A Japanese martial arts clan is taught that a white child will one day appear to become the greatest ninja of them all. Sure enough, at the beginning of the lively, funny "Beverly Hills Ninja," a steamer trunk with a white male baby inside washes up on the beach near the clan's retreat. But the kid grows up to be hefty Chris Farley.
Given the name Haru, he is raised by the clan's loving sansei (Soon-Tek Oh) alongside the master's own son (Robin Shou). But Haru is such a hopeless self-deluding klutz that even his kindly foster father is forced to admit in exasperation that, "He's fat, a fool and an embarrassment to ninja everywhere." (Didn't anybody think of sending Haru off to a sumo wrestling academy?)
While everyone else is off to a competition, Haru is alone at the retreat when a striking blond (Nicollette Sheridan) shows up looking to hire a ninja to tail her boyfriend (Nathaniel Parker) to a meeting at a nearby harbor. She explains she's beginning to suspect that he's up to no good--and not merely two-timing her.
A couple of fast plot developments send Haru off to Beverly Hills to try to locate Sheridan, convinced she's a lady in distress, and right smack in the middle of Parker's complicated international counterfeiting schemes. That Haru one night finds himself performing at a topless joint is typical of his exploit. (Note: the tops stay on--this is a PG-13 picture).
All the elements of "Beverly Hills Ninja" are classic: The overweight jerk everyone has written off as a loser persists to win the day--and the fair lady. The slapstick and the sight gags come thick and fast, as they have throughout a hundred years of screen comedy, yet director Dennis Dugan and writers Mark Feldberg and Mitch Klebanoff keep everything light and bouncy.
"Beverly Hills Ninja" (which wasn't screened for critics) isn't a thigh-slapper, but it's diverting and affectionate--a satisfying and sturdy vehicle for Farley that ought to please his fans, youngsters especially.
Pasadena stands in for Beverly Hills much of the time, as does the more picturesque Chinatown for Little Tokyo. But Dugan and his crew--ingenious production designer Ninkey Dalton and cameraman Arthur Albert in particular--make everything come together. There is in fact, an unpretentious, throwaway, let's get-on-with-it quality about "Beverly Hills Ninja" that is appealing and nowadays rare in Hollywood productions.
While Farley carries the picture easily enough, with deft turns by Sheridan, Soon-Tek Oh and others, he may be a Hardy who needs his Laurel. This is the first picture he's done without his fellow "Saturday Night Live" alumnus David Spade, and it leaves us wishing that hilarious Chris Rock, cast as a sly Beverly Hills hotel bellboy, could have had the chance to emerge as a full-fledged sidekick.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sex-related humor, martial arts violence and a humorous drug-related scene. Times guidelines: The film's action and the humor are tame enough for children.
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'Beverly Hills Ninja'
Chris Farley: Haru
Nicollette Sheridan: Alison
Nathaniel Parker: Tanley
Soon-Tek Oh: Sensei
Chris Rock: Joey
Robin Shou: Gobei
A TriStar Pictures presentation of a Motion Picture Corp. of America production in association with Brad Krevoy & Steve Stabler. Director Dennis Dugan. Producers Krevoy, Stabler and Brad Jenkel. Executive producers Jeffrey D. Ivers, John Bertolli and Michael Rotenberg. Screenplay by Mark Feldberg & Mitch Klebanoff. Cinematographer Arthur Albert. Editor Jeff Gourson. Costumes Mary Claire Hannan. Music George S. Clinton. Production designer Ninkey Dalton. Art director Christa Munro. Set designers Lori Rowbotham, Phil Toolin. Set decorator Jan Pascale. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.