Putting it generously, children’s entertainments are a mixed bag in terms of quality. With every entry in our series “I Used to Love This” a Renaissance Fan contributor revisits a beloved childhood property to determine whether or not it holds up under scrutiny of adult eyes. This time, Frank Anderson, is re-watching the 1992 hit kids’ martial arts comedy 3 Ninjas.
The promotional posters and home video packaging for 3 Ninjas boast a blurb by The Boston Globe stating “Crosses Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with Home Alone!” You can be sure that this blurb mirrors, probably exactly, the way the film was pitched to the suits at TriStar. The combination of those two wildly successful properties would prove irresistible to kids of the six-year-old Frank Anderson type. Fun Fact: 3 Ninjas earned $29 million against its $2.5 million budget, making it, dollar-for-dollar the most successful film of 1992. I loved 3 Ninjas, loved it. A film that combined martial arts and wiseacre kids foiling bumbling criminals with makeshift booby traps, nothing could have been more up my alley. It was sublime.
“Sublime” is not necessarily the word that comes to mind when one experiences 3 Ninjas with thirty-year-old eyes and ears. More appropriate adjectives would be “stupid”, “obnoxious”, “nonsensical” or, perhaps, “borderline offensive”. If you have not seen it recently, or ever, allow me to synopsize the picture:
Samuel (Michael Treanor), Jeffrey (Max Elliot Slade) and Michael Douglas (Chad Power) are three precocious youngsters from suburban California who spend their summers at the cabin of their Japanese grandfather, Mori Tanaka (Victor Wong) who trains them in the ancient art of the ninja. In an early scene, Mori assigns each of his grandsons a “ninja name” (probably not a real thing), Samuel is dubbed “Rocky” due to his steady nature and cool temperament, Jeffrey is named “Colt” because he is spirited and wild, and Michael is named “Tum Tum” because he thinks with his stomach, and because the others hate him. The boys adopt these nicknames immediately and permanently so their actual surnames are scarcely mentioned throughout the rest of the film.
The boys’ father is FBI Agent Sam Douglas (Alan McRae) who is introduced raiding a warehouse owned by arms dealer Hugo Snyder (Rand Kingsley) who, as we will soon learn, commands a private army of ninjas and was once co-operated a dojo with Mori. Snyder escapes the federal raid via rope ladder-attached-to a helicopter, and heads out to Mori’s cabin with the dual purposes of renewing the partnership and convincing Mori to have his son-in-law take some of the pressure off. Mori rejects Snyder’s offer and, aided by the boys, fights off a small detachment of the villain’s hired ninjas. After the fight, Mori returns the boys to their parents, failing to inform either Sam or his own daughter Jessica (Margarita Franco) that they have just had to defend themselves from a band of grown men who were intent upon killing them. Though Sam expresses a number of concerns about his sons training to be assassins, Jessica is supportive of both the boys and their grandfather, and little attention is paid to Sam’s anxieties. Unfortunately, the Douglas/Tanakas have not heard the last of Hugo Snyder.
In order to gain some much needed leverage over Agent Douglas, Snyder, through his lawyer Mr. Brown , hires a trio of surfer-dude robbers who are implied but not explicitly stated to be stoned, Fester (Patrick Labyorteux), Marcus (Race Nelson), and Hammer (D.J. Harder) to kidnap the Douglas boys. Soon, with the matronly babysitter (Fritzi Burr) incapacitated, the boys are using their ninja training and knowhow to defend their home from the bumbling would-be kidnappers. After soundly defeating the three doofuses with hilarious violence, the ninjas are captured by Brown and a more competent team of kidnappers comprised of a muscle bound henchman named Rushmore (Professor Toru Tanaka) and a few assault rifle-wielding ninjas.
The boys are taken to the enormous cargo ship upon which Snyder trains his ninjas and rather than wait for Snyder to broker a deal with their father, they effect their escape, just as their grandfather arrives to rescue them. The escape/rescue entails the boys utilizing a number of improvised weapons to defeat an army of foes and culminates in single combat between Mori and Snyder. Snyder is soon defeated and Mori, the boys, and their relieved parents drive into the night to enjoy some well-earned pizza.
Normally I would never write so thorough a synopsis for this kind of essay, but 3 Ninjas demands it. The plot is so bizarre and loosely stitched together that trying to describe simply what the movie is about requires summarizing the entirety of the picture. It would be a gross understatement to say that the plot of 3 Ninjas, doesn’t make much sense. 3 Ninjas is one of the few movies in which, essentially, no element of the plot, almost no individual scene, holds up to scrutiny. For instance, after Snyder escapes his face off with Sam in the warehouse, he simply returns to his palatial home. Apparently if a suspect manages to leave the scene of a crime, federal agents do not have the right to enter his house. Later, once the boys have been successfully kidnapped, Mori proposes to Sam that he rescue the them single-handedly, rather than have a federal strike team raid the boat on which the boys are being held. Sam, though initially skeptical, agrees to allow the septuagenarian ninja to go in first.
While the creators of quality children’s entertainments, the people at Pixar for example, manage to create films that are appropriate for kids but are sure to delight adults as well, 3 Ninjas goes the opposite direction; it is a film that is hardly appropriate for children, but could not possibly be enjoyed by an adult. The central trio are so obnoxious and snotty one finds oneself rooting for corporal punishment in the form of adult ninja’s well-placed palm strike. It’s the entertainment form of Pixy Stix: sugary, colorful, totally devoid of nutritional value, and no one over twelve (if that) could like it. On the whole, it is gross.
3 Ninjas is the weird, though not necessarily uncommon, combination of a picture that is totally amoral while, in its incredibly clumsy way, espouses traditional moral values. I suppose this could be expected of a film in which a wise grandfather teaches his sons honor, integrity, harmony with nature, and how to apply those principles to kicking a guy in the nuts. Notably, the trio of bumbling kidnappers belong to the stoned youth-culture of Bill O’Reilly’s fevered nightmares, the kind of metal-loving surfer dudes, who are also criminals, that conservative parents believe their children will become if they don’t get into AP Chemistry. Also present is a subplot, of a kind often used in the era, in which a father is spending too much time at work and not enough with his kids. What makes this plotline extra weird in 3 Ninjas, and what makes it not work especially well (if it works in any movie) is that the father’s job is FBI agent, rather than the traditional businessman. At the film’s conclusion, when Sam decides to go with his family rather than work extra hours, he is leaving the scene of a major federal investigation with three of the victims.
As one might expect from a film in which a Japanese character has three white grandsons, there is an uncomfortable racial element at play in 3 Ninjas. We are meant to believe that Mori is full-blooded Japanese, hence his expertise in the martial arts (which, you know…) and married a white American woman, had a half-Japanese, half-white daughter who is totally without Asian features, and she married a white man and had three quarter-Japanese children who look entirely white. One imagines that, at a production meeting, someone said something like “The grandpa has to be Japanese so he knows ninja shit, but the kids gotta be white!” The dynamic is more than a little offensive.
3 Ninjas is, at its heart, a fantasy for kids. Having a grandpa who could, and would, teach you all the skills necessary to be an ass-kicking ninja, able to best an adult in hand-to-hand combat and handily destroy the school bullies in a game of two-on-two basket ball, is the stuff of a prepubescent kid’s dreams. The ninja fantasy is, of course, coupled with the Home Alone fantasy in which a young child can outsmart the adults who break into the house, foiling them with elaborate gadgets and pranks. This is the point at which a film filled with horrific lapses in judgment makes its most horrific lapse in judgment. When the boys discover that the home invasion is underway, the boys put their heads together:
COLT: If we can take these three robbers ourselves…
ROCKY: Then maybe dad will see that our ninja training is worth it! Yes!
COLT: Should we do it?
TUM-TUM: Let’s “murdalize” ‘em.
While this may be the stuff of fantasy for kids, it is a nightmare scenario for parents. It’s as though the film is simultaneously urging children to beg their parent’s to sign them up for karate classes and warning parents to not sign their kids up for karate lessons. Also, toward the end of this scene, the robbers manage to take Rocky’s girlfriend, Emily (Kate Sargeant) hostage, actually pressing the barrels of their guns against her head, which, in the context of a kids’ movie, is fairly upsetting.
To be honest, when I watched 3 Ninjas for this project, I cheated and watched with my fellow Renaissance Fan founder Max, and while the movie is, undoubtedly, a piece of garbage, irony came to the rescue and we had a moderate blast watching it. What film I once thought of as unquestionably good is now so-bad-it’s-good. It’s hard to resist something so dumb and woefully irresponsible, and how could one say no to a movie in which this guy is the villain?
There are too many bizarre wrongheaded, or offensive choices made in 3 Ninjas (I have not yet mentioned director Turteltaub’s decision to layer Looney Tunes sound effects over all the action), not to recommend it to the ironic-minded adult. Please seek this film out, and watch it with a friend.
THE MOVIE: 3 Ninjas (1992)
IS IT GOOD? No, not at all.
DO I STILL LOVE IT? Yes. Kind of.