While hoping to build on its summer success with “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” ABC Family doesn’t draw blood with the opening adventure of “Samurai Girl” — a six-hour, three-night adaptation of the young-adult novels. Think of this “A hero is awakened” story as a poor woman’s “Kung Fu Panda,” albeit with a much better-looking (and considerably less-appealing) lead. It’s the sort of production rife with plenty of action but nothing that’s remotely stirring, putting far too much pressure on petite Jamie Chung to carry the drama.
Chung is best known for her stint on MTV’s “The Real World,” so somewhat predictably, she’s easy on the eyes, but her performance can be a little grating on the ears, relying as it does on two narrow modes of expression: pained and pensive.
Then again, Chung’s character, poor 19-year-old Heaven Kogo, has a lot to be pensive about. As her story begins, not only is she being compelled to wed someone she doesn’t love — in a near-royal arranged marriage orchestrated by her Japanese mogul father (Anthony Brandon Wong) — but the event is crashed by murderous ninjas. Confused and adrift in San Francisco, Heaven makes some new friends and seeks out Jake (Brendan Fehr), a boyhood friend of her brother’s who, conveniently, possesses mad ninja skills of his own.
Relatively soon (though not soon enough, narratively speaking), Heaven is being informed of her heroic destiny and the fact that her parents discovered her as a baby. She’s also being pursued by the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia, and must quickly go from pampered princess to stern-jawed heroine, receiving most of her training during one long musical montage. Hey, even the Karate Kid had to learn how to paint the fence and wax the car.
Producers Andre Nemec, Josh Appelbaum and Luke McMullen all worked on “Alias,” where the charms of a sexy but dangerous female balancing personal issues and duty often helped obscure convoluted plot machinations. Here, the action is executed by rote and the dialogue so uninspired — down to the “I’ll say you are” comebacks each time Heaven introduces herself to an admiring guy — that there’s scant incentive to endure long enough to see her quest fulfilled.
“Samurai Girl” tries to spice things up visually with comicbook-style act breaks, but the fighting sequences would need to be staged more imaginatively to compensate for the various deficiencies, and frankly — even with a few skewerings and a torture scene — those shiny swords can do only so much damage on ABC Family.
In theory, it’s nice to see a concept that creates opportunities for underutilized Asian performers, and the show won’t need huge ratings measured by the cable net’s yardstick; still, to borrow “Samurai Girl’s” penchant for puns, if there’s anything else on that’s worth watching, Heaven can wait.