3 Ninjas

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.

I dig the very early-’90s colors of this poster. Better than the movie deserves.

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.

Stunt coordinator Rick Avery also performed stunts in ACES: IRON EAGLE III, BORIS AND NATASHA, BATMAN RETURNS and RAPID FIRE, all released that summer.

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.

This entry was posted on Friday, September 16th, 2022 at 1:49 pm and is filed under Action, Family, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “3 Ninjas”

  1. The VHS had the line “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets Home Alone” on the cover. Used to watch this and “Surf Ninjas” a lot, but I’m hesitant to revisit them. The clips on YouTube alone make me cringe.

  2. The amount of cheap-ass movies Disney made in the 90’s is astounding when you think about all the money they wasted in the 90’s on their parks.

  3. Once again, I would like to give thanks and praise to my mom for getting herself knocked up in the 70s, thus rendering me too old for kids movies by the time this bullshit came out. I got enough problems. I don’t need lingering nostalgia for the 3 NINJAS franchise added to the mix.

  4. I remember an interview with Jon Turtletaub in which he talked about the struggle of making COOL RUNNINGS. Apparently someone at Disney really wanted that movie to fail (Most likely because it was a “black” movie), even going so far to try to talk John Candy out of it, but what stuck with me was something that Turtletaub himself named as the main evidence that Disney was sabotaging that movie: “They hired the director of 3 NINJAS!”

    What’s interesting about his earlier work DRIVING ME CRAZY aka TRABI GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, was that it was one of the few Hollywood starring roles of legendary German showmaster Thomas Gottschalk, who already had a supporting role in Turtletaub’s Barbarian Brothers vehicle and whose maybe best known American role was that of the cook in SISTER ACT 2. (Later he also played the husband of Priscilla Presley and father of Shia LaBeouf in a TV movie about a talking dog.) And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Gottschalk deserved a bigger shot in Hollywood. He is a horrible actor, even in his native language. Although his SUPERNASEN movies, that he shot with fellow big nosed comedian Mike Krüger, have a certain cult status here, despite not being exactly good.

    My point is: I have not seen 3 NINJAS.

  5. I think I read that this film was inspired by the Lucky 7/Magnificent 7 Kung-Fu Kids/7 Lucky Ninja Kids film series made in Taiwan.

  6. The Ed O’Neill/John Hughes 1991 joint DUTCH was renamed DRIVING ME CRAZY in the UK. I don’t know if the 1991 John Turtletaub joint was renamed DUTCH here in retaliation.

    I did see this as a kid, and I remember liking it, but I don’t remember anything substantial about it. There’s one gag where a wimpy henchman makes a karate pose and immediately gets knocked out, maybe? As those with a passing knowledge of my country’s censorship laws might guess it seems the UK cinema version had a few cuts to trim the more ninja-y ninja stuff, and the VHS even more, but I watched this on Sky Movies, which I believe sometimes showed the US/non-BBFC cuts of films; I’m pretty sure my recording of the first NINJA TURTLES movie had scenes that were cut out of the official UK version until 2003.

    The only sequel I saw was MEGA MOUNTAIN when I was substantially older and expecting it to be bad. I thought/assumed that was a direct to video or TV premier film, but it seems it did get a limited release in US cinemas, presumably to qualify for the Oscars. I also don’t remember anything about that.

    But you don’t have to remember anything about 3 NINJAS to know the most important thing about it is that it played in US theatres with PETAL TO THE METAL, a short cartoon that introduced the world to a little character called Bonkers T. Bobcat, part of Disney’s long-term roll-out for the eponymous star of their show BONKERS, sort of an ambitious foreshadowing of what we would call “transmedia” today (or perhaps a few years ago) which didn’t pan out that well when the show got a major retool about halfway through production so all of the pre-show material, in addition to being generally kind of lousy, didn’t fit with the early episodes of the show.

    PETAL TO THE METAL is not on YouTube, so I can’t share it here, but don’t worry it’s not very good, and I don’t think I would have guessed it was made for theatres if I didn’t know. But put BONKERS on UK Disney+ you cowards!

