What is a ninja? We have what ninjas historically are, which is mercenary agents that existed in feudal Japan in the 14th and 15th century who were used for covert work like spying and assassinations. Then we have the popular culture vision of a ninja which is a person, typically dressed all in black, who has cool secret fighting skills and usually carries a sword and/or throwing stars. My experience with ninja movies and ninja pop culture is sadly limited. It’s really just the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies and the one I’m writing about today - the 1992 family film 3 Ninjas.
So...what is a ninja according to the movie 3 Ninjas? The film offers us a few definitions, as beloved character actor Victor Wong grills his three strangely white grandchildren around the dinner table:
“A ninja is one who can use everything around him to trick his enemies. He is fast and friendly to his environment.”
“A ninja is honest and good. His mind, body, and spirit are one. He has self control. He is disciplined.”
“A ninja loves nature because he’s from nature. A ninja does not fight a battle if he cannot win.”
I’m not sure how historically accurate this is to real ninjas, but I like the way the film uses the ways of ninja to give its characters a moral compass. 3 Ninjas greatly appealed to my child self - my VHS copy of this movie was in heavy rotation back in the day. In retrospect, media that revolved around martial arts of any kind was very popular amongst my elementary school friends. I’m not sure what the kids are into these days but when I was a tiny youth, it was all about the Ninja Turtles, the Power Rangers and playing Mortal Kombat on our Segas. My brother took karate and I was insanely jealous of him. In retrospect, I’m sure I could’ve taken it too had I just asked. However, I was a shy kid and, despite the presence of Kimberly and Trini on the Power Rangers, it still seemed strictly a “boy” thing.
But hey, maybe I didn’t learn the fine art of kicking butt but I watched the heck out of some 3 Ninjas. On rewatching this as an adult, this film hasn’t aged the best but there’s still fun to be had. The story is about three brothers who are learning the ways of ninja from their grandfather Mori (Wong). I remain confused how he is their grandfather as the boys and both of their parents look super white and not in the least bit Japanese. But that’s a topic for another day. The three brothers spend their summers with their grandfather doing ninja training - fighting, sneaking up on people, learning how to disappear in a poof of smoke, cook rice, you know…the basics. That seems like a badass way to spend a summer, I’m not going to lie. When I went to visit my grandparents as a kid, we just went to the mall and, if I was very lucky, the zoo! Victor Wong makes for a really endearing grandpa. He’s kooky and a bit of a goofball, but has a lot of love for these boys, despite how super-boring and generic they are. At the end of the summer, before they return home, he gives each of them a mask and christens them with a “ninja name”. The oldest, Samuel (Michael Treanor), is given the name Rocky because he is “strong, solid, and cool as granite”. The middle one, Jeffrey (Max Elliot Slade), is given the name Colt because he is “fast and free”. And the youngest, Michael (Chad Power), is given the name Tum Tum because...kid loves to eat. I don’t think there’s a single scene where he’s not shoving candy into his mouth.
While the kids are spending the summer at the Grandpa Mori’s doing ninja training, their dad (Alan McRae), an FBI agent, is working undercover trying to nab a big time criminal named Snyder (Rand Kingsley). He is just about to bust Snyder during a routine warheads sale when Snyder manages to escape using his army of ninja henchmen. I mean, OBVIOUSLY. Snyder makes a grand exit, telling the boys’ dad that, “I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve gotten fly” just as a helicopter appears for him to hop on to. All we need is David Caruso putting on his sunglasses for this scene to really hit a home run.
Snyder, who has a past with Grandpa Mori, appears on his doorstep and threatens Mori’s family if he doesn’t keep FBI Dad off his back. The boys come to Mori’s rescue and are somehow able to easily overtake Snyder’s ninja henchmen. Three pre-teen boys take down about a dozen skilled ninjas? Sure, why not?
After this bit of excitement, the boys return home at the end of their summer and things are a little lackluster without their cool grandpa around to teach them ninja skillz. But in a predictable twist of events, Snyder orders the boys kidnapped so he can get their dad out of his hair for a little bit. And...get this...the kidnappers he hires are...SURFER DUDES.
From this point the film delves into Home Alone style antics as the kids use their ninja training to try foil their attackers and prove to their lame FBI dad that hey, maybe learning the ways of ninja IS applicable to the real world! It’s like convincing my parents that my degree in anthropology is useful! There’s a series of traps and pranks, though not quite as good as the ones in Home Alone. The kids foil their surfer dude would-be kidnappers but still manage to be captured by other goons in Snyder’s gang. Rescues are attempted, fights happen, there’s a showdown between Snyder and Grandpa Mori. Jelly beans figure prominently in the climax. Alls well that ends well.
Overall, 3 Ninjas is pleasant enough diversion and a nice time capsule of 90s entertainment. Not great, but if you’re a kid it’s probably still fun. Victor Wong is adorable. I’d let him be my grandpa any day. He’s the most memorable part of this movie and the main thing that gives it some bit of life. I’m sure I saw the sequels to this back in the day but they have long faded in my memory. But the question remains...is this movie the best example of a ninja movie? Definitely not. Is it the best example of kid friendly ninja movie? Eh...probably not either. After all, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Movie still exists.