With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

Hollywood action heroes are overwhelmingly adults, and when they’re not—your Spy Kids, your Agent Cody Bankses, your Astro Boys—they tend to be of the gadget-orientated type, stopping bad guys with their available-for-purchase gizmos rather than their fists. For obvious reasons, kids and violence make for an uneasy mix. It’s disturbing to see children go Lord Of The Flies on each other, almost regardless of context or intensity, and the dramatic or horror films with underage victims or casualties come off as decidedly hardcore, even today.

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But for a brief moment in the 1990s, elementary-aged ass-kickers were a hot commodity in Hollywood, and no series tried to force its way into the zeitgeist like 3 Ninjas, a quartet of films about a trio of brothers who used violence to solve their—and everyone else’s—problems. It was a different time.

A lot of intended blockbusters can be summed up as “this movie meets that one,” and 3 Ninjas was particularly obvious in the trends it set out to straddle. There was Home Alone, which found a massive audience for its own tale of a kid defeating bad guys through pluck, moxie, and head trauma, and the martial arts craze seen in The Karate Kid, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and countless strip mall dojos. Add some Hardy Boy vibes to this pairing, and then cross-pollinate it with a major action movie subgenre—3 Ninjas had cop-movie elements, 3 Ninjas Kick Back borrowed from wuxia and adventure films, 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up had a Western flavor, and 3 Ninjas: High Noon At Mega Mountain was basically Die Hard At An Amusement Park With Hulk Hogan.

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The films are pretty tame when viewed today, excluding some bizarre moments of bad taste. There’s nothing to rival the darkness of, say, The Hunger Games (though the two aren’t really comparable, as the dystopian franchise mostly features older characters and is primarily meant for an older audience). That said, the series’ depiction of violence is all over the map. None of the kids are ever hurt or even struck by a bad guy (excluding the times they expertly block an attack), which probably goes without saying but makes the films devoid of excitement. Meanwhile their offense is decidedly soft; not only are some hits accompanied by cartoon-style boing or gong sounds, but the supposedly well-trained opponents have the decency to fall down and disappear after something as minor as a kick to the shins, like early-level video game opponents. A lot of our ninjas’ makeshift weapons are food-based.

Of course, you’re probably thinking. These are kids movies, so obviously the kids will never be in any real danger, and obviously we’re not going to see them deliver kill shots or wield lethal weapons. Except, the films are blatant in using the threat of death as a way to goose audiences. The first film’s bad guys are decidedly bumbling, but at one point they take a kid hostage and hold guns to her head. (Steven Spielberg was criticized for digitally replacing pistols with walkie-talkies in the E.T. re-release, but had he foregone them in the first place, it would probably be cited as an example of the film’s child-friendly point of view.) In the fourth, the boys rig up a torpedo and explode the villain’s getaway boat, sanguine about the prospect of amassing a body count (the bad guys jump ship at the last moment). Elsewhere there are references to people being poisoned to death, and at one point a terrorist opens fire with a machine gun into a crowd. Perhaps most egregiously, the boys’ cool credentials are established with their singing a version of “On Top Of Old Smokey,” replacing the next lines with:

All covered in blood

I shot my poor teacher

With a .44 slug

The films were made well before the most high-profile school shootings of the ’90s, but c’mon.

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So who are these monsters anyway? When we first meet the three brothers, it’s toward the end of their summer vacation, which they spent, as per usual, doing ninja training under the tutelage of their Grandpa (Victor Wong, the only actor to appear in all four films). To honor their ninja abilities, Grandpa bestows ninja names on them, reflecting their strongest ninja quality. There’s Rocky (played by Michael Treanor, Sean Fox, Treanor again, and Mathew Botuchis), named for his strength; the quick-footed Colt (Max Elliott Slade for the first three, then Michael O’Laskey II), named for “the spirit of the young, wild horse”; and Tum-Tum (Chad Power, J. Evan Bonifant, Power again, and James Paul Roeske II), who will “eat anything.” (Tum-Tum isn’t offended by this name.)

Their training involves a lot of kicking flower pots apart, carrying buckets of water, and learning where the body’s natural pain centers are (introducing one of the series’ biggest themes: nut shots). These training sequences appear and are expanded in every film; by the fourth, Grandpa is literally operating a multi-story training facility housed in an old warehouse.

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In their final test of their summer training, the three attempt to ambush their grandfather by jumping out of trees and throwing ninja stars at him, though he backflips away and disappears in the puff of a smoke bomb. Here’s another series motif: action choreography that is seriously hampered by the limited stunt abilities of both the kids and Wong, who at one point seems arthritic doing the Bruce Lee come-hither fingers, but then busts out amazing acrobats thanks to his obvious stunt double tagging in. By far the most exciting action in the films features none of the main characters, allowing trained adults to flip and fight without limitations.

In addition to the training, Grandpa also reveals such bits of ninja wisdom as “never attack unless you’re going to win” and “never use your power on anyone weaker than yourself,” which frankly seem to contradict each other. Elsewhere, he will rhapsodize on the virtue of modesty and doing good for its own sake, rather than for the sake of being acknowledged as a hero (but make no mistake: having people cheer the boys on and acknowledge them as saviors is the point of the films).

Meanwhile, the boys’ FBI agent dad attempts to apprehend an international arms dealer named Snyder (Rand Kingsley), introduced in full Miami Vice white smashing missile crates open with an elbow. He escapes, which causes some problems on the home front—this is one of those movies where there’s family tension because dad is spending less time at home than the office, where he’s off stopping international arms dealers.

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Eventually, the boys’ ninja training will be put to the test against Snyder and his minions, but the film is oddly confused on why exactly he’s the bad guy (outside of his enjoyment of the role; he literally says, “God, I love being the bad guy” at one point). The simple explanation is that he’s seeking revenge on his nemesis with a kidnapping plot, only to learn he’s picked the wrong kids to mess with. However, we also learn that he’s Grandpa’s estranged business partner (the actual business is murky) and former pupil (a dynamic ripped and tweaked from TMNT’s Shredder and Splinter). By the end, his motive is for Grandpa to train his ninja army—dad is essentially forgotten. That is, at least until the action is over and he tells his partner, “You better collect the evidence yourself, I’ve got a family full of heroes to take out for pizza,” the kind of line that sounds uncannily like a Troy McClure clip. (Ditto their mother’s big line: “If you think being a ninja is hard, try being a mom.”)

The climax is the third big action sequence of the film. The first comes when Snyder attempts to ambush the family at Grandpa’s cabin—no one is surprised that a fight with ninjas breaks out immediately after the conclusion of ninja training, and the fact that the kids were involved in a dangerous scuffle is immediately dropped as a conversation topic. The second is the film’s Home Alone booby-trap-the-house sequence, and it actually holds up, favoring stealth and strategy over endless kicking and shouting (if you were to make a drinking game out of every time these films use the word hi-yah, you would die, even if you were drinking water). In moments like this, 3 Ninjas succeeds in depicting something that looks like a particularly cool kind of scouts troop.

The Wet Bandits here are a trio of stoner surfer dudes who are basically the ’90s incarnate. They’re introduced robbing a convenience store of its money and “radical salsa,” before getting the assignment to do an “excellent breaking and entering.” They bring a pizza to their ’napping, and declare, “first we feast, then we felony.” You know the pangs of terror you felt whenever Bill and Ted were onscreen? Director Jon Turteltaub (later to make the underrated National Treasure films) finally harnessed that raw danger.

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The film’s evil ninjas are more weird than scary (one suggestively licks his sword as an intimidation method), and also more generic. The stoners are a better kind of villain for this kind of movie, in that they certainly qualify as a threat, though they’re not so vicious that the tone is thrown off. (Again, outside of their holding a gun to a girl’s head.)

