An ultimate action classic from your childhood is surprisingly still great now… but still for kids.
Martial arts comedies have been extremely popular in Hong Kong for decades, but martial arts action from the US was a dead-serious affair for the most part in the 1980s. The success of The Karate Kid showed that a more light-hearted take on the genre could also work, and films like No Retreat No Surrender followed in its footsteps. The release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990 triggered a small wave of kid-friendly martial arts flicks such as 3 Ninjas, Sidekicks, and of course Surf Ninjas.
The movie’s title is a bit misleading, if you’re expecting a Point Break/Revenge of the Ninja crossover, you’ll be disappointed. While there is plenty of fighting involving ninjas they rarely are on surfboards. A unique thing about the film is the inclusion of a Sega Game Gear as a key plot element which gave us one of the most unashamed product placements in movie history. The film was co-produced by Sega, and a game accompanying the film was indeed made for their fledgling handheld console.
UAMC Reviews ‘Surf Ninjas’ (1993)
Surf Ninjas tells the story of brothers Johnny and Adam, and their friend Iggy, who one day are suddenly attacked by ninjas in their father’s restaurant. Martial arts master Zatch comes to their rescue, and reveals to them that Johnny is the righteous heir to the throne of the kingdom of Patusan. An adventurous journey begins to free Patusan from the grip of evil cyborg Ninjutsu master Chi and his army of minions. Johnny’s quest is aided by a mysterious video game on Adam’s Game Gear that foresees future events.
Compared to all the polished (and mostly animated) kids movies released on the big screen in current times, films like Surf Ninjas seem to radiate a goofy and chaotic charm at best. So one may be tempted to say that much of their appeal is simply due to nostalgia. To test this theory, I conducted an important experiment and exposed my eight-year old daughter to some of the old-school classics. She found them thoroughly entertaining, just about as much as contemporary Disney productions. Now that this is settled we only need to have a look at how Surf Ninjas fares for adult audiences these days.
The plot is not overly exciting and somewhat chaotic, but that’s no problem, there’s never an idle moment. Surf Ninjas also has a rather chill vibe with laid-back characters who are always in the mood for cracking jokes. When there’s no silly humor, there’s action, and the movie delivers a ton of it. The style of the action scenes is comical martial arts at its best with a pretty awesome fight choreography, in a similar vein as the classic Ninja Turtles live-action movies. Skateboards, chopsticks and an octopus are all turned into weapons (”Eat squid!”) by Johnny and his friends.
“We Need More Ninjas!”
Whenever there seems to be a shortage of ninjas, master Chi does a phone call and orders a new batch. I believe this type of phone calls happens off-screen in every action movie featuring ninjas, how else would we explain the endless supply of them? Where they spontaneously emerge from remains one of the big mysteries of the action genre to this day, but in any case we should all agree with Chi: We need more ninjas!
Father and son, Ernie Reyes Sr. and Jr., make a great team in kicking plenty of ass as Zatch and Johnny. Before Surf Ninjas, Ernie Jr. already gathered some experience in the movie business. He played the kid in Red Sonja, and had a role in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, where he showcased some pretty solid martial arts skills at a young age. Somehow his career never took off after Surf Ninjas, which I think is a shame because he had the talent and looks needed for bigger roles.
The insane combo of Leslie Nielsen, Tone Loc and Rob Schneider also joined the cast of the film. Tone Loc’s role as doltish, but well-meaning cop that accompanies the kids on their quest to Patusan because he needs a vacation, seems more suited for a stoner flick than Surf Ninjas, it’s a truly bizarre performance.
But, How Ultimate is it?
Leslie Nielsen does his Leslie Nielsen thing as incompetent cyborg tyrant Chi in a bonkers costume, and is fun to watch as always. His role is pretty small, but he has a couple of great scenes. The old running for a ringing telephone gag never gets old. And then we have Rob Schneider in an early movie role, and in Surf Ninjas he already fully embraced his calling as goofy sidekick with zero relevance for the plot. Daft humor is his trademark, and it fits perfectly into the film, plus he gets some really funny lines. He was also 30 years old when playing a teenager in Surf Ninjas.
Surf Ninjas is a slightly demented feel-good romp from beginning to end. If you watch it with your kids, it will be perfectly fine and harmless action entertainment. If you’ve watched it when you were a kid, it will give you a chill overdose of 1990s nostalgia. For everyone else, it’s a film that is best enjoyed slightly intoxicated.