The Japanese martial art of ninjutsu dates back around the turn of the seventh century A.D., encompassing the tactics of self-defense, espionage, and guerilla warfare. This strategic practice has, thanks to its lasting influence over international culture, maintained a stronghold of cultural significance in Western cinema. The character of the ninja is a timelessly fascinating, regally entrancing phenomenon. Beyond Medieval knights, high seas pirates, and intergalactic travelers are ninjas the most engrossing, beloved, and mysterious warriors in fact or fiction. But as rich and dense as the history of the ninja might be, it wasn't until the date of August 7, 1992, exactly twenty years ago today, that the identity of the Japanese spy and soldier really hit its potential in terms of relevance in the canon of American film. For on this date, the great Jon Turtletaub bequeathed unto the world his third directorial feature: 3 Ninjas.
A Brief History
If you grew up in the '90s, then the gravity of this film's impact need not be clarified to you. I was almost five when 3 Ninjas came out; my older sister was about ten. I remember our first viewing of the adventures of the Douglas brothers. She explained to me, as the boys rustled through their dresser drawers to hastily throw on their uniforms before they'd defend against invading criminals, that the change of clothes was necessary — my sister shot down my suggestion that the boys were hoping to shield their identities, but instead, simply needed to don their garb to effectively "become" the three ninjas.
And from then on, I understood. This wasn't simply a story about a trio of goofy siblings defying their disapproving dad for the sake of it. This was a tale of deciding what you wanted to be, and setting that decision into action. It was a story about challenging the forces set against you to become exactly what you always knew you were supposed to become. And while I never personally intended to be a ninja (although it was always enjoyable to play a few rounds of 3 Ninjas with my two best friends... I was always Tum Tum), the message still rang true. This is a movie with a timeless message.
But as positive an effect this film has had on me, and its many other fans, it seems to have had a particularly bizarre effect on its cast. Less than four years after 3 Ninjas hit theaters, each of the movie's young stars Michael Treanor (Rocky), Max Elliot Slade (Colt), and Chad Power (Tum Tum) were out of the business for good. The last acting credit attributed to Treanor was the film's 1995 threequel, 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up. For Slade, it was a '96 direct-to-video flick called The Sweeper (his last big screen appearance was in Apollo 13). And as for Power: he followed Knuckle Up with stints on ER and Step By Step in '95. None have been seen on screen since. Rumors and reports about the boys are numerous: Treanor works in finance in Washington D.C. and was considered for a part in a 2011 regeneration of his Rocky character; Slade plays guitar for a band called Haden. But in the true spirit of their ninja identities, these warriors have maintained a thick sheath of mystery over their whereabouts.
And while we have nothing but respect for their privacy and career choices, we'd still wish to extend this open letter to the stars of the 1992 classic 3 Ninjas in hopes of, perhaps, reuniting the family Douglas.
An Open Letter to the 3 NinjasDear Rocky, Colt, and Tum Tum,
We'd like to kick things off by extending our best wishes for whatever travels you are presently undertaking. It was twenty years ago today when you first came into our lives, and only three short years later when you left them for good. Vanishing, just as Grandpa Mori Shintaro might have taught you to. Sure, your roles were usurped in '98 for High Noon at Mega Mountain, but nobody really ever accepted Mathew Botuchis, Michael O'Laskey II, or James Paul Roeske II as your respective characters. Besides, that film was mostly just a showcase for Hulk Hogan anyhow. Hardly true Ninja fashion. Although I do love a good Jim Varney turn.
The point is, we miss you guys. Your '92 movie, silly as it was, was a great deal of fun. It's one of those rare kid's pictures that welcomes every young lad or lass to relate comfortably. For the romantics, there's Rocky, who loves Em-uh-lee. For the no nonsense, there's Colt. And for the goofballs, there's good ol' Tum Tum. Every group of three is comprised, to some degree, of this makeup. Your movie allowed for lovers, loners, and jokers to all envision themselves as heroes. Trust me, having inclusive movies like these does wonders for kids' self-esteem.
We understand that the spotlight is not for everybody. Perhaps your collective experiences as child actors on the Ninjas movies turned you off from a Hollywood career. Perhaps it was never your intention to get into showbiz in the first place, but your affinity for martial arts and unparalleled screen presences made for the opportunity of big screen starring roles that you just couldn't turn down. But we're more inclined to believe an alternative theory:
You're actually ninjas. In real life. And ever since the movies blew up, the three of you went undercover, forming a secret squad of defenders of justice (handling the cases that FBI Agents like Alan McRae can't handle), making the world a better, albeit snappier and chaotically-edited place.
