December 21, 2011

9½ Ninjas! (1991)

In 1986, Adrian Lyne's erotic drama film "9½ Weeks" was released and, despite getting mixed reviews, the sexually charged film quickly became a tremendous pop culture reference of the decade, thanks not only to the performances of stars Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, but to Adrian Lyne's stylish craftsmanship, that resulted in erotic scenes that have become simply iconic. And with the status of iconic pop culture reference comes not only tributes and homages, but also spoofs, and in this aspect "9½ Weeks" has been quite prolific, as most of the stylish set pieces conceived by Lyne have been the subject of a spoof in several films and TV shows: the food scene, the ice, and of course, Basinger's legendary striptease to the sound of Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On". Certainly, some spoofs are more intelligent than others, and there are also spoofs that are downright idiotic. Unfortunately, Aaron Barsky's "9½ Ninjas!" (1991) is one film that rightfully belongs to this category.

"9½ Ninjas!" begins with the young Joe Vogue (Keaton Simons) receiving strange Ninja lessons from his Master (legendary Gerald Okamura). Little Joe doesn't seem like Ninja material, but his Master's patience and perseverance give results: flash-forward a few years and adult Joe Vogue (now Michael Phenicie) is not only a successful businessman, but also a killing machine. His deadly abilities come handy to save the beautiful Lisa Thorne (Andee Gray) from a gang of criminals who were bothering at the restaurant where Joe was having a sandwich. Lisa immediately falls in love with Joe, and tells her that the gang was actually hired by Arnold Gruber (Robert Fieldsteel), an evil land owner who just bought her building and has been evicting everyone there. Joe decides it's not his business, however, a message arrives that makes him change his mind: Gruber has also bought his building and is evicting him as well. Now that the matter has turned personal, Joe decides to train Lisa and together stop Gruber, but Lisa has also certain skills she wants to teach Joe.

Written by Bill Crounse, John Morrissey and Don Pequignot, "9½ Ninjas!" attempts to spoof both Lyne's "9½ Weeks" and the ninja action films that had enjoyed a huge popularity during the 80s (popularity reflected most notably in Golan and Globus' "Ninja" series and in the "American Ninja" series). Unfortunately, it fails on both accounts. Most of the humour is based on Joe's useless attempts to train Lisa, whom is more interested in taking him to bed than in becoming a ninja herself. While everyone in the film is in awe at Lisa's beauty (and her preference for revealing clothes), Joe seems unaffected thanks to his Ninja focus. In fact, this and other of his strange antics also come to play, such as his strange relation with her mother (also a ninja) and his dependence on a hand puppet called Mr. Ninja (voiced by Paul Jabara). The jokes in the film are of a quite simplistic variety, based mainly on the absurd situations the absurd characters are put into. For a film which claims to be an erotic martial arts action comedy, it's unusually innocent in its humour.

While there are sources that cite producer John Morrissey as the director under the name of Aaron Worth, most take Aaron Barsky as the real director behind the pseudonym. What is beyond any doubt is the fact that whomever had been the responsible of "9½ Ninjas!" did a pretty poor job in bringing everything together. Granted, the source material is an awfully constructed screenplay that doesn't give much room for improvement, but the film's simplistic work of direction seems to had been limited to just framing the scene, giving some encouraging words to the actors and then shooting it. Everything done in the worst 80s TV style. In fact, while released in 1991, it wouldn't be surprising to discover that the film comes from the late 80s, as it does feel older. Anyways, to the film's credit, Spaniard cinematographer Fernando Argüelles (whom would later work in the celebrated TV series "Prison Break") does a more than acceptable job, certainly more than what "9½ Ninjas!" deserves, particularly in the only two scenes when he's required to mimic Lyne's style in "9½ Weeks".

As written above, there is not really a good screenplay material to work with, though some of the cast members in "9½ Ninjas!" manage to do their job with dignity. Magda Harout, who plays Joe's mother Gladys is probably the best amongst them, as she truly adds some spark to her badly written role, and is perhaps the only one in the cast who truly understands comedy timing. In his limited cameo, Gerald Okamura shows a lot more of commitment than most of the main cast members, and along Harout, is probably the only one genuinely funny in his performance. The protagonists, Michael Phenicie and Andee Gray are pretty bad in their roles. Phenicie is good looking, yet lacks the charm and energy to carry the film. Andee Gray is a beauty, but that's the only thing she brings on to her character. Character actor Robert Fieldsteel plays the evil Arnold Gruber, and while there's talent in his delivery, his role is probably the most ridiculous in the film. As a curiosity, Don Stark of "That 70's Show" fame can be seen as Gruber's servant Sledge.

Nevertheless, beyond its raw and simplistic craftsmanship, low production values and poorly talented cast, the real problem in "9½ Ninjas!" originates somewhere else: its terrible screenplay. Legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said that not even a good director could make a good film from a bad script, and "9½ Ninjas!" is a certain proof of that. Spoofs are supposed to mock, comment or satirize their subject, but in the case of "9½ Ninjas!" this is largely forgotten as the writers merely included stupid or awkward situations in an attempt at absurd comedy. Any attempt at parodying the ninja subgenre or "9½ Weeks" is lost in pointless scenes that seem lifted from a very old TV show. certainly, "9½ Weeks"'s status as an icon of its generation suits nicely to parody, but while "9½ Ninjas!" could had taken a more risqué approach to spoof the exaggeratedly stylish erotic drama of "9½ Weeks", it opts for a quite stupid and childish humour that probably sounded good on paper, but executed was painfully bad.

Certainly, Adrian Lyne's "9½ Weeks", with its oversexualized characters, stylish cinematography and outdated fashion sense is a great material to spoof. It's a complete product of its time, and as such, prone to be the target of the most merciless of parodies. Unfortunately, "9½ Ninjas!" fails at achieving this, and in fact, for a film that claims being an erotic martial arts action comedy, it results being neither erotic, nor thrilling nor funny. A couple of jokes may raise a smile or two, but as a whole, "9½ Ninjas!" is an unfortunate failure for everyone involved. Far better parodies have been done of both martial arts films and that 80s classic named "9½ Weeks".


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