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Hipster Holy Grail: Ninja Academy (1989)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.

Gee, I haven't been watching any bad movies lately for the Grail.  Remember when I used to switch it up once in awhile and watch pure crap?  I wonder if I've got anything like that saved up for a rainy day.

That'll do.

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Do you guys remember that Mr. Show sketch where Bob Odenkirk became the Dalai Lama and David Cross was his party animal friend?  And then Cross comes to visit Odenkirk in Tibet, and Odenkirk's bummed because there's a bunch of snobs at the fat camp next door, so Cross has to show Odenkirk's guys how to loosen up and beat them at an inter-camp competition?  Well, Ninja Academy is kind of like if somebody saw that sketch, didn't realize that it was making fun of the concept, mistook monks for ninjas, and then basically tried to expand that premise to a feature-length comedy.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

This is going to be difficult.  Ninja Academy eschews plot.  It derives all of its momentum from the assumption that its audience is already well aware of how movies go and will fill in all the gaps.  "Yeah, yeah, there's a protagonist and he's gonna do shit, yadda yadda yadda... wanna see some tits?"

But basically, here's what's up.  "A few years ago," as the opening title informs us, there was a Ninja Master in Japan with two students who were competing to be his successor: Chiba (Gerald Okamura) and A White Guy (Seth Foster).  They square off to fight for this privilege, which is not only the first scene in the movie, but also the first of many, many times that Ninja Academy seems to miss the point of what a ninja is.

I mean, let's not be pedantic here.  I get it.  I know that "ninja" is just movie shorthand for "guy who does martial arts, moves quickly and quietly, dresses head to foot in a uni-color garb, and optionally throws shurikens."  But there's at least a certain style that movie ninjas subscribe to, and that's what you look for when you sign on for something called "Ninja Academy."  You'd at least expect them to dress like ninjas.  These are just two old guys doings really slow mock-karate.  But I digress.

Chiba gets the upper hand when the White Guy taps out, and he ends the fight.  But it's a trick!  White Guy was only lulling Chiba into a false sense of victory so he could sneak up behind him and knock him out, thus winning the fight.  Unfortunately for the White Guy, the Ninja Master does not respect that he was so underhanded; since Chiba fought with honor and respect, he will become the successor even though he technically lost.

And... again, I'm wondering if the makers of Ninja Academy know what a ninja is.  Ninjas were spies and assassins.  In other words: the exact kind of people who wouldn't fight honorably.  They traded in treachery, dishonesty, and justifying the means with the ends. Wouldn't the Ninja Master be proud of the White Guy?  Is he sure that he's a Ninja Master and not a Karate Master?  Karate is fine, dude.  You can be part of Karate Academy.  I'll take it.

After all, what do the Ninja Turtles always say?  "Turtles fight with honor."  You'll note they don't say "Ninjas fight with honor."

Anyway.  The White Guy gets pissy and leaves, and then the movie skips ahead to present day (translation: the late '80s) Los Angeles, where both Chiba and the White Guy have opened up Ninja Schools to train the public.

So... in other words, karate schools.

The movie then spends about fifteen minutes or so introducing us to seven jackasses who each have their own contrived reason for wanting to study ninjitsu.  This is an extremely long sequence that doesn't really make a lot of sense.  After all, do you really need to know why each character wants to become a ninja?  Who cares?  Just cut to Day One and show each character doing their thing and we'll get to know them while the action's going forward.  You know... kind of like how Police Academy, the movie you're ripping off, did it?

Our bunch of lovable(?) losers includes a gun nut survivalist, a couple of oversexed girls, a James Bond knock-off, a nerdy klutz, a mime, and a rich kid (Will Egan), who more or less serves as the story's central protagonist.  Now, I have to go on a little rant here about Egan's character.  All of the characters have kinda dumb reasons to go to Ninja Academy, but they at least make sense.  The mime, for example, keeps getting mugged and he wants to defend himself.  The oversexed girls want to drool over beefcakes working out.  Et cetera.  But Egan's backstory is that his dad thinks Egan is too reckless and childish and wants to cut off his finances.  Arbitrarily, he decides that Egan needs to pass Ninja Academy.

It's almost like the movie realized just how stupid it was to bother with the explanation, so they gave up halfway through.  His dad starts off a speech about how kids today are soft and then halfway through he pretty much just shouts, "Ah, fuck it!  Just go to this thing I found in this magazine I'm reading right now!"

Ooh!  Segue time!

Speaking of that magazine... the reason all these dorks end up going to Ninja Academy is because there was one article in some random magazine that called Chiba's school "the number one Ninjitsu School in Los Angeles."  Or something to that effect.  For some reason, this infuriates the White Guy, who takes it as a personal offense.  There's a ridiculous scene where he looks at the article and growls to his assistant, "How dare they?!"

So, the White Guy decides to enact vengeance upon Chiba and his school.  Slow, plodding vengeance that won't really pay off until maybe ten minutes before the credits roll.  Eventually, he decides to attack Ninja Academy, but Chiba beats him up and the seven dorks all graduate.

And thus ends the week.  Yup.  Ninja Academy's entire curriculum can be completed in one week.

