Posted on 5/30/10 01:43 PM
Like most people, there are movies that I'm curious about, but wouldn't want to pay good money for, because they might suck. This is a classic example of that.
BEVERLY HILLS NINJA (Dennis Dugan, 1997) begins with a baby abandoned and found by a ninja clan. This ninja clan has a scroll that tells them of the legend of "the Great White Ninja," a Caucasian ninja prophesized to be the greatest of all time, and so they take the baby in, thinking it might be him. They name the baby Haru and raise him in the temple until he grows into a fat, clumsy ninja wannabe (Chris Farley), in stark contrast to his brother Gobei (Robin Shou), who is the top student ninja at the temple. One day a beautiful woman (Nicolette Sheridan) comes to the clan looking for help, and finding only Haru, has him go on a brief mission for her, to prove that her boyfriend (Nathaniel Parker) is a criminal, and had her sister killed. Haru completes the mission in idiotic fashion, but gets accused of murder in the process, and fearing that the woman is still in danger, he convinces his father, the sensei (Soon-Tek Oh) to let him go to her native Beverly Hills to clear his name. His father isn't taking any chances, however, and sends Gobei to assist Haru in secret, making the rest of the film just "slapschtick" as Haru bungles, and in trying to help him, Gobei keeps getting injured. Nonetheless, Haru keeps succeeding despite idiocy, and you can probably guess the rest.
Since we already know that this movie is bad, let me start this review by saying what's good about it, and what might have made it better. First of all, I admired the fact that Farley does speak with stilted, overly-proper English, like a baby raised by a ninja clan would, most of the time. Unfortunately, he eventually goes away from it. I like the plot device of Gobei helping him out as a way of explaining how this buffoon could possibly stop a gang of counterfeiters. Unfortunately, the film executes this so poorly that it can't possibly succeed. Honestly, this movie has its chances, it just never seems to know how to pull them together, and as a result, I didn't laugh once throughout. But it wouldn't have taken much to make it better, I don't think.
For starters, I would have given this film some semblance of reality. If you think about BEVERLY HILLS COP (Martin Brest, 1984) or the television show "Get Smart!", both Axel Foley and Maxwell Smart get intelligent when they need to be, so you can buy it. In other words, they're not total clowns, they're just "different", in terms of personality. (Max has an inflated ego; Axel just likes joking around.) And if the story is kind of realistic, like this, you engage with it more and can like the characters easier. But when you have a situation like this, where it's just Chris Farley doing his thing in ways that could never possibly happen in real life, you get pushed out pretty quickly. A little reality of character would have gone a long way in helping this film.
Another thing I would have tried to improve it would be to do more with Haru's surrogate family. "The Simpsons" is a classic example of how injecting some warmth into a broad comedy again makes the characters more relatable and makes the audience connect with the material better. In the eleventh hour of this film, they introduce the idea that Haru loves and admires his brother, which prompts his brother to show love for him. Why wasn't that developed from the beginning of the film? They also could have had more of the father genuinely caring about the orphan he raised like a son -- again, it was in there, but barely, and well into the film. Having the father make some real remarks about loving Haru, and being afraid for his safety, hence sending Gobei, would have made these characters and this situation much more likeable. Again, more realistic characters always equals better story, regardless of the film.
Finally, Chris Rock and Nicolette Sheridan's roles get completely wasted in this movie for reasons I don't understand. David Spade's primary function in TOMMY BOY (Peter Segal, 1995) is to make wisecracks as Chris Farley bungles his way through everything. Chris Rock's whole act in real life is about making these kinds of wisecracks, and it's a movie tradition to have the smartass Black guy (see SPACEBALLS (Mel Brooks, 1987), ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS (Mel Brooks, 1993) and the aforementioned BEVERLY HILLS COP). Why a movie this formulaic would go away from this basic formula is beyond me. As for Sheridan, this is something I've never understood in film as a whole -- in real life, there are legitimate reasons and ways that ultra hot girls fall in love with unattractive men. More often than not, it's because they make them laugh. Chris Farley is a clown! Sheridan's character would be so much richer if she too knows that he's an idiot, but likes him because he's genuinely sweet and funny. If her attraction to him is believable, again, we enjoy the story so much more. Instead, she spurns his advances for the whole movie, but still sticks with him, until the end, when we're told that they're together. Why? I know it may sound like a lot more thought than a movie with this ridiculous a premise deserves, but there is a genuine skill to doing this kind of relationship. And if you're going to make a movie like this, you either do it in a cartoon world, like a Will Ferrell film, where /everything/ is absurd, or you do it mostly realistic with comedy in it, like Steve Carrell. Pure stupidity, however, never works, even in an ostensibly stupid film.
I say all of this because of all of the Saturday Night Live "frat boy" guys, Farley was my favorite. Chris Rock became much better after leaving SNL, and David Spade's smarminess only makes me laugh in doses. I thought Chris Farley's bravery, in being willing to do anything to get a laugh, was really funny. I think it's unfortunate that he never got the chance to make a truly great film (TOMMY BOY comes closest) because he was more than capable of it. John Belushi was Chris Farley's hero, and made many classic movies. Chris Farley's legacy will always be that of a lot of potential that ultimately went to waste. And that's sad.