They used to say that August was the “dog days,” when all the shitty movies get dumped. Yeah, okay, maybe some of them. But August 7, 1992 was when they released one of the best movies of the ’90s. A movie I continue to watch every couple years and absolutely love. One of those movies that’s kind of seen as a commentary on its genre but really it’s just a high watermark for it. This was even the movie that won best picture that year. Oh yeah no I’m not talking about 3 NINJAS yet, I’m talking about Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN. I was planning to revisit it as part of this retrospective but jesus christ it’s September already, and I’ve already reviewed it before, I’ve even reviewed its Japanese remake before (it’s good!). If I was gonna write about it again I’d want more time to really focus on doing it justice and I can’t do that right now, I’d have to rush it. So instead here I am reviewing some real dog shit released on the same day. These are the choices we make as writers.
I had never seen 3 NINJAS before, but obviously I wasn’t gonna skip a movie that has three or more ninjas in it. It’s from director Jon Turteltaub (THE MEG), who had only done the Barbarian Brothers comedy THINK BIG (1990) and something called DRIVING ME CRAZY (1991) at this point, but somehow he got this released by Touchstone Pictures. Then he continued his Disney relationship by following it with COOL RUNNINGS (1993), WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING (1995), PHENOMENON (1996), INSTINCT (1999), DISNEY’S THE KID (2000), NATIONAL TREASURE (2004), NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS (2007), and THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE (2010). Man, he got lucky though, because this is some real bottom of the barrel dreck, almost as bad as any off brand DTV throwaway kiddy garbage you’ll ever encounter. I guess Michael Eisner only cared about that “we’re not spending DICK TRACY money on anything anymore” edict we discussed in the ENCINO MAN review more than he cared about finding movies worthy of showing to people.
This one’s about three little white kids who have just been renamed Rocky (Michael Treanor, later an extra in BEST OF THE BEST 2), Colt (Max Elliott Slade, previously in the movie PARENTHOOD and then the TV series, but as different characters) and Tum Tum (Chad Power from TV movies THE SITTER and DAY-O) by “our Japanese grandpa” (Victor Wong, YEAR OF THE DRAGON, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, MYSTERY DATE). It starts with all three of them narrating (and bickering with each other) about how they spent their summer staying with Grandpa and (for some reason) training in ninjitsu.
It almost immediately launches into a training montage, which is maybe the best thing I can say about it. Unfortunately, the score by Richard Marvin (FLIGHT OF BLACK ANGEL) is some intrusive “isn’t this hilarious” whimsical bullshit. This movie would be much more watchable, and maybe even kind of amusing in parts, if the whole thing had a serious action score like a few of the later scenes introducing the bad guys, or better yet some KICKBOXER style inspiration rock. Instead the whole thing is this F-grade fake orchestra keyboard shit, the absolute worst type of score that exists, making almost every scene torturous. It’s like the told the guy “Make sure nobody forgets this is for very small kids only. And fuck their stupid parents if they brought them to the movies. I want those fuckers in absolute agony.”
The kids’ dad (Alan McRae, THE SLAYER) disapproves of them being ninjas, because he says it’s dangerous. He’s an FBI agent who’s trying to bust some ponytail gangster guy named Snyder (Rand Kingsley, whose only other credit is “Male Patron” in the 1998 horror movie THE GARDENER), who coincidentally is a former student of Grandpa and has an army of ninjas working for him. To get their dad off his back, Snyder and his bespectacled nerd stooge Mr. Brown (Joel Swetow, later in LORD OF ILLUSIONS) hire three wacky surfer dude Metallica fan armed robbers named Fester (Patrick Labyorteaux – Ram from HEATHERS), Marcus (Race Nelson) and Hammer (D.J. Harder, also second assistant camera) to kidnap the boys.
“Tell me, have they studied the masters of our Eastern philosophy like our other men?” Snyder asks. If he means “Do they talk like Michelangelo from Ninja Turtles?” then the answer is yes.
The surfers show up at the house disguised as pizza deliverymen (who as we all know work in teams of three). When the boys see that they “creamed the babysitter with a pizza” and have guns they consider using the tin can that Rocky talks to his next door neighbor crush Emily (Kate Sargeant, later an executive story editor on CSI: Cyber) to tell her to call the cops, but instead decide that if they beat them up it will convince their dad that their “ninja training is worth it.” So Tum Tum says “Let’s murdalize ‘em” and they put on their ninja masks and robes and it turns into a bunch of HOME ALONE shit like causing them to slip on vegetable oil puddles and jellybean spills, using CD-Rs as throwing stars, tossing hot pepper bombs in their eyes, making them drink Ex-Lax, then attacking them while they’re pooping. They also do some kicks and stuff, so this ain’t your grandpa’s HOME ALONE. This is HOME ALONE with that extra edge and grit. I guess.
