As I said a number of times during my slog through the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trilogy, when you watch movies you thought were cool as an eight years old, the experience as an adult is not the same. I remember seeing 3 Ninjas (1992) when I was a kid. I did not recall anything about it, though I was aware of its existence. While rewatching it last night, I was perplexed. When this happens, no matter what I am seeing, I try to rationalize it by coming up with any number of scenarios that explain how the makers of a production arrived at what is on the screen. The conclusion I came to in the midst of that lost hour and a half that was 3 Ninjas was that it was made by space aliens, extraterrestrials who had been observing American culture during the 1980s and early 1990s but not entirely understand it. You can either view it for yourself to understand how this came to be, or rely on the following review.
Most cinematic children spend their summers at some sort of camp. Not the three Douglas brothers in 3 Ninjas. They stay with their grandfather, Mori Tanaka (Victor Wong), who like any normal, doting grandparent teaches the kids the ancient Japanese art of ninjitsu. I suppose you can understand why dad, Sam (Alan McRae), was too busy to take care of his children because he is an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He attempts, and fails, to take down some kind of international arms dealer, who goes by the most natural of villain names, Hugo Snyder (Rand Kingsley). What helps prevent Snyder (who literally says that he loves being a bad guy) is a legion of ninjas that he has personally trained. Who gave him the knowledge of the ninja? Mori Tanaka, of course, a fact revealed when Snyder goes to confront his former teacher. Snyder also discovers that the three kids at Mori’s house were the children of the FBI agent currently looking into Snyder’s shady dealings. Shortly after this encounter, the Douglas boys have to return to school. Instead of going by their given monikers, they stay close to one another and refer to each other by their ninja nicknames. Eldest Samuel (Michael Treanor), with his resolve and leadership, went by Rocky; the more hotheaded mild child Jeffrey (Max Elliott Slade) became Colt; and the prodigious appetite of youngest Michael (Chad Power) earned him the title of Tum Tum. I do not know about you, but these are the kind of ninja names that come to mind when I think of those shadowy warriors. Ahem. There are a couple of forces causing trouble for them as they return to their normal lives. The first are a set of adolescent bullies, the leader of which wears a black “POW MIA” hat. Look that up for yourself to see how nonsensical of a wardrobe choice that is for a twelve year old in 1992. I was also twelve at that time and I do not recall any of my peers wearing such a cap. The other problem is the set of criminal surfer dudes hired by Snyder to kidnap the Douglas sons. Yes, you read that correctly. Snyder feels like scrutiny on him is too close, so he seeks out help in abducting the Douglas boys. I guess there were no better criminals available. What follows is a Home Alone-esque chase through the house as the “totally awesome” kidnappers attempt to corral the three ninja kids. They painfully fail (for them and for those watching them) until Snyder’s assistant Nigel Brown (Joel Swetow) shows up, despite their previous misgivings, and takes the kids. It is left to the elderly, overweight Mori to save the Douglas family, and fight off the much younger Snyder and his boat full of ninjas. Rocky, Colt, and Tum Tum help out. Why not leave it to the police? That would not have been as . . . cinematic?
Between children learning to be ninjas, twelve year olds (probably unknowingly) honoring missing war veterans, and mustache twirling villains, 3 Ninjas borders on being so bad it is funny. There is a scene where Mori is sneaking up to the ship, his shadow visible on a wall behind an oh-so-attentive guard. It grows larger as he apparently approaches this particular sentinel. Then, from an angle not consistent with the outlined form in the background, a fist strikes out from the side of the screen and fells the guard. I laughed hysterically, though in a place obviously not intended for humor. And this is part of why I surmised that the film was made by aliens. If you grew up in this era as I did, you recognize aspects of this culture at moments throughout the film. But they are in all the wrong places.
I will credit 3 Ninjas for one thing. Early on in the film, while the Douglas sons are still at Mori’s house, he tells them the true meaning of being a ninja, or what he sees it as anyway. Some of the principles laid down are ones that this Catholic can support, even if the rest of the film is eminently forgettable. Ideas like honesty and a commitment to goodness, a love of nature, self control and discipline, love and trust, and best of all, to never use their abilities on the weak, were imparted to the Douglas children. While Rocky certainly sticks to this credo, his brothers are not so faithful. And the ideas are spoken so soon in the film and not returned to as to almost be unnecessary. Still, you can see other films with similar tenets, and better martial arts action.