7.8.13

The Blackness Of My Belt Is Like The Inside Of A Coffin: Beverly Hills Ninja (1997)

It was only a matter of time before I came across a movie during this marathon that I had a less than stellar reaction towards.  Which is fortunate because I was beginning to form a rather intense bond to the genre and as it stands I am far too invested in a ton of different films movements, genres and eras to afford picking up another.  Of course, the movie in question is Beverly Hills Ninja so maybe it is a bit unfair to let it speak to a bad moment within the genre, because at face value it is indeed just a comedy that happens to involve ninjas, who occasionally engage in martial arts.  Yet, knowing that I had never encountered the film prior and had a great experience with Tommy Boy, I figured given my liberal consideration of genre that it would be a perfect movie to include.  Tragically, where it could have benefitted from the slapstick comedy of Chris Farley or the entrenchment within the martial arts genre the film cowers away, only marginally exploring the various themes or tropes, whereas it feels far more inclined to spend excessive amounts of time exploring the woes and absurdity of Beverly Hills decadence.  Sure these moments are funny, but they are also a rehashing of jokes and observations that had already occurred to great excess in films like Clueless.  Indeed, where other parodies would succeed in perfect respect to the genre through clever revisionism, Beverly Hills Ninja only uses the themes to skirt over vague considerations of the style and tropes, ultimately, failing to even capture the vaguest of humor or pertinence.  Trust me, I wanted Beverly Hill Ninja to be a great film, I am on a constant quest to find a handful of nineties comedies that can create a cap in my understanding of its evolution, but this simply was not one worth including.  The name Dennis Dugan has come to be a black mark on Hollywood comedies as of late, and deservedly so, because he and Adam Sandler have clearly stopped trying, but there was a time when films like Billy Madison defined the eras comedic output.  With this in mind, Beverly Hills Ninja stands as the perfect middle ground between Dugan's early work and the complete nonsense that he now releases.  It is neither a bad film, nor is it particularly great.  Instead, it is so run-of-the-mill as to be understandably forgotten.


The narrative of Beverly Hills Ninja begins much as any kung fu/martial arts film does by introducing a mysterious dojo hiding in the mountains of Japan.  The clan of ninjas are foretold of the coming of a white baby who will prove to be the greatest ninja their dojo has ever seen, a prophecy that rings true when a large white baby floats onto their beach via a chest, causing great hope and admiration amongst the clan.  However, as years pass it becomes evident that the boy is far from the expert ninja the prophecy suggested.  Indeed Haru (Chris Farley) is the epitome of everything that is not ninja-like, whether it be his inability to wield a weapon without either hurting himself or an ally, or his general lack of stealthiness due to his considerable weight.  Of course, he is still fondly loved by the members of his clan, although when it comes time to appoint the ninjas with their respective garb, Haru is passed over due to his lack of skill and is instead placed on duty to guard the dojo.  This task immediately brings him into contact with Sally Jones (Nicollette Sheridan), who hopes to hire the ninjas to discover why her boyfriend Martin (Nathaniel Parker) has suddenly taken to disappearing for great lengths of time.  With the "help" of Haru, Sally discovers that Martin is indeed involved in a large counterfeiting scheme one he is willing to kill for without hesitation.  The murder, however, leads to trouble with the clan who are suspected of being involved, nonetheless, Haru takes it upon himself to engage in the quest to help Sally, who later  reveals the name to be an alias.  Realizing that Haru will certainly face an  imminent death if he is not protected, Haru's master sends his best ninja Nobu (Keith Cooke Hirabayashi) to serve as a guardian angel of sorts, one that looks out for Haru but never makes his presence known.  Eventually, Haru makes it to Beverly Hills where the culture is considerably different from that of his clan's world, in that many people are expressly mean or dismissive of his presence, until he reveals himself to be quite wealthy.  Along the way Haru also befriends a young bellhop named Joey (Chris Rock) who also wants to be a ninja.  Eventually, with the help of his master and a revealing of the aid of Nobu, Haru tracks down Martin and his gang, after diffusing bombs and fighting off various guards.  As such, Haru returns to his clan having fulfilled the prophecy, even if in the most indirect of manners.


I guess I can attempt to glean some various points of critical theory out of this film, but it got rather tough to watch after awhile as I realized the film, despite being eighty odd minutes was dragging on incessantly.  One of the major elements in the film that I did enjoy in regards to social commentary was the notion that race could exist in some space beyond pigmentation or physical identifiers, in so much as Haru is treated as an Asian person in Beverly Hills based on his clothing, as opposed to his skin tone.  This is most evident when he is dealing with the attendant at the hotel desk who assumes that he will be paying in something aside form American money, or any form of Asian currency.  However, these themes falter and indeed are betrayed when Haru's race is called into question, particularly when those dismissive of his ninja abilities ask questions like "aren't ninjas supposed to be Asian?"  This question while absurd does call attention to essentializing culture, which is one of the more pertinent themes in the film and probably where it is strongest narratively.    It suggest that Western influences are almost entirely at blame for such stereotypes, showing that in a place like Beverly Hills there is only one type of way to live, involving blonde hair and sports cars, a culture that exploits people like Joey to allow for a guise of perfection.  The scene where this essentialist issue comes to the forefront is when Haru, attempting to spy on Martin and one of his business partners, dresses as a chef at a Japanese steakhouse, one indicative of a Benihana's, appropriating the over-the-top mannerisms of the cooking art to a slapstick degree.  His outfit, however, is some wild combination of an Italian chef and a Mongolian warrior, suggesting that such places of business are tapping into an Asianness that is not only archaic, but heavily infused with Western ideologies.  Furthermore, considering that Haru comes from a ninja clan with its own social mores and practices, the notion of a type of "Japaneseness" existing in a place of Western consumption is problematic, because it not only essentializes one country,  but even one group within that space.  The film also deals with some gender performance and layers of gaze, but they were probably accidental so it is not worth considering too heavily.

Key Scene:  Haru's montage of growing up as a ninja is pretty funny, but the film does not manage to keep the pace much longer.

Honestly I would avoid this film.  There are better Chris Farley movies, and there are certainly better martial arts comedies.

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