In the early 1990's "Ninja Turtles" and "Power Rangers" dominated toy stores while "Street Fighter" and "Mortal Kombat" arcade cabinets hungrily devoured quarters. Martial arts mania swept the United States and film studios wanted to tap into the phenomenon, rushing a glut of movies into production. From adapting the aforementioned titles into live action films to even developing original properties like the "Three Ninjas" series and "SideKicks," kicking butt was serious business.
Unfairly castigated by critics and lumped in among the others, "Surf Ninjas" simultaneously subverts and improves upon its contemporaries. It does so by making a simple "hero's journey" story that skewers "tubular teen martial arts" movies and at the same time respects the structure and style of classic kung fu films.
Ernie Reyes, Jr. plays Johnny, a smartass surfer dude who Zack Morrises his way through life, skirting authority figures and generally slacking. Life throws him a curve when his adoptive father is kidnapped and he, his brother Adam, and best friend Iggy (Rob Schneider) are rescued by a one-eyed martial artist named Zatch (Ernie Reyes, Sr.). Zatch reveals to Johnny and Adam that they are long-lost princes of the island nation Patusan and that Johnny must become a martial artist to save his people from the evil dictator Colonel Chi (Leslie Nielsen).
Straight out of Joseph Campbell, the story uses archetypal structure: The protagonist suffers a loss; a wise, older teacher comes along to help him fulfill a destiny; villainy must be thwarted. Sprinkled in among the usual Arthurian legend bits are performances lampooning the tropes of American ninja stories, teen romances, movie cops, and maybe even, if you squint a little, western imperialism.
The acting is exactly as it should be in a film like this, with Reyes, Jr. adding the right humorous, askance view at the film's events, Rob Schneider doing a great job playing Iggy, the hapless moron sidekick, and even the weaker Nichols Cowan doing a fine job as the snot-nosed little brother and fellow heir to the throne. Reyes, Sr. as Zatch legitimately seems like a tough, if occasionally bewildered, martial arts master, and Tone Loc manages to impress in his role as Police Lieutenant Spence. While others have criticized Leslie Nielsen's work, I thought he performed more than adequately as a satirical warlord with cybernetic enhancements.
Featuring a bizarre time-capsule mix of hip-hop, pop and rock, the soundtrack feels thematically familiar, which is strange because I don't think I ever heard any of the tracks outside of the context of the movie. It clearly links the film to the era. Before writing this review, I found the album, surprisingly available on Spotify, sat down to listen, and discovered it still holds up well.
Reyes, Jr. previously appeared in "The Last Dragon" along with both acting and working as a stunt-double in the first two live-action "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" films. With a variety of other stunt work credits under his belt as well, it's not surprising that the fight sequences were well-choreographed, in that early 90's style, with clear nods to 70's martial arts movies: bad guys with guns forget they have them and henchmen wait in line to fight with the grossly outnumbered heroes. The critics of the film seem to forget that in service of a larger adventure story, such conventions aren't bad. I don't care if my martial arts comedy fights aren't ultra-realistic. This isn't "Once Upon a Time in China."
This brings me to what I think is the worst part about this film - its reception. For the life of me, I cannot understand the harsh criticism heaped upon "Surf Ninjas." When Hollywood was in the process of crapping out a variety of action films that took themselves too seriously and now rest on the pile of forgotten trash that was early 90's cinema, this little gem appeared and poked fun at all of them, and itself. It wasn't intended to be a straight-up spoof like the "Naked Gun" or "Hot Shots" movies, but instead offered a rather sharp look at the nature of hip action movies while being a well-crafted one itself, and in my opinion, it succeeded.
Really, the character of Johnny mirrors the film itself: unambitious, self-aware, and a little cooler than his peers. Johnny thinks everybody else is a little too caught up in their own nonsense and would rather just have fun. I agree.