That's pretty much the entirety of the plot, but you might be wondering: how does a movie with so brief a narrative run for ninety minutes?  The answer is: montages!  But not the kind you're thinking of.  Let's address that.

The Bit Where I Talk About the Montages

Listen, montages are fine.  You expect them in any movie that involves training of some sort.  They're quick, efficient, and effective ways to tell us, the audience, that time is passing and that a character (or group of characters) is improving at some skill.  So I was expecting at least a couple of training montages in Ninja Academy.  Hell, I was even expecting a bunch of them.

But to call these "training" montages is somewhat offensive.  They're more like "fucking around" montages.  They're pretty much the exact opposite of what you'd expect training to be.

Like, suppose you have an obstacle course with a wall, right?  And part of Ninja Academy is that you have to run up the wall and climb over it?  And maybe you'd expect the first part of the montage to be each of the characters screwing up - like maybe the rich guy just doesn't have the muscle to pull himself up, or the klutz just runs head-first into the wall and knocks himself out.  And then you'd cut to Chiba shaking his head as if to say, "Nope, this sorry bunch of losers will never become ninjas."

Then you'd cut away to some other scenes and eventually cut back to the wall and see that they're starting to almost get over the wall, but not quite.  So you keep cutting away from the wall to other scenes, then back to the wall, then away, then the wall, then away, and then finally you cut to the wall and you see the characters jumping over and cheering and Chiba nods once as if to say, "Ah!  My pupils have finally learned!"

That's a training montage.  Ninja Academy somehow manages to fail at this in every conceivable way.  I've never seen a movie mess up training montages so badly before.

First of all, the characters don't actually have a problem with the wall.  There are no shots of the characters failing to climb over - instead, they just get around it in their own way.  So the James Bond knock-off, for example, will take a cigarette lighter out of his pocket and push a button to turn it into a power-saw that he uses to cut a door.  Or the mime (in one of the few genuinely funny moments) pretends to climb the wall, but due to the way the camera crops the scene, he somehow actually does climb the wall.  Stuff like that.

So, right off the bat, your montage is fucked.  How do you show improvement if the obstacle isn't a problem?

But it's actually worse than that because the characters are specifically not using ninja tactics.  At no point in any of the ninja training montages in a movie called Ninja Academy do any of the characters complete any ninja moves.  And as if that's not enough, the training staff of Ninja Academy don't bother to course-correct.  They see their students doing their own thing and then turn a blind eye.  I have to say, Chiba - White Guy is justifiably pissed about not getting that Successor title.  Say what you want about honor, but at least his school actually does teach something vaguely ninja-like.

The worst part about all of this, though, is that it gives one of the characters an incredibly dark backstory.  Let's look at that a little closer.

The Bit Where I Psychoanalyze Chiba

Chiba's daughter, Gayle (Kelly Randall), is one of Ninja Academy's instructors and a potential love interest for Egan.  At one point, she's having a tender moment with Egan where she says that she once tried to leave Ninja Academy behind, but returned to it after failing to make a name for herself elsewhere.  She says she had a "difficult" time readjusting to the life of a ninja because of her father's training.

Now, if we had seen Chiba put even a modicum of effort into literally anything this whole movie, then this might not mean a whole lot; we could assume that Chiba's training is "difficult" for everyone.  But because we've seen that he doesn't do anything with his disobedient and incompetent students, we have to assume that he was being exclusively "difficult" with Gayle.  Which leads me to conclude the following:

Chiba is aware of his failure as a ninja and is deeply ashamed.  Add to this the fact that he owns a fledgling and pathetic school where his culture and life's work is openly mocked by anonymous assholes to whom he can't even teach the most basic skills, and he feels crushed by the hopelessness and bleakness of his aimless, wasted existence.

Struggling to grasp some semblance of control, he lashes out against one of the few people in his life over which he actually has any power: his daughter.  Chiba cruelly abuses and manipulates her, possibly beating her and certainly psychologically destroying her in order to coerce her into a life of servitude at his pretend school.

The more Gayle buys into the fantasy that Chiba actually knows the first thing about ninjitsu, the more it reinforces Chiba's ego and reaffirms his poor life choices, thus encouraging him to keep pressuring her to stay.  They form a cycle of endless abuse and delusion, which is really the only reason why Chiba allows his Ninja Academy to go on the way it does.

The Part Where I Wrap Up and Tell You Where to Watch

Most good-bad movies are enjoyable because they're unintentionally hilarious.  But there are others that are fun more because of the train wreck appeal of dissecting every terrible choice or ridiculous beat.  These are the types that require a group of friends to be truly entertaining.

Ninja Academy falls into a different category altogether.  It is the rarest breed of good-bad movie: a bad comedy that becomes funny by way of its anti-comedy.  Like an extra long episode of Tim and Eric, it works best when you assume that the filmmakers were aware of how misguided and stupid their jokes were, and they were purposefully seeking out to create one of the dumbest comedies ever made.

If you hurry, you can catch Ninja Academy on Youtube before it gets pulled for copyright infringement. Otherwise, you'll either have to pay way too much for a used DVD, or just keep an eye out for the next time somebody uploads.