As such, we appreciate your desire to avoid the public eye. But on the off chance you are not actually real-life ninjas and are, in fact, just three regular adult males, then we reach out to you. As the purveyors of a story that gave so many children not just entertainment, but genuine life lessons, hope, and a new investment in the idea that you can truly be whatever you want to be, we look to you. We want to hear from you. We want to know what we can do to further present these values to the children of today. And most of all, we want to encourage the possibility of a 3 Ninjas: 20 Years Later. A reteaming of brothers Sam, Jeffrey, and Michael to honor the memory of their grandfather, maintain a cautious rebellion against their skeptical dad, and uphold the ideals of justice, family, and dreaming big.
From not only everyone at Hollywood.com, but from everyone who was between five and fifteen on August 7 in 1992, we thank you for giving us this beloved movie. And we hope to see you kick back again, soon.[Photo Credit: Touchstone Pictures]
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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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The age-old debate over fate vs. free will has been and always will be a tough theme to crack in any medium but with the benefits of modern filmmaking technology the theory can be explored in ways that Philip K. Dick never imagined. However when one relies too heavily on spectacle to tell a story a piece of cerebral science fiction can quickly become just another action extravaganza. In this day and age there’s a fine line between the two; The Matrix walked that tightrope with style and grace while Next never found its footing in the first place. Fortunately the precious work of novelist Dick has for the most part been treated with respect by Hollywood (the aforementioned Nic Cage dud notwithstanding) but that doesn’t necessarily mean movies based on his stories are completely faithful to his vision.
Case in point: George Nolfi’s directorial debut The Adjustment Bureau an adaptation of Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team.” The film stars Matt Damon as David Norris a successful businessman and rising political candidate who after a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams (Emily Blunt) loses a crucial election. He happens to run into her on a Manhattan bus the following week before finding his office swarming with masked men who are “adjusting” everyone inside. Richardson (John Slattery) the man in charge captures Norris who unsuccessfully flees the scene after seeing behind “a curtain he wasn’t even supposed to know existed” as the enigmatic figure puts it. From that point on Norris must live with the knowledge that he (and we for that matter) is not in control of his own life. Rather the choices he makes fit perfectly into “The Plan” that’s been written by “the Chairman”.
In relation to my earlier statement I have to say that Nolfi’s picture looks stunning but his natural urban aesthetic doesn’t overpower the story. Sleek contemporary production design and elegant costumes characterize the high-concept story and the wraithlike agents who shape our destinies. Topically we’re dealing with some heavy material but Nolfi and editor Jay Rabinowitz move the action along at a brisk pace that keeps you engaged and entertained without having to try. The film is properly proportioned as a chase thriller romantic adventure and sci-fi fantasy and thankfully no component overshadows another.
Setting the film in the world of politics and big business helps make its larger-than-life revelations a bit more accessible (as do appearances from Michael Bloomberg Jon Stewart and Chuck Scarborough) while providing sub-text about the corruption involved in elections and campaigns (there are conspicuous shades of The Manchurian Candidate in the movie) but the writer-director often tries too hard for broad appeal. For a film with existential implications as severe as they are here the dialogue is at times hokey and superficial. Dick’s source material is far more abstract and Nolfi for the sake of commercial success panders to the palette of soccer moms and mallrats.
What’s worse is his unwarranted exposition of the Bureau a shadowy organization whose major allure is anonymity. Some secrets are best kept and less can be so much more when crafting a mysterious atmosphere; Nolfi reaches that level of magnetic curiosity but squanders it as he reveals the truth about the Bureau and its grand scheme. On the other hand he brushes over the technical lingo between agents Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) McCrady (Anthony Ruivivar) and others without explanation perhaps hoping that the ambiguous terminology will fool you into thinking that his script is smarter than it really is.
Even though Nolfi’s allegorical conclusions are uncomfortably ham-fisted the chemistry between Damon and Blunt alone is enough to enchant you; this is one highly watchable cinematic pairing that should be revisited as soon as possible. Their innocent relationship blossoms organically and together they make it seem as natural on screen as it is for their star-crossed characters. Even if you have a hard time believing in higher powers or manipulative Orwellian forces you’ll have faith in David and Elise’s fated relationship one of the most captivating couplings I’ve seen on the big-screen in some time.