A movie may play many roles – entertainer, muse, provocateur… and babysitter. Ever since the days of dropping Little Johnny off at the matinee while Mom jitterbugs, all the way through tossing an iPad to Aiden so Dad can focus on writing free content for the Internet, the movies have been called on as surrogates for parents on the go. Our last foray into the world of 90s children’s movies dealt with finding mentorship in the absence of parents. 1992 knew the high stakes involved when it came to self-defense. How will our young men learn to punch when Dad isn’t there to put up his palms? Without proper instruction, how will our children discover what intersection of their enemy’s limbs might be most vulnerable?
In Sidekicks, Barry (Jonathan Brandis) is one such at-risk youth. Mom died of backstory disease ten years ago. Dad (Beau Bridges) is trying his best but he’s no Jeff Bridges. Plus, Barry is a hopeless case. He has really bad asthma that flares up whenever things get stressful or startling, like there’s a pufferfish in his windpipe, and requires him to suck on an inhaler the size of a train whistle. Breathing is Barry’s weakness, and unluckily many of his goals require it.
Worse, he appears to have undiagnosed schizophrenia. Barry gets caught daydreaming in class because he’s narrating it out loud. These daydreams are populated with people from his waking life. His single, pretty teacher Miss Chan (Julia Nickson) becomes a damsel in distress. His enemies become larger-than-life villains, like his arrogant ex-karate instructor Stone, played by an unrestrained Joe Piscopo.
Piscopo is given junk to work with and makes the most of it, meaning he takes each junk line and overplays it to maximum dreadfulness. When Barry battles plans by a nefarious Piscapo, such as his Joker-like scheme to taint candy with toxic waste and acid rain, he always imagines he’s accompanying his hero and subject of a tattered magazine he totes around: Chuck Norris, noted thespian of the previous decade and older brother of Sidekicks director Aaron Norris. Maybe the most damning evidence of Barry’s fragile mental health is the way he casts himself as second banana to the least charismatic member of a group of 90s action stars that included Steven Seagal.
Barry often slips into these fantasies after seeing Chuck Norris out the window dangling from a helicopter or doing chin-ups on a rooftop next to him or other unexpected places. What’s different about this daydreaming and a psychotic episode is something only a trained psychologist could diagnose. So naturally Dad takes him to see the needed specialist – a karate instructor/Chinese restaurant owner Mr. Lee (Mako), who’s also the uncle of the single, pretty Miss Chan, whom Dad can entertain while Lee throws dumplings at Barry.
Despite regular interruptions by Viet Nam missions or Old West saloon fights, Sidekicks is a lackluster, sleep-inducing movie with no real motivation to its episodic structure. Like Richard Linklater wrote the script to Last Action Hero but let the child actor direct. Eventually – inevitably – we’re introduced to a bully. It turns out Barry’s bully also knows karate and kicks Barry’s ass with it! It’s a schoolyard schmo who can back up his taunts, have to respect it. 100 minutes into the movie we’re finally given further reason for the four (four!) training montages administered by Mr. Lee: a karate tournament and an opportunity to best his tormentor.
The karate tournament finale strives to avoid comparisons to The Karate Kid by involving not just combat but also contests of synchronized movement and breaking the most bricks using only track #14 from The Complete Sound FX Library Disc 08: Crashes and Impacts. You remember the tedium of friends who make you watch video of their entire martial arts competitions? You don’t because you’ve long ago lost the contact information for these people. Kids are not particularly discerning viewers as we’ve seen time and again, but they don’t need to internalize Robert McKee to sense a story wasting time, so some messages will likely get lost in this final half-hour stretch.
Because the important thing isn’t the outcome (Barry wins, natch) but that Barry will find a mentor to believe in him along the way. Competition teams need four members, leaving Barry, Miss Chan and Lee scrambling. They find a fourth in none other than the tournament’s sponsor The Real Chuck Norris. TRCN is a noble hero but not above beating down amateur competition as a favor to a kid he met an hour earlier. This is also a better format for what passes as his persona than most of his movies. International conflicts are nuanced and complicated situations, but people everywhere can get behind punching Joe Piscopo into submission.
Norris is in the perfect position to mentor Barry, but when it comes time for the all-important final confrontation, he’s gone. It turns out faithful Mr. Lee was the true mentor all along. (None of this is the intended statement of the scene, which never mentions that Norris is suddenly absent for remainder of the tournament.) That said, Mr. Lee is an insane mentor. His first lesson to Barry happens in his restaurant when a biker gang gets comfortable, menaces Dad and Miss Chan and threatens to wreck the place (another issue: Barry’s fantasy life is not that much wilder than his reality). Mr. Lee misdirects the gang by pretending to be a drunk before launching a surprise attack on their weakest points (it’s the balls). Later at the tournament he repeats this misdirection trick on his new opponent, a pile of bricks. When Barry enters the stressful tiebreaker round, Lee helps by dousing Barry’s bricks with lighter fluid and setting them on fire. I don’t know if the tournament supplied the lighter fluid or if Lee carries it around with him for such purposes. But however it happens, igniting an object is a weird way to mitigate someone’s fear of it, unless maybe it’s a marijuana joint.
If you need a movie where the white adults are still unhelpful and boring, but not famous enough to challenge the mentor role of an old Asian character actor, you’ll want 3 Ninjas. Sidekicks wanted to be The Karate Kid, an actual young person’s movie, but ironically 3 Ninjas found success while mixing in a Cannon Films villain from Chuck Norris movies. The surprise box office success of 3 Ninjas launched a four-film franchise and was possibly responsible for more domestic testicular trauma than all ninety seasons of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Plus it has guns.
Three brothers spend their summers in training montages with their grandfather Mori (the legendary Victor Wong) to become – and this is the really cool part -ninjas. They train with katanas, scythes, throwing stars, bo staffs, all the stuff mutated turtles and kids of the 90s dreamed of handling. The boys test their skills by attempting to assassinate their grandfather who dotes on them by not running them over with his car when he has the opportunity. They have the sunny rapport I remember from summers with my own grandfather, though he absolutely would have run me over if it taught me a lesson.
Mori’s former dojo partner Snyder (Rand Kingsley) is an arms dealer, selling crates of mortars and machine guns to the highest bidders and promising to rip out peoples’ organs. The young brothers’ father is always too busy for them because he’s putting in overtime at the FBI trying to track and arrest Snyder (small world). When these three dots connect, it’s up to the brothers to use their ninja training to save the day.
As was the style of the time (and, embarrassingly, most times in American movie history) anything to do with the customs and peoples of Asia in these movies is mashed together indiscriminately. Mori is a ninja master, despite him being played by a famously Chinese actor, and grandfather to the brothers, despite them being played by three little honkies. Their mother, Mexican-American actor Margarita Franco, refers to her “Asian side” to show somebody’s paying attention, but most all other parts for Asian actors are reserved for henchmen and nonverbal baddies. Knowing anything about martial arts styles further dilutes things, especially as the movie throws around the word “ninja” like it has the flexibility of the f-word. (Mori: “In Snyder’s heart, he’s still a ninja. It’ll take a ninja to break him!” Dad: “We don’t have time for ninja games.”)*
That said, the movie contains some good action scenes, frankly better than a lot of action sequences of any movie type. The director is Jon Turteltaub and while his contributions to the cinematic arts aren’t exactly Sight & Sound material (The Meg, the National Treasure movies), it’s not surprising that he has more recognizable titles under his name than the usual auteur designated for kid duty (in fairness to Aaron Norris, he is credited on several more Chuck Norris movies). When Snyder’s goons arrive for bad guy reasons, the boys and Grandpa Mori(‘s stunt double) fight them off. The skirmish is well-executed with some influence from the creative Hong Kong choreography that wouldn’t be reaching mainstream consciousness in the U.S. for another few years. There’s even fairly lengthy takes with hits landing without the aid of cuts. The young actors are believably performing the kicks and punches and their opposing stuntmen get to flail and perform over-the-top falls.
(Make sure to stop watching that link after the punching is done)
Unfortunately, most of the movie isn’t Jackie Chan, Jr. but the usual kid movie bullshit. Bullies arrive, like they do, to steal a bike. The boys must defeat them in basketball and, as with Teen Wolfdom, ninja powers grant impossible basketball skills and dominion over gravity as long as you’re only visible from the waist up. In an even more dreadful development, the long, grotesque hand of the 90s Kid Movie ur-text reaches the heart of 3 Ninjas and rips it out, just like Snyder would purport to do if he could get his hands on somebody displeasing him.
At some point we may need to go back and dissect Home Alone, ground zero for every Kids Rule rally held throughout the following decade. But for today, all you need to remember is that Home Alone is a sluggish 90-minute movie about a hateful family neglecting their son followed by a hilarious 30-minute movie about a kid maiming two burglars in creative ways. The second movie was shown in its entirety every ten minutes on television throughout 1990 but Home Alone still became a massive box office phenomenon because TVs were only in standard definition, and everybody just had to see which brand’s paint can hit Daniel Stern in the face. The amusement provided by the original Home Alone does not begin to make up for the damage done to movies over the next several years, as booby-trapping grown-ups became the default move of youth-oriented movies the way twist parties had taken over a couple generations before (both beat the trend of the New Hollywood generation between, where kids took an adult paramour before getting shot off their motorcycles for expressing ambivalence about ‘Nam).
The 3 Ninjas version of the Wet Bandits is a trio of sub-Keanu surfer dude-talking nitwits sent by Snyder to kidnap the boys. The brothers decide against calling the authorities and instead want to prove themselves to their absent father by taking on the bad guys themselves. The kids use some very non-ninja moves, like pouring cooking oil on the floor, throwing CDs, and pouring laxative in a Coke. In contrast to the earlier fight scenes, this one looks pretty much how my ten-year-old friends and I would have choreographed it for our parents’ shoulder-mounted camcorders. Turteltaub shows none of the competence or imagination of the straightforward fight sequences and just delivers the close-ups of the most painful hits (they’re to the balls).
Finally, we’re back to fighting masked stuntmen. The boys have to escape Snyder’s cargo ship o’ weapons past a legion of minions who require nunchuks improvised out of wrenches, a bottle of canola isn’t going to cut it here. They finally get to use the advanced ninja techniques Grandpa taught them, ancient knowledge of the secret pain points on the human body (e.g., the balls). They reunite with Grandpa Mori who gets the overconfident Snyder to agree to let the boys go if Mori can best him in a fight. It’s a toughie, but Mori swipes a move from his grandsons and force feeds Snyder jellybