You know how sometimes when you’re a little kid you have a Japanese grandfather? And how sometimes he teaches you the art of ninja warfare, which you then use to defeat an international arms dealer? 3 Ninjas is a movie about that time in every boy’s life.
In fact, it is about that time in three boys’ lives. They are brothers, probably about 13, 11, and 9 years old, and they are spending the summer with their Japanese grandfather (Victor Wong) at his cabin. Grandpa’s Japaneseness is not adequately explained. Not that you need an excuse to be Japanese, obviously, but the grandsons are very clearly not Japanese, and neither are their parents, whom we meet later. It is suggested that Grandma, rest her soul, was American, but eh. The impression I’m getting here is that Disney wanted to make a version of The Karate Kid where the kids are related to their mentor, but didn’t want the entire cast to be Japanese because it wouldn’t really be a live-action Disney film unless 99 percent of the cast was American or British. Thus, random Japanese grandfather.
At any rate, these boys, I didn’t tell you their names because they’re about to change anyway. Having spent the summer learning karate and ninjutsu, it is now time for the lads to receive ninja names, bestowed upon them by Grandpa, so that they will feel connected to the world of ninja warfare. Grandpa also warns them to avoid fighting altogether if possible, which is kind of a conflicting message. “Here is a new name to identify you as someone who fights, which I hope you will never do!” The oldest boy becomes Rocky, because he is solid and strong; the middle one is Colt, due to his wild and carefree nature; and the youngest is Tum Tum, because he is ruled by his stomach, and also because Grandpa wants all the other ninjas to make fun of him.
Grandpa’s son-in-law, the boys’ father, is an FBI agent named Sam Douglas (Alan McRae). He hates martial arts and doesn’t want his wife’s father teaching it to his sons. Sam Douglas’ sons can solve their problems the same way Sam Douglas does, with a gun and a badge! Sam Douglas does not care for the boys’ new ninja names at all. Why, he goes so far as to suggest that acquiring new names after barely a decade of using the old ones is SILLY! Sam Douglas will need to learn some lessons by the end of this film, I can tell you that.
(Note: The oldest boy, now named Rocky, was originally named Samuel, after his father. This fact passes without remark.)
Sam’s current FBI job involves pursuing a weapons dealer named Snyder (Rand Kingsley), who is not related to me. (I come from the Snider clan; the Snyders, with their obscene “Y,” were an apostate group of incestuous hillbillies cast off from the main family centuries ago.) This Snyder fellow wears a white suit and has a ponytail, a combination of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and Steven Seagal in everything, which you’ll agree is not a combination you would trust with anything important.
Snyder very easily escapes from an FBI sting operation, using his private army of ninjas to fight the Feds. Because Snyder is also trained in ninjaism, you see. In fact, do you want to know who his teacher was? It was Japanese Grandpa!! They used to be business partners, back before Snyder turned evil and grew out the ponytail, and before Grandpa began devoting all his time to training and renaming boy-warriors. After ditching the FBI, Snyder visits Grandpa at his cabin and brings a squadron of ninjas with him, for reasons that are unclear. The boys, who have had minimal training and are half the size of their adult opponents, easily defeat Snyder’s goons in hand-to-hand combat. Sometimes there is a merry cartoon sound effect when one of the boys punches or kicks a ninja. Grandpa does just fine, too, though his blows are not synched with a Hanna-Barbera soundtrack.
Once everyone is vanquished, Snyder tells Grandpa that he has “passed” the “test,” and that all Snyder REALLY wanted was to ask Grandpa to keep his son-in-law off Snyder’s back for a few days so he can finish his illegal dealings. The ninjas were just for dramatic purposes. (The sequence also serves as a forerunner to the several thousand other sequences in the film in which the boys will fight grown-ups and easily defeat them.) Grandpa tells Snyder to get lost; Snyder makes vague threats and gets lost; the end.
No! It is not the end. It is barely the beginning. This movie has 25 minutes’ worth of story to tell, and only 95 minutes in which to tell it. So it has keep movin’. Snyder figures he should kidnap the three boys as a means of blackmailing their father into … just … letting him sell weapons. I guess Sam Douglas is the only FBI agent pursuing this particular case. Since Snyder is a mean professional criminal, he hires a trio of bumbling surfer dudes to handle the kidnapping.
Let me say a few things about these surfer dudes. First of all, I hate them. I cannot overstate this. If hate were quantifiable, the amount of hate I have for the surfer dudes would be off the charts. If hate were quantifiable, they would have to invent a new way of quantifying it just to accommodate how much I hate these surfer dudes. Is there a more annoying affectation than the California surfer accent? I ask you, in all the world, is there a more irritating manner of speaking? I would rather hear Fran Drescher recite love poetry through a megaphone than listen to even five minutes of “dude” and “brah” and “gnarly.”
The second thing I want to say about the three surfer dudes is that I don’t think the previous paragraph adequately expressed how irritating they are, so please read it again, but in an angrier tone of voice this time.
While the boys’ parents are out one night, the surfer dudes pose as pizza deliverymen (who always travel in packs of three, as you know, like the Magi), subdue the boys’ babysitter, and then … sit down and eat some pizza. Upstairs, the boys see what’s going on and now have plenty of time to prepare some Home Alone-style traps and pranks with which to thwart the kidnappers. At no point is any effort made to telephone the police. While precious little ninjaism is involved in putting marbles on the stairs and laxative in the bad guys’ soda, you needn’t fear that the film will shortchange you on martial arts. Once the torturing-the-bad-guys-in-a-whimsical-fashion sequence is concluded, the boys are finally actually kidnapped and taken to Snyder’s warehouse, where they have plenty of opportunities to punch and kick and whatnot.
And I do mean PLENTY of opportunities. Snyder must employ around a hundred full-time ninjas, not counting interns, freelancers, and human-resources personnel, and the three boys can defeat all of them. They’ll beat up a few guys, then move to the next room, then beat up a few more, then move to the next room, and so on. They do this until the movie decides enough time has passed and it’s OK to advance to the next plot point. It’s the cinematic equivalent of padding out an essay’s word count by saying “very” a lot.
Meanwhile, the boys are grappling with a troubling fact. Since Snyder came to see Grandpa the other day, and since Snyder is a bad guy, that means Grandpa must be a bad guy, too! Yes, the troubling fact the boys are dealing with is the fact that they are morons. When a man shows up with quarrelsome ninjas and has an argument with your grandfather, that does NOT mean the man and your grandfather are friends. Indeed, it probably means the exact opposite of that. Fortunately, Grandpa shows up to help rescue the boys, they are convinced of his loyalty, everybody punches and kicks some more, etc.
In the end, Sam Douglas comes to appreciate martial arts, and he is grateful that his father-in-law taught the boys how to use their fists and feet to hurt others. This is a skill that will come in handy if they’re going to insist on being called Rocky, Colt, and Tum Tum when they’re in high school. What’s remarkable about 3 Ninjas is that it features non-stop violence, yet also manages to be tame and PG-rated. This is accomplished by making all the violence weak and unconvincing, which is like setting out to make a pornographic film but telling the actors all they can do is hold hands. Listen, if I’m going to watch three ninja prodigies beat people up for an hour and a half, I want to hear some bones snapping. I want to see a surfer-dude kidnapper’s skull split open like a pomegranate. Don’t toy with me here. The film’s themes are as deeply layered and universal as ninja warfare itself, applicable to all boys with Japanese grandfathers and weirdly anti-karate fathers. Such material deserves graphic, unholy violence, not this weak stuff. FOR SHAME, 3 NINJAS. FOR SHAME.