  7. Yes, we need more BONKERS in our lifes! I mean, we don’t really need it. I don’t think it was that good. But it would be nice to watch it again. Man, that show had quite an interesting history, with the 2nd half of the show actually being the first episodes, but Disney was so unhappy with it they retooled the whole thing and made the later produced episodes the first ones, while they used the production delay to produce a bunch of shorts that they put in their (also sorely missed on D+) anthology show RAW TOONAGE. We don’t talk about RAW TOONAGE. BADLY ANIMATED MAN is still one of the funniest things that was ever made by Disney.

  8. *We don’t talk ENOUGH about…

  9. The retooled version was the one that premiered on ABC, but they actually went back and forth between the retooled and pre-retooled versions of the show. They reverse engineered an episode where they bridged the pre-retool episodes (where he works with a female cop called Miranda Wright) with the retooled ones (where his partner is a man called Lucky), so it seems likely they were hoping to air the original 20 Miranda episodes last, but I guess some of the retooled episodes must have come back late, because after airing those 20 episodes they still had 19 Lucky episodes to air, so it switched back with no explanation. To the further confusion of any hardcore Disney fans at the time who didn’t have the internet yet, 7 of the Miranda episodes had been aired as previews on the Disney Channel the summer before the show debuted on ABC. And then to make things worse, the episode that bridged the two eras was pulled for a few years in the US because it was considered to be too close to the Oklahoma City bombings! That said as a pre-internet kid watching it however it aired in the UK (where that episode wasn’t banned) I just assumed the Miranda episodes were the retool, so I guess they pulled it off in a roundabout way.

    Bringing this more on topic…er, both 3 NINJA KICKS BACK and BONKERS had SNES games?

  10. We had the luck to get it all in the correct order, with the Lucky episodes first, ending with the new bridge episode, then all the Miranda episodes, that were definitely cheaper animated than the Lucky ones. But man, someone at Disney really must have believed that Bonkers D. Bobcat would be a new Disney icon, considering all the work and promotion they put into it. Can’t imagine any channel or streamer saying these days “The season of the new cartoon that we ordered wasn’t what we hoped for, so we spend even more money on another season that we will show first, instead of just airing what we got and hope it catches on!”

  11. Thank you for teaching me about The Arnold Waltz.

    I definitely saw at least one of these 3 Ninja movies as a kid, but I remember nothing about it except the name “Tum Tum”. Research tells me 3 NINJAS KNUCKLE UP was shot back-to-back with this one but ended up being released third, maybe due to being kicked to Tristar?

    Anyway, COOL RUNNINGS is great, 100% my all-time favorite sports movie.

  12. The most interesting thing about this franchise is I think they cranked out all the sequels while the kids were still young but released them once a year, and apparently out of order.

    Kick Back was out when I worked at the movie theater so I watched it because kids were excited about it. I remember nothing except not liking it but it was fun to see kids getting excited (though I was much more touched by the kid who was genuinely worried Guile wouldn’t beat Bison in Street Fighter at the end of the year. That kid is in his 30s now.)

    So does this mean no Mo Money or Bebe’s Kids in Weird Summer? They certainly were weird.

  13. There was a BEBE’S KIDS review as part of Vern’s award-eligible Kid N Play retrospective a few years back –

    Bebe’s Kids (plus two documentaries about Robin Harris) | VERN'S REVIEWS on the FILMS of CINEMA

    The best thing about HOUSE PARTY was missing from HOUSE PARTY 2, that was Robin Harris. Of course they probly would've worked him in somehow if he was available, but he died of a heart attack in his sleep shortly after the release of the first one. Harris seemed like he was on the verge

  14. That’s right! Well as long as Weird Summer includes Stay Tuned and Christopher Columbus. Don’t let me down, Vern.

  15. Seems that 3 NINJAS KNUCKLE UP was the only one to bring back the full trio and was shot more or less directly after the first film but for whatever reason it was shelved (Wikipedia claims it was released in South Korea in 1993, but that’s unsourced) until 1995, and in the meantime 3 NINJAS KICK BACK was released which only retained one of the three. MEGA MOUNTAIN had three new actors and was a few years later. Victor Wong is the Michael Gough/Pat Hingle of the series who appears in all four films. A bit strange in retrospect, and not something I think would happen now, but I think we generally accepted it at the time.

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