Being a quarter-Chinese man, I know a lot less about anti-Asian racism than a lot of people. But being a guy who passes for and codes as white, I know way more than I care to. It’s not just that people will say the most unbelievably bigoted things to you if you don’t happen to have a bright neon copy of your mother’s green card pinned to your sleeve, it’s that sometimes people just start at a low-key form of belittling Asian people as their standard of behavior—as if every time you turned on your TV, it was somehow already showing Team America: World Police.
Beverly Hills Ninja was one of the last films Chris Farley made before he died in 1997, and if you remember much about when it happened, you’ll recall his co-stars saying that we’d lost somebody special. (The Red Hot Chili Peppers commemorated him in Californication, the most late ’90s of late ’90s albums, when they wrote in their song “Purple Stain” that “Farley is an angel and I can prove this.”) It’s a movie that, if you squint, you can see the start of a few good, subversive ideas. As it is, I think its insensitivity is well-intentioned.
Farley was compared (a lot) to John Belushi, another self-deprecating jester whose star rose quickly before an untimely death. As one of Farley’s most popular movies turns 25, I think it suggests something of what the man might have grown into if he hadn’t died. It also—I feel it is important to stress—features Robin Shou in drag as he beats the crap out of yakuza in a hibachi restaurant. To get to this sequence, you need to watch a deeply problematic scene where Farley stops just short of yellowface:
There’s a part in a Ninja Gaiden videogame where the player discovers a ramshackle window covering that seems aimed at preventing somebody from infiltrating a building. The text that displays when the player inspects it asks, incredulously, “Are they trying to make fun of ninjas?”
Beverly Hills Ninja is not trying to make fun of ninjas. It is trying to make fun of Haru (Farley), a foundling washed ashore near a secluded ninja clan so secret that a white lady just kind of walks into it to ask for help. Haru grows up alongside his adopted brother, fellow ninja Gobei (Shou, who shares the title of Mortal Kombat champion with his majestic hair). In his coming-of-age montage, it is clear that whatever a ninja may need, Haru does not have it: It is Gobei’s thankless task to take thwacks to the noggin, over and over, as the two train to become shinobi.
As Haru reflects on his failure to graduate from ninja school, a beautiful blonde woman calling herself Sally (Nicolette Sheridan) just, uh, shows up, asking for the clan’s help in proving that her boyfriend is a criminal. Farley bumbles about a bit, breaking about half the clan’s precious heirlooms before promising that he’ll fulfill her request.
He actually manages to spy on the bad guy, Tanley (Nathaniel Parker), whose plan is to steal printing plates that will allow him to create tons of counterfeit money. When he executes an underling for incompetence, Haru is spotted with the body and gets the murder pinned on him (something that happens more than once in this movie). The ninja clan’s stern master (Soon-Tek Oh) decides that he will allow Haru to journey to the faraway land known as the Hills of Beverly to bring Tanley to justice. Unbeknownst to Haru, though, his brother Gobei is tasked with shadowing him. This is where most of the comedy stems from, because Robin Shou is a completely dedicated ninja master, somehow able to be in any closet, car trunk or disguise he needs to be in order not to break line of sight with his poor brother. Some of the camo Gobei dons is truly impressive.
The movie doesn’t go much deeper than that, but it does seem as if it is maybe, kinda trying to skewer the Mighty Whitey trope of a precious white man taking to the ways of a foreign populace and magically being destined to become, for instance, better at being a desert-dweller than the desert-dwellers and better at being a woman than the women. The ninja clan, you see, has a prophecy about “the Great White Ninja,” who will become “a ninja like none other.” Which Farley is: He’s a ninja who, unlike others, is not a very good ninja.
On the journey to discovering that, Farley dresses up as a hibachi chef, traffics in some stereotypes, engages in the kind of clueless Eastern mysticism you can find at American strip mall businesses and keeps leaving his shoes outside the hotel lobby.
The thing about Beverly Hills Ninja is that it is too focused on Farley when it needs to spend more of its time with Shou, who, in addition to being a bad enough dude to portray Liu Kang in the good Mortal Kombat, has also repeatedly shown that he’s perfectly capable of doing comedy. The entire conceit of Gobei following a bumbling white guy around and capably cleaning up his stupid messes is funny, but it stops just short of actually making Shou’s character the hero.
There’s something, somewhere, to be said about a white guy who co-opts ninja bullshit in pursuit of being a hero: Especially in 1997, when enough time had passed from the ninja craze of the ’80s that you could’ve made that kind of a comedy. Beverly Hills Ninja is unfortunately not that movie, content instead to focus on Farley doing pratfalls and mugging. The best thing that can be said for it, and the thing that makes it less insensitive than a lot of other movies that are one or two plot points away from playing this same exact premise straight, is that Farley and director Dennis Dugan and everybody in the film know that Haru is a joke and we’re here to laugh at him, not at his Asian costars.
That pretty much encapsulates Farley as a performer: The willingness and even insistence on being the butt of every joke, every time. And in Beverly Hills Ninja, that’s more than a little dark, like everything that Farley did.
Kenneth Lowe is fat, he’s a fool, and he’s an embarrassment to ninjas everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.