Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #35: Surf Ninjas (1993)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career-sustaining column where I give YOU, the big-hearted, devastatingly sexy, undeniably wise, immune to false flattery Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a film I must see and then write about out in exchange for a one-time pledge of one hundred dollars to the site’s Patreon account.
The column has been a game changer for the site and my perpetually fragile finances. So I try to go out of my way to generate interest in it. To that end, I offered a sale over Christmas break where a patron could pay me to write about a movie for a friend, or loved one, or stranger, or secret crush, or secret Santa, or someone who is secretly Banksy (I really left it wide open) in exchange for a sixty-five dollar pledge.
Only one patron was bold enough to take me up on this option. George Booker choose to gift an article about the Peabody and Nobel Prize-winning winning 1993 Surf Ninjas, which famously swept the Oscars not just in 1994 but for the next five years as well, to Ernie Smith.
So Ernie, this one is for you. I’m pleased to say that I have a bit of a backlog of Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 options, so I choose which film I will cover next through a rigorously unscientific method that prominently involves my inner 17-year-old. In this case, I asked the teenaged Blockbuster clerk inside whether he’d prefer to see Tarkovsky’s The Mirror or the motion picture Surf Ninjas. He thought long and hard before responding, “How about Surf Ninjas? That looks a little lighter.”
Let me tell you, brother, when your life is as filled with woe and sorrow as mine is, with the anguished cries of orphans and widows and the howling demons of my own madness you look for levity wherever you can find it. Surf Ninjas, as its name perhaps suggests, is a delightfully breezy endeavor, a winningly stupid little trifle. Watching it actually made me dumber, and I didn’t mind a bit.
Surf Ninjas was the product of a ninja boom in the 1990s prompted by the blockbuster success of the 1990 motion picture Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its similarly successful, beloved television sibling.
Cynical grown ups were randomly smashing kid-friendly words and conceits together in an attempt to recreate the curious alchemy of TMNT in movie and particularly cartoon and comic book form. Try it, it’s fun! Hamster Cowboy Rodeo Clowns from Mars! Kick-Boxing Rabbit Samurai Warriors! Beverly Hills Alien Skateboarders! Rock and Roll Ghost Mummies from Mars! Republican Dope-Smoking Monkey Assassins! Surf Ninjas!
Then there were the ninja movies. 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninjas Turtles and its two sequels. 1992’s 3 Ninjas. 1993’s Surf Ninjas. 1997’s Beverly Hills Ninja. Kids love ninjas. They always have but sometimes the industry forgets and neglects to pander shamelessly to kid’s ninja love, leading to cycles of booms and busts.
Surf Ninjas at least comes by its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles connection honestly. The movie is a vehicle for Ernie Reyes Jr., a second-generation martial artist, stuntman and actor who worked on the first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, first as Donatello’s stunt double and then as an actor in the second film.
Reyes Jr. stars here as Johnny, a surfing-obsessed California fifteen year old living the sweet life with his brother in California with their white adopted father.
At school, Johnny is a rapscallion leading a feckless existence devoted to surfing and good vibes. He’s not much of a scholar, to put it mildly, and seems like a bit of a ne’er do well. Yet the Principal of his school nevertheless gives him the stressful and important job of putting on a performance to welcome an Eastern spiritual leader named the Baba Ram on par with the Dalai Lama.
Even more unrealistically, the Principal gives this surf-addled goober complete creative freedom, to the point that he didn’t even bother asking Johnny anything about his welcoming performance. I don’t want to suggest that Surf Ninjas is lacking verisimilitude, but I find it hard to believe that an uptight Principal who seems offended by Johnny’s whole existence would give him that level of responsibility with no oversight or due diligence.
As the insufficiently worried Principal tells Johnny, “Let me put this in your language, “Dude.” This might be a pretty “groovy” scene for you, but I take it pretty seriously. Are you prepared?”
The Principal stumblingly introduces Johnny’s performance with the exquisitely over-wordy, “An Asian American student has been persuaded to volunteer and prepare a welcoming presentation, which, I have been assured, is in the traditional ethnic style.”
Johnny and a group of robed performers he somehow managed to rope into doing an act with him in a mere matter of minutes start off in a seemingly respectful, traditionally ethnic chanting monks style before segueing giddily into a giddy Beach Boys parody crooning the Baba Ram’s name to the tune of the Beach Boys’ decidedly secular “Barbara Ann.”
The spiritual leader is horrified, or is he delighted? I similarly couldn’t quite determine whether I was insulted by the stupidity of this sequence or delighted by its convoluted mindlessness. Was I laughing at Surf Ninjas or with it? Does it really matter? I found myself laughing during Surf Ninjas more than once and was so pleasantly surprised that I didn’t care if it was at the movie’s expense or with it.