Anyway they beat up the surfers and give them diarrhea so Snyder sends Rushmore (Professor Toru Tanaka, REVENGE OF THE NINJA, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, VOLUNTEERS, CATCH THE HEAT, THE RUNNING MAN, DEAD HEAT, DARKMAN, MARTIAL LAW, ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION), who was standing there the whole time, to easily kidnap them. So one arguably good thing about this movie is there’s a fight scene between Toru Tanaka and a bunch of little scamps in backwards hats.
We get the kiddy comedy parts like using ninja powers to defeat bullies at basketball mixed with the more normal b-action stuff like fighting a bunch of ninjas in a warehouse and flashing back to their training on a dummy to know what to do. While the kids are those cheesy kind of kid actors who bug the shit out of anyone over the age of 12, they’re definitely trained in martial arts and do lots of spin kicks, and seem to genuinely know what they’re doing with staffs and swords and stuff, so it’s pretty impressive in that respect. Victor Wong is funny though because he has all these doubles doing acrobatics but whenever it’s actually him he kind of stiffly limps around. Poor guy.
Apparently there’s an international cut that’s a little more violent and doesn’t have wacky cartoon sound effects. I read that that’s the version that’s on Hulu, but I had already watched it on DVD. God damn it, I fuckin blew it. Maybe the pure uncut 3 NINJAS is the way to go. Maybe that would change everything.
The screenplay is credited to first timer Edward Emanuel (later wrote a TV movie called SUN YAT SEN: IN THE MOUTH OF THE DRAGON), story by Kenny Kim (later wrote the South Korean drama JEUNGBAL). It’s one of those movies where the story is the minimal required amount of basic-ass cliches to make sense, and that wouldn’t matter if it was a real action movie or a funny comedy, but it’s far from either (especially the latter). I know people work hard on movies and especially if you have to have little kids doing stunts, but the overall vibe is definitely less “we are professionals and we do our best” than “it’s just some dumb bullshit for kids, I hate kids anyway, who gives a shit? Fuck ’em.”
However, I have to give the producers or whoever credit for being familiar enough with TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES to know they should put a really terrible, overly serious rap song on the end credits. It’s called “Kid Power,” the chorus is “Power of the kids – kid power!” and it also has some samples of some of the witty quips from the movie such as “Hey, you’re pretty good— NOT!” The song is performed by Will Roc, credited as written by Rick Marvin & William Griffin. The latter happens to be Rakim’s government name, but don’t worry, he’s innocent – I believe it was Will “Roc” Griffin, keyboardist for the World Class Wrecking Cru (Dr. Dre’s group before N.W.A).
Because 3 NINJAS had a low budget ($6.5 million) and released widely to an undiscerning audience ($29 million) it was a big enough hit to become a franchise – though not from Disney. Exhibiting some amount of shame, they sold the rights to Tristar Pictures, who made 3 NINJAS KICK BACK (1994), 3 NINJAS KNUCKLE UP (1995) and 3 NINJAS: HIGH NOON AT MEGA MOUNTAIN, all considered box office bombs (but I’m sure they were designed to make the money back just by selling enough tapes to Blockbuster).
In 2016 Turteltaub returned to American martial arts, I guess, by directing the pilot for the Rush Hour tv series.
You know what would be cool would be if the actors who played the three ninjas came back and starred in and directed a really great revisionist kid’s ninja movie where they’ve tried to leave ninjitsu behind and live humble lives of peace but they get dragged back into it and it’s very gritty but also with some cartoon sound effects.
On August 8th, Madonna’s “This Used to Be My Playground” from A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (released July 1st) finally reached #1 on the Billboard charts. So maybe people were still thinking about the lack of crying in baseball, or maybe that was just a catchy song. (Personally, I was listening to Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol. 1 by the Brand New Heavies, released August 3rd.)
time capsule stuff:
Tum Tum is seen playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on NES. There’s a D.A.R.E. (notoriously failed kids anti-drug program) water bottle visible on their desk. Pictionary and Mouse Trap are among the board games seen in their closet. Of course their bedroom has its “what the kids are into” decorations – hanging model airplanes, inflatable football things, many pictures of ninjas, including a classic Sho Kosugi poster that’s currently listed for $75 on ebay…
They also have posters of pro basketball and hockey players, space, Italian sports cars, a shark I think.
Weirdest, though, is the one sheet for The XXII International Tournee of Animation on their wall!
What the fuck? And pinned up at angle, as for some reason set decorators like to do. I recognized the poster immediately and though I couldn’t find a complete listing of the 18 shorts included I’m positive I saw it in the theater because I remember Balance and also Craig Bartlett’s The Arnold Waltz, a claymation short featuring the character that later starred in the 2D Nickelodeon cartoon Hey Arnold!. I haven’t seen the sequels so I don’t know if they ever specify which one of the ninjas is the fan of animated shorts from around the world.