Move over, Jackie Chan, it’s wise to steer clear of Chris Farley’s “Beverly Hills Ninja” … you might inadvertently get hurt by a flaying ninjutsu stick. For the rest, sit comfortably back in your seat and enjoy the good-natured silliness from a most unlikely martial arts star. This sweet saga of an underachiever who makes good is surprisingly appealing and sure to broaden the portly comic’s fan base. The film should score solid business from the U.S. teen market and has real potential to provide him with his first significant international theatrical exposure.
This fish-out-of water tale begins when a white baby is washed ashore and retrieved by a ninja sect. A quiet, knowing narrator explains that they have a legend of a great white warrior who will someday join their ranks. The child is embraced, trained and grows up as living proof that scripture isn’t always the gospel truth.
Haru (Farley) is kindly described by his loving, more graceful and able adopted brother, Gobei (Robin Shou), as “fat, a fool and an embarrassment.” But circumstance is about to change all that. While his brethren are in the field training, a mysterious woman (Nicollette Sheridan) arrives at the enclave looking to hire someone resembling Toshiro Mifune to track her boyfriend. Haru convinces her that he’s the man for the job.
On the trail of Martin Tanley (Nathaniel Parker), Haru uncovers an international counterfeiting scheme, and murder. But he’s at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the police tag him as the killer. Narrowly escaping the law, he returns to the dojo and confesses his rash act to the Sensei (Soon-Tek Oh). He’s convinced he must continue the mission and follow the couple to the distant hills of Beverly, and is reluctantly allowed to go, with the parting wisdom to “believe in yourself.” And as an added insurance policy, Gobei is secretly dispatched to be his shadow.
Admittedly, the premise is stretched a bit thin with jokes in which Haru accomplishes his tasks accidentally, awkwardly or with the unknown assistance of others. Still, the script and direction provide enough surprise and laughter to keep one engaged. A set piece in which Haru is disguised as a Japanese chef is a comic highlight, and Farley’s game attitude toward the physical aspects of the role (he’s credited with doing 80% of his stunts) is pleasantly ingratiating.
The actor’s ninja recalls the work of another “Saturday Night Live” grad — John Belushi’s samurai. Both performers imbue the characters with an unexpected grace that belies their physical heft. But where Belushi added a malevolent edge, Farley’s warrior is an unadulterated naif. He also diverts from past screen outings in eschewing boorish traits and adopting a disciplined politeness that’s as sweet as his pidgin English.
Director Dennis Dugan has a keen sense of how long to work a joke and when to pour on the action in his hybrid outing. He’s greatly abetted by a cast of mostly non-comics who nonetheless appreciate the importance of keeping things light.
On the tech side, production designer Ninkey Dalton gets top marks for creating a pseudo Japan, a brightly surreal L.A. and a fanciful Plain of Enlightenment that nicely dovetail throughout the story. Pic is shot with an appropriate unfussy look by the accomplished Arthur Albert.
“Beverly Hills Ninja” is by no means a black belt in comedy or action choreography. Still, you have to give it high marks for tenacity and the ability to get the job done.