Johnny and his younger brother Adam (Nicholas Cowan) are all about playing video games and chasing waves. So when Zatch (Ernie Reyes Sr.), an eye-patch-wearing figure of mystery pops up out of nowhere to tell them they’re secretly Princes of an eastern country named Patusan they blow him off until their house blows up and are forced to realize their destiny leading a rebellion in Patusan against the evil Colonel Chi (Leslie Nielsen, bumbling).
Not unlike the Upgrade dude in that kick-ass movie Upgrade, Johnny is shocked to discover that without any training in martial arts he is an almost preternaturally gifted warrior-ruler with skills that are not quite ninja level, per se, but fuck it, they’re not going to make a movie called Surf Guy Who Is Very Good at Martial Arts But Maybe Not On a Ninja Level.
Joining the brothers and Zatch on the trip to Patusan to realize their totally bitching destiny are Tone Loc as a raspy voiced cop and a very young Rob Schneider in his weird 1990s capacity as the action filmmaker’s deadpan comic sidekick of choice.
Before his obnoxious public persona as the kind of awful, entitled Republican who lectures John Lewis on the legacy of Martin Luther King made it impossible to enjoy him on any level, Rob Schneider was a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. My favorite iteration of the diminutive Saturday Night Live cut-up was the inexplicable comic sidekick in 1990s action movies. I love that at least three times in the 1990s producers for movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone and Ernie Reyes Jr. decided that what their action movies needed was the “Makin’ copies” from SNL wandering through the frame cracking wise.
Looking weirdly like a young Eminem, Schneider seems to be in a different movie than everyone else. In a weirdly conceptual running gag for a movie aimed squarely at stupid children, Schneider’s Eddie Haskell-like tag-along thinks that because he wondered aloud if two things would happen and they did that he consequently can control fate just by saying the right words.
In a similarly oddball running joke seemingly much too weird and conceptual for a movie called Surf Ninjas, the little brother spends much of Surf Ninjas the movie playing Surf Ninjas the video game on his Sega Game Gear in a way that similarly leads him to believe that he has God-like powers and can control people and their movements through the video game, which incidentally happens to be the officially licensed Surf Ninjas tie-in game.
To make things even trippier, the video game tie-in for Surf Ninjas hit stores before the movie hit theaters for what I believe is the first time in film/video game history. So Surf Ninjas was in the strange position of having product placement for its own video-game adaptation. The movie/video game synthesis was so strong that Sega helped fund the movie. They got their money’s worth. You’d have to go back to The Wizard to find a video game movie that shilled so shamelessly for its corporate masters and their nifty new product.
At times Surf Ninjas suggests what Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays might feel like if he were a general idiot instead of a genius, if his scripts weren’t smart or good, but rather just weird.
Surf Ninjas ends with its titular warrior of the foamy surf addressing his adoring people just long enough to casually dissolve the monarchy and step down as ruler so he can devote himself to more teenager-friendly activities like finger-banging and doing mushrooms. And, of course, preparing for the SAT and chasing gnarly waves, albeit not at the same time!
Everyone seems super-cool and chill about a King and savior figure they all apparently worship abdicating his royal responsibilities and apparent destiny and autocratically deciding to change a country’s form of government. That’d be like someone saving the United States and being rewarded with the Presidency telling his public that he’s not only stepping down as President but also ending Democracy as our form of government and giving our country back to its people, whatever the hell that means, because it is their “destiny to be free.”
Homeboy peaces out, leaving his adoring subjects with the inspirational words, “For now my people, I’m out of here!”
I would like to see a postscript about how the vacuum left by the King’s absence led to a deadly three-way battle for control of Patusan between drug lords, human traffickers and a massive sex, drugs and death cult.
Instead it concludes with a shameless callback to its stupidest, and by extension, most delightful sequence: the bad-taste but exuberant performance of “Baba Ram” to the tune of “Barbara Ann.” Only this time it’s not our hero badly lip-syncing the lead vocals but rather the helium falsetto of Baba Ram, excited to be singing about himself I guess?
At the risk of compromising my status as as our culture’s preeminent public intellectual and aesthetic snob, I kinda dug Surf Ninjas. I was a seventeen year old Blockbuster Video clerk when it came out so it hit me right in the nostalgic sweet spot. I vividly remember the movie’s memorably awful videocassette box and watching this movie reconnected me to my long-ago youth, the happiest moments of which were spent working in a video store where I could mainline the art and schlock I adored.
Think of Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 as a very weird virtual video store where I, the over-achieving and over-worked owner, proprietor and sole clerk never have to rent anybody anything but am obligated to see and write about every last movie in the place, no matter how weird or dodgy it might look.
So far there are thirty-five movies in this weird Blockbuster of the imagination. By the time I stop, if I ever stop, I’d like for that number to stretch into the hundreds, if not thousands. Like My World of Flops, I see Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 as an enormous body of work within an even bigger body of work, and the fact that it represents a collaboration with readers makes it even more special and near to my heart.
I hope you enjoyed your article, Ernie Smith. You have a good friend and a weird friend and I hope you appreciate his oddball generosity. I know I do.
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