Beverly Hills Ninja should not work as well as it does. Twenty-five years have passed since it was released in theaters on January 17, 1997, but the film still holds up well as a goofy, big-hearted piece of cinematic fluff packed with enough nonsense and goofy hijinks to tickle all but the most cynical funny bones.
It helps to have Chris Farley as your star, especially when dealing with a rather pedestrian script and a supporting cast that — save for Robin Shou and Chris Rock — offers no immediate support. Farley carried the meager $18 million production on his back like a champ, often relying more on pratfalls than cleverness, and somehow it all works.
Beverly Hills Ninja was Farley’s last high-profile release before his tragic death in December that same year and stands as the lone film in his oeuvre marketed on his name alone. While he would go on to star in Almost Heroes (alongside Matthew Perry) and cameo in Bob Saget’s Dirty Work (with Norm MacDonald) — both released after his death — Beverly Hills Ninja remains the last truly worthwhile Chris Farley film.
At the time, critics stuck up their noses at the film, while audiences mostly stayed away resulting in a modest $31.5 million box office haul. Too bad.
While Beverly Hills Ninja lacks the one-two punch of Farley’s superior offerings, Tommy Boy and Black Sheep, the comedy still features plenty of hilarity within its relatively brief 88-minute runtime to make it worthwhile, if only to fans of the late actor.
To start, the opening montage has Farley’s ninja-in-training character, Haru, attempting to keep up with his fellow mate Gobei. At one point he ends up accidentally hanging himself with a rope-like contraption in a scene that completely caught me off guard the first time I saw it … and left me in stitches. No, really. The opening scene of Beverly Hills Ninja killed me.
Later, Haru attempts to practice by himself and ends up smashing a bunch of mirrors and surprises himself by successfully tossing a throwing star. The thing about Farley’s brand of humor is that he could make even the most purposeful acts of chaos appear accidental. I imagine working with a guy like him, a director would need only shout, “Action!” and then wait to see the hilarity unfold.
Beverly Hills Ninja also features Chris Rock in a supporting role as a hotel worker in need of some ninja lessons. Haru obliges, but nearly skewers Gobei (who is shadowing his fellow ninja warrior if only to offer protection). Farley and Rock play off each other rather well, with the latter’s genuine amazement complimented by the former’s constant bewilderment at his own actions.
There’s also a series of “Plane of Enlightenment” sequences in which Haru communicates with his master via an out-of-body experience. Each bit escalates in terms of its insanity until Haru is quite literally being flung through windows. It’s stupid, but also pretty great.
Finally, late in the film, Haru attempts to “guide” Chris Rock to the villains’ lair whilst wearing a blindfold. The duo winds up on a horse track and eventually through a car wash. Naturally, Haru loses his mind and attempts to fight what he believes are sea creatures.
Look, Beverly Hills Ninja isn’t high art. Its goofy fun is achieved via a shotgun-style approach, which means not all of it works. At times, the jokes get a little redundant and even slightly obnoxious, but that’s Chris Farley in a nutshell. You either love the guy or you don’t.
At any rate, Beverly Hills Ninja offers a small sample size of his extraordinary talent. After all these years, it remains perhaps the purest Chris Farley comedy ever made — it’s too bad we never got to see more.