Such buffoonery was repeated in 3 Ninjas Kick Back, the first sequel, where the bad guys moonlight as a hair metal group. Once again they’re easier to read as comic relief than out-and-out bad guys, and in a way that suggests the filmmakers (Charles Kanganis directing this time) are bored and pitching stuff over the heads of the target audience. No only do they stowaway in an economy class bathroom while shadowing their target halfway around the world, which is silly enough, but they appear to steal tampons while they’re there.

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Following in the tradition of The Karate Kid Part II or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, Kick Back transports the action to Japan, though it views the culture as something to be laughed at instead of honored or understood. There are a lot of jokes about fractured English and incessant bowing, and the screenwriter doesn’t seem to realize there’s a time change between Asia and the U.S.

As with the first film, Kick Back has a bizarrely convoluted plot, involving a martial arts contest that Grandpa had won 50 years prior, which means he’s in possession of the trophy: a golden dagger that is a literal key to unlocking a massive treasure. As he attempts to return it to the next winner—this particular competition is held only twice a century, but it’s still small enough to fit in an underpopulated gym—his lifelong rival desperately attempts to steal it and claim the treasure for himself. Send in the boys.

The competition storyline eventually morphs into an Indiana Jones-style set piece, where the treasure is found in a cave that soon starts to collapse. Improbably, that’s not the climax of the film—the climax concerns whether the boys can make it home in time for a little league game. They do, and they win, using ninja training. (A theme of the film is whether Colt can learn to concentrate while aiming. That he ends up able to hit a baseball isn’t so impressive when in the previous scene he literally dismantles someone’s gun by throwing a bullet down its barrel.) The sports element is another repeat from the original, which has Colt and Rocky winning a pickup game of basketball thanks to their training, which allows a 10-year-old to dunk from the free throw line.

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Kick Back going from subplot to subplot illustrates the apathy that exists on every level of the filmmaking, from the screenplay to the fight choreography, issues that become even more pronounced in 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up. While the third film has a little more narrative coherence—involving corporate pollution on a Native American tribe’s land—it’s also lazy in a way that’s hard to look past. At one point the bad guy, in the middle of the courtroom trial, threatens a tribal leader in front of the judge, law enforcement, and so forth. Rather than this sealing his guilt, it’s just ignored.

Blasting these films for a lack of realism feels like a fool’s errand, and to be fair, plenty of kids have hero fantasies where they whoop the bully or win the big game. That the series depicts this literally and utterly (as opposed to with a wink, as in A Christmas Story) makes for a kind of integrity, though it also makes for some heavy duty eye rolls, as when two criminals beat up a girl in the middle of a crowded pizzeria and none of the adults intervene. Still, it would’ve been smarter if the films dealt with something nonviolent like jewel thieves, rather than terrorists, arms dealers, and lethal corporate malfeasance.

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It’s the combination of death and indifference—within the context of a children’s film—that makes these films so strange to watch with adult eyes. Despite the life-or-death issues in Knuckle Up, the film is nowhere near taking its stakes seriously. When the bad guys suffer a setback, the boss chews them out on the phone with a cartoon anger gibberish voice. Told to call up some mercenaries he knows, a subordinate attempts to dial on the car horn. (“No, the phone!” he’s told.) A jukebox alternates between classical and mariachi music during a fight, so the boys incorporate waltzing and zapateado in-between their moves. After a solemn ceremony, this happens.

This is as good a place as any to discuss the issue of race in the series, which reaches a nadir in the Knuckle Up scene depicting a Native man chained and beat up by two white guys. The middle films in particular are offensively stereotypical with their depictions of people of color, especially with the white savior theme of Knuckle Up (it’s too overt to call it a subtext). After one fight, a Native chief names the boys honorary tribal warriors—“even though you are not of our blood”—and muses, “It’s a shame we grown-ups didn’t have the wits or courage to do what you’ve done.” He adds, since this isn’t awkward enough, “thank you for giving us back our courage.”

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More generally, it’s frustrating to see what should’ve been a franchise for Asian-American kids get whitewashed for the suburbs. While Grandpa is a biological relative, there’s nothing in the films about their being multiracial, except for a throwaway line about the mother’s “Asian side.” Wong was clearly cast as a Mr. Miyagi substitute, down to the facial hair; no effort was made to make the relationship otherwise plausible.

At least the token girl in each movie gets to do a bit more than be a damsel. Caroline Junko King’s Miyo, in the second film, is as good a ninja as either Rocky or Colt (though she has to do dumb stuff like refer to a baseball bat as a baseball butt), while Knuckle Up’s Jo (Crystle Lightning) is feisty and independent. She also inspires one of the few genuine laughs in the series: whereas Rocky was adamant that Miyo and 3 Ninjas’ Emily (Kate Sargeant) weren’t love interests, when he teases Colt about kissing Jo, Colt replies that, yeah, they probably will, sparking pandemonium amongst his incredulous brothers.

There’s a definite camp element to the films, suggesting the filmmakers were trying to entertain themselves while suffering through assignments they couldn’t have cared less about. How else to explain the smash cut to a scene of the boys bathing their grandfather in a hot tub, who moans about “the sound of old bones creaking”?

Nowhere is this more true than 3 Ninjas: High Noon, the series finale, which is so over-the-top ridiculous that bad-movie clubs would have a blast getting hammered to it. The film starts with a generational conflict: mom and dad want the boys to “put Grandpa on the shelf with G.I. Joe and Buzz Lightyear,” and spend less time with their loving, elderly relative. Tum-Tum is obsessed with a He-Man/Power Rangers-type show that stars Hulk Hogan as Dave Dragon, but alas, the show is canceled. According to network research, “Kids don’t believe in heroes anymore.” (This is also why Heroes was canceled.) Distraught though he is, Tum-Tum is excited that Dragon will be appearing at the Mega Mountain amusement park on the same day as his birthday celebration. Unfortunately, this is the same day that the park is taken over by a terrorist group led by Jim Varney as a low-rent Vincent Price type, and Loni Anderson, who vamps around in fetish gear.

The terrorist plot is awesomely insane. In order to avoid detection going into the park, the bad guys use a fleet of underwater jet skis and wear disguises (a reggae guy, a hayseed in overalls, a nun with a dominatrix uniform under her habit—truly, they disappear into a crowd)—but then open fire on civilians and the police immediately, while showing their faces to the security cameras and using their own names. If you’re going to be that overt, why not just buy tickets?

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Intentionally or not, the film eventually becomes a parody of the Die Hard On An X genre. You know the cliché about a bomb getting defused at the last moment? Here the boys (and token girl, played by Lindsay Felton) try to defuse a bomb with a portable computer but can’t because the battery is dying. And when they find an outlet, “it’s no good! We need a three-prong!” So they build a torpedo and blow it up at sea. At the victory celebration, someone remembers Tum-Tum’s birthday and a huge cake materializes out of nowhere. You can see why people would start believing in heroes again.

Throughout, director Sean McNamara nods to what was hip entertainment at the time, which feels like a secret pop-culture handshake rather than outright stealing. There’s a sniveling assistant named Smithers, and a “master of your domain” reference. When a bad guy tries to intimidate with the line, “one ninja stew coming up,” Hogan punches him and declares: “No stew for you!” The incredible silliness doesn’t quite erase the bad taste of this kid’s movie featuring an implied dozen civilian casualties, but it helps.

Final Ranking:

1. 3 Ninjas: High Noon At Ninja Mountain (1998)
2. 3 Ninjas (1992)
3. 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up (1995)
4. 3 Ninjas Kick Back (1994)

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