right age, and with just the right amount of sugar racing through their veins. I suppose we all have our childhood objects of affection.

A few more notes: A babysitter gets a pizza to the face. There is a rap song over the credits, describing the movie (and I sincerely wish those would become common again). There’s a scene wherein one of mom’s earrings clearly falls off, but it was left in the final cut of the film. The phrases “Not!” “Psych!” and “Face!” are all used openly. Oh that’s special. It’s too bad no one said “Moted!”

Cast change! New movie! Time to kick back with…

3 Ninjas Kick Back (dir. Charles t. Kanganis, 1994)

There are actually 4 ninjas in the film, but I guess girls don’t count.

The only common boy to remain is Colt, who is still played by Max Elliott Slade. Colt is, to remind you, the broody one. Rocky, the leader, is now played by Sean Fox, and Tum Tum, the comic relief, is now played by J. Evan Bonifant, who would go on to star in various soap operas. Otherwise, Victor Wong is still around, and the parents are the same.

Tum Tum was plenty annoying before, but he’s on a sliding scale throughout the sequels. His goofy food obsessions are only outstripped by his obnoxious catchphrases in how grating the kid is. “Scramble!” and “Let’s murderlize ‘em!” are used several times apiece, and each time made my soul whither a little bit more. I understand that these films were inspired by (read: ripped off) Home Alone and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but, in tone, they more closely resemble the Air Bud movies. Only more violent and perhaps a drop cooler.

So 3 Ninjas Kick Back seems oddly focused on baseball rather than actual ninjitsu. A good 20 minutes of the film’s opening is devoted to our three boys learning how to defeat a local little league team, who usually cheats. We see each of our heroes go to bat, and each of their rivals. One of the rivals is a fat kid who farts as he plays baseball. Fart jokes make my eyes itch. Nothing makes me hurt more than a scene of a 12-year-old actor, overweight and smug, farting at peers, and then turning around with a satisfied grin on his face. That satisfied grin has supplanted other anxieties in my head, it’s so horrible.

The story sends Grandpa (Victor Wong) to Japan to oversee a ninja tournament. The boys decide not to go, as to play their farting baseball game, but regret it soon thereafter, and sneak off to Japan after all. This was a time when sneaking into an airport was considered feasible. While in Japan, the boys manage to locate Grandpa (a racist Indian cab driver takes them), and view the ninjitsu tournament as intended. Colt sneaks into the tournament and has his ass handed to him by Miyo (Caroline Junko King), who becomes the fourth ninja of their tribe. She wears white and is a girl. She’s also good at baseball. Why the film is not simply called 4 Ninjas is beyond me.

Grandpa has an ancient sword, which is coveted by an old childhood rival named Koga (Sab Shimono) who seeks to steal it. Which he does. The story is about fighting Koga’s thugs get it back. And that’s pretty much it. There is another trio of American thugs as well, who are just as annoying as the creatures seen in the first film, but less funny, if that’s possible. These guys are more rocker types. I think it was in this film that the thugs were seen idly plastering a phone booth with Metallica stickers. Or maybe that was the first film as well.

The fighting in this film was a little better, I suppose. There were fewer dumb Home Alone contraptions, and more regular beatings. This may be why the acting from the kids is pretty rotten throughout: they were hired for their gymnastic skill and martial artistry. I’m a big proponent of “hire dancers, not actors” when making a dance flick, but that only works when your film is full of dancing. If you’re trying to make relatable characters, bad acting can only stand in your way.

But are the characters in these films relatable after all? I mean, as a kid, I was a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I can recognize now that they had no personality to speak of. The Power Rangers are beloved by a generation, and they have even less personality than the Ninja Turtles. And yet kids all had their favorite turtle, their favorite ranger. I think having blank ciphers like this in kids’ entertainment allows the kids to project their own fantasies into the onscreen vessels. Blank, bland characters, then, serve a vital and unassailable dramatic function. We have seen our heroes, and they is us, as they say.

Anyway, the kids get the knife back (never mind how), and return to the U.S. just in time for a little league game, which they win. Odd that the baseball game should be a bigger triumph than defeating a clan of evil ninjas, and rescuing a knife from an evil crime boss.

Notable: Colt throws a BB up a gun barrel, making it explode.

The next film will have the most fighting yet, and will be the only film in the series to be rated PG-13. They grow up so fast, don’t they? Let us slide further down the slope with…

3 Ninjas Knuckle Up (dir. Simon S. Sheen, 1995)

“Simon S. Sheen” is a nom de plume for Korean martial arts director Sang-ok Shin. “Simon Sheen,” by the way, is the ultimate mastermind behind the 3 Ninjas franchise, acting as executive producer on all four. The fourth film would prove to be his final producing job. This film would be his final directing job after a long career of kung fu films stretching back to the 1960s. He died in 2006.

That a kung fu expert is behind these films actually sheds an important light on the series. The 3 Ninjas movies were supposed to be, I think, more along the lines of the dangerous chop-socky kid kung fu flicks from the 1970s. The previous vintage of kung fu kid movies, a subgenre that could warrant some serious study in itself, were a lot grittier, just as dumb, but dark and violent. They were exploitative and campy, and kids were depicted committing murder and wielding weapons just as well as the adults. Kids were used merely as a visual juxtaposition for their adult foes; the kids rarely killed each other in such movies. 3 Ninjas was supposed to be like that, I think, but was likely bent by Disney to resemble something more “hip.”

So, seeing as an old guard kung fu guy was in charge here, it’s not surprising that this film has the most fighting. In terms of its martial arts… well, it’s still not as good as the previous generation’s kung fu kid movies, but the constant fighting makes 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up slightly more palatable than the film on either side of it.

Although that’s not entirely true either, as the story of this one is just so odd and all-over-the-map that it’s hard to get through, even at a mere 85 minutes.

Michael Treanor from the first film is back as Rocky, Max Elliott Slade is still Colt, and Chad Power is back as Tum Tum. The return of the original actors does lend a slight twinge of familiarity to the proceedings, although I feel that these kids could be played by any relatively competent martial artist. Grandpa is still Victor Wong, although he’s not in this film so much. He’ll be in the fourth even less. Michael Treanor, by the way, is younger than the actor who played him in the last movie, so it’s weird to hear his voice drop, and then return over the course of the films.

The story is a little bonkers. Our boys, while enjoying an afternoon at Ooty’s Pool ‘n’ Pizza, are beset by a group of evil bad guys. The boys beat them savagely, all while holding pizzas, and not letting them drop. The thugs are in the employ of a bad guy named Jack (Charles Napier) who has been dumping toxic waste on the local Indian reservation. This is a story that any Saturday Morning alumnus will recognize. The bad guy is being taken to court, and the film is a battle as to who will gain control of a computer floppy disk that will incriminate him.

Over the course of the film, an Indian is kidnapped and rescued, the boys form a bond with a girl named Jo (Chrystle Lightning from the first straight-to-video American Pie movie), and do battle in various locales. They also learn important spiritual lessons from the local Indians all about bonding with the Earth. The Indians’ tribe is never named. These pro-environment messages were everywhere in the 1990s. I recall several rather preachy episodes of Tiny Toon Adventures on the matter. After fighting a bunch of bad guys in a paper mill (in a fight scene that’s actually pretty cool), the boys are made honorary members of the tribe, and wear warpaint and eagle feathers. Odd imagery for a film that banks on Japanese ninja skills. The boys then do a hip hop dance.

Eventually, Jo is kidnapped, and the boys must rescue her from an old-timey western town (?) where she’s being held. The fight in the western town takes a long, long time, and features some pretty impressive stuntwork from the boys and their victims. Although I could have done without the jukebox scene where the kids dance and fight to a jukebox that keeps changing its music. Eventually there’s a race back to the courthouse (Rocky is driving! How can that be?!) to exonerate the good guys and discredit Charles Napier. The Mayor of this town is played by Vincent Schiavelli.

Notable: Colt gives Jo a ninja toy named Malibu Ninja. It’s a ninja doll wearing a pair of jams. Remember jams? When the kids use arrows, they are sure to cut off the arrowheads first, so as only to bruise the bad guys. There’s a really icky scene wherein Grandpa takes a bath will all three of the boys. It was either this film or the previous one where someone used the word “ninjanuity.”

The fighting is so much fun, it almost distracts from the fact that the film kinda stinks.

I wish they had left it here, but no. They had to go and make a suckquake instead.

3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain (dir. Sean McNamara, 1998)

All new boys. Rocky is now Mathew Botouchis, Colt is now Michael J. O’Laskey II, and Tum Tum is an insufferable moppet played by J.P. Roeske II, who is younger than the last Tum Tum, and now sports a blonde mop of curly hair. Tum Tum has eaten so much, it seems, he mutated. The parents are still played by the same actors. It’s the inverse of the Air Bud movies, where the kids would stay the same, but the adults would swap actors. Victor Wong is still present, but he has very little screentime in this one. This will prove to be his last film. Victor Wong died in 2001.

So 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain sounds like the kind of movie I would have written at age 8, as it involves the capture of an entire amusement park. The three boys are considering giving up their ninja training, much to Grandpa’s chagrin. In this film, Grandpa seems to have his very own Danger Room, which he uses to train the boys by mechanically pelting them with tennis balls and hitting them with sticks. I would have preferred an outdoor scene shot in the California Mountains, but whatever. Danger room it is.

To celebrate Tum Tum’s birthday (he’s turning 35 or something), the boys decide to go, unattended, to Mega Mountain, the local amusement park, which was filmed at a newly-remodeled Elitch Gardens in Denver, CO. While they are there, the film is taken over by an evil criminal mastermind named Medusa, played by Loni Anderson in a dominatrix outfit. Yes, that’s really in the movie, and no I did not dream it. Medusa’s evil sidekick Lothar is played by Jim Varney. I give all due props to Varney for really trying to sell his role. Anderson looks oddly plastic and ghoulish in a way, I think, the filmmakers did not intend.

The boys are at the park with a few friends, Rocky’s would-be love interest Jennifer (Lindsay Felton), and a nerdy new neighbor Amanda, played by the dork-chic fashion plate Chelsey Earlywine. Earlywine has only three credits to her name. She was on an episode of Picket Fences, she was in this, and she played an ancillary lesbian in Larry Clark’s ultra-smutty and as-yet-unreleased teen sex film Ken Park. Amanda tools around the park with an early laptop. One of the kids, by the way, is a horrible teen asshole who looks a lot like Jake Busey. If Tum Tum didn’t make you want to tear up your living room in a violent screaming orgy, this guy will.

Also in this movie is Hulk Hogan as a fading TV superstar named Dave Dragon, who is facing the cancellation of his martial arts show after many years. He is making a live appearance at Mega Mountain. Tum Tum loves Dave Dragon and the Star Force 5.

So the bad guys infiltrate the amusement park, take control of the computers, and threaten to hurt people if they are not paid ransom. There are gun battles out front, and the Feds are called in. Inside the park, it seems to be business as usual, and people continue to eat cotton candy, go on rides, and don’t notice that they entire park is being held hostage, or that guys with guns are running around. Only our boy heroes, along with Amanda, seem to know what’s going on.

Rocky fights Jim Varney on the top of a roller coaster. There another trio of ineffectual thugs. Loni Anderson in that outfit will make you recoil a little. There’s a razor yo-yo like in Octopussy. Amanda uses computer hacking skills to outwit the bad guys while the boys beat up adults some more. There’s… other stuff… I guess… There’s a bomb in it, and the boys strap it to a makeshift torpedo to blow up the bad guys’ ship.

I hate this one. It’s goofy and broad in a series that was already way too goofy and broad. The acting is pretty uniformly awful, and it feels shoddy. Also, for a movie called 3 Ninjas, I kind of wish there HAD BEEN MORE NINJA IN IT! The only way it was pleasing was that Amanda was not given love interest status. She was just a capable friend. But if one mild cliché narrowly avoided is your only virtue, perhaps you’re doing something grievously wrong.

Series Overview:

I can’t help be feel nostalgic while watching these films. I didn’t see them as a kid, so I can’t have any direct affection for them, but they are a definite sign of a time that I remember. The ninja-obsessed world of neon orange kids’ entertainment. A time when boys’ films were hip more than entertaining, and violence was fun and casual. When a film could moralize about environmentalism, but ignore the irresponsible use of violence. A world where action/comedy for kids could be light and cheap. I feel if 3 Ninjas was made today, it would be bloody and violent and gritty and dark. It would try to build an insufferable adolescent “myth” that so many internet critics are fond of. I do kind of miss the time when action films were low-concept and fun.

But I wish the movies were better. Indeed, I wish they were good. Even during their best moments, they’re little more than well-choreographed fight scenes. At their worst, they are cheeky farting obnoxious kid power statements that encourage violence and little else. Well, also overeating.

You know how to watch these movies? Watch the Ninja Turtles movies instead. You might get a bigger buzz.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must gear up for a new cinematic hike. Sparkling vampires, anyone?