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]
'E.T.' 30th Anniversary: The Sequel That Never Was and Three Decades of Cameos
'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' 10th Anniversary: A Look Back at Then and Now
The 30th Anniversary of ‘Annie’: A Musical That’s More Relevant Than Ever
At last year’s Comic-Con, one of the highlights was clearly The Avengers panel. As each of the actors was paraded out on the stage, it was our first glimpse of the team; the culmination of the studio’s four preceding years of work. This iconic assemblage in San Diego is of course tantamount to the appeal of The Avengers in the first place; bringing together a cadre of popular superheroes and housing them in one cinematic adventure. However, The Avengers was not the first film in recent years to attempt to capitalize on this concept.
In 2010, The Expendables was dropped upon nationwide multiplexes like a bomb. But instead of gunpowder and nitroglycerine, this bomb was loaded with as many classic action stars the studio could squeeze into one violent package. For weeks beforehand, the avid action cinema consumers were salivating in anticipation for the raucous throwback to the glory days of beef-headed, cheese-soaked destruction. Unfortunately for these fans, among whom I firmly count myself, The Expendables failed to deliver upon the promises of the advertising. It turned out to be a muddled, frustrating mess that couldn’t satisfy even our basest, and most basic expectations. The film is currently available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service should you need a reminder of these shortcomings.
At this year’s Comic-Con, The Expendables 2 will be prominently featured as part of the exhibition. That’s right, later this year we’re getting a follow-up with even more action heroes of yesteryear dusted off and, in some cases, shoved out of retirement. The uphill battle for The Expendables 2, apart from the lingering sour taste the first one left in our mouths, is that it is being released in a post-Avengers theatrical climate. Joss Whedon was able to take a handful of epic heroes and deliver a film that was both impossibly entertaining and remarkably smart. So our bar for these heroic hodgepodges is now set much, much higher than it was in 2010. Though we may be comparing apples and gamma-ray-infected oranges, the good news is that there are a few lessons The Expendables 2 can take away from The Avengers to ensure it avoids the landmines that shredded the first.
The easy advice to throw out here would be to make sure to balance the screen time between all the characters. This seems like a no-brainer, right? It is a fact that, despite the overloaded cast of The Expendables, each familiar actor’s time on screen was not created equal. However, I would argue it’s not about creating a perfect balance of time for each actor as much as it is about adequately managing the resources. In The Avengers, Hawkeye does not get the exact same amount of spotlight as does Iron Man. This is because Iron Man is more central to this particular story arc and has the more interesting powers. Hawkeye shouldn’t have equal billing; he didn’t even have his own movie, and Whedon understood this.
What this does is give the audience what they really want while simultaneously forcing Jeremy Renner to make the most of every moment he’s on screen; something he accomplished beautifully. In The Expendables, Stallone and Statham became the central focus of the film with criminally little Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, and mere cameos from Schwarzenegger and Willis. I’m not saying we need to level the scales completely and see exactly as much Lundgren as we see Stallone, but for the love of crap, let’s use the characters more efficiently. I mean, did we really need to see so much of Mickey Rourke, a character who doesn’t even participate in the combat, and so little of Li?
Developing this efficiency of character usage will be doubly important for the sequel. The cast list has increased by at least two martial arts titans: Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The latter of these additions also brings up another lesson The Expendables 2 could learn from The Avengers. You must develop your villain to a level of evil that would necessitate an entire team of badasses to offer opposition. The villain in the first Expendables has a great deal of bark, but his bite barely breaks the skin. You get the feeling that just one of the members of the team could put him down, and that lack of stakes could account for the underwhelming final act of The Expendables.
Hopefully JCVD will give us a villain whose schemes put the entirety of the planet in jeopardy, and that will require a little more strategy and delegation of skills from our team. Instead of just throwing everyone at the mansion like the end of The Expendables, give us a wide-open final showdown that will have our heroes fighting on several different fronts catered to their various skills. Can you image, a la The Avengers, an uncut shot moving around a desert town showing each member of the crew fighting their individual battle with machine guns, roundhouse kicks, and blades? That’s another thing: they need to do a better job of establishing each soldier’s skill set. Allow us to sit in the epic strength and presence of these guys individually before we lose them all in a chaotic battle scene.
Obviously, The Avengers has the advantage of years and years of beloved canon from which to draw. But in many ways, so does The Expendables 2… and no, I’m not referring to the first movie. These actors, these captains of action industry, have decades of films, miles and miles of celluloid that lead them to the genre prominence at the heart of this franchise’s inception. I would urge The Expendables 2 to use its characters more effectively, more efficiently, and more distinctly than they did in the first film. If it worked for Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man, it can work for Rocky, Walker, John McClane, and Time Cop.
Comic-Con 2012: 'Expendables 2' Goes Grindhouse — POSTER
'Expendables 2': No Character Left Behind — POSTERS
'The Expendables 2': Schwarzenegger's Shoe Is Bigger Than a Car — TRAILER
Mere weeks ago, there was unleashed upon audiences a force that threatened to singe eyebrows and leave giant holes in the backs of countless theaters. That force gathered the gods of action films yesteryear and promptly punched an otherwise bland summer in the face. I am talking, of course, about The Expendables. I racked my brain trying to figure out how summer 2010 could possibly top this truckload of awesome; what ensemble film could bring together a combination of talents to match the collective greatness of The Expendables?
Well, this week sees the release of Takers. a good old-fashioned heist movie seems the perfect vehicle for an unstoppably fantastic ensemble, right? It might have been had the casting director not based all his decisions on a 2005 issue of Tiger Beat. Yes, friends, where The Expendables had Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dolph Lundgren, Takers boasts two rappers and two pretty boys with not one iota of talent between them. Let’s examine these doomed couplets against the cast of The Expendables, shall we? I think you’ll find that Takers is primed to be the anti-Expendables, which is how I will refer to the film from this point on.
Sylvester Stallone — Paul Walker
Sly is a hero of American cinema. Forget the fact that action movies reach arguably the widest audience; Sylvester Stallone has created two characters that have become icons of American cinema. The consummate underdog, Rocky, symbolizes the never-give-up American spirit while Rambo poignantly personifies our foreign policy with the aid of rocket launchers and crap-tons of gasoline. So where The Expendables had Stallone, the anti-Expendables has…Paul Walker. At one time in our sad and not-too-distant past, Walker commanded huge salaries and had a franchise built around him involving a privileged white kid playing cop and racing his symbols of excess through the streets. Rambo would not be pleased. As the film begins, and you're again forced to endure Paul’s vapid dopiness, take solace in the fact that they’re probably not going to be stealing a team of sled dogs.
Bruce Willis — Hayden Christensen
Bruce Willis has played more cinematic badasses than I can count. He raised the American action film to new heights with Die Hard and never looked back. His brief cameo in The Expendables put a glorious cherry on that testosterone sundae. For its part, the anti-Expendables has Hayden Christensen. You remember him, right? He was the face of the downfall of an entire saga. I won’t be so naive as to blame him for all of the prequels’ problems, but his whiny, unbelievably unskilled performance did little to correct its downward spiral.
Arnold Schwarzenegger — TI
I am not even sure this couplet needs examining. Arnie has created even more cinematic icons than has Stallone. Films like The Terminator, Predator, Total Recall, Conan the Barbarian, and T2 are not only great but representative of the core canon of most men’s home video collections. His even shorter appearance in The Expendables lent an even more palpable degree of pomp and circumstance to the film. Not to be outdone, the anti-Expendables stars TI. These two letters refer to wannabe recording-artist-turned-wannabe-actor Tip Harris. I’m not saying rappers can’t act; what I am saying is that I’ve seen ATL...
Dolph Lundgren — Chris Brown
Though not quite as beloved as Willis or Stallone -- the latter perhaps because he spent Rocky IV beating the snot out of him --Dolph Lundgren has an impressive fan base that casts him in the same legendary stock as any of the titans featured in The Expendables. Though like Paul Walker and Hayden Christensen, for whom Hollywood tried and failed to cultivate franchises, Dolph always managed to provide a beefy brand of dunderheaded entertainment and created some classics of his own. The anti-Expendables has rapper Chris Brown. Well at least we know that, like Dolph, Chris can hold his own in a brawl…as long as his nemesis is a sexy female singer.
So there you have it. To complete your August film-going experience, why not go see Takers: the anti-Expendables? Where The Expendables was an epic gathering of action-movie legends, Takers is a veritable who’s who of…who cares? If ever Idris Elba had a chance to stand out, this is it.
To read more about the movie, check out the 'Takers' Movie Review by Thomas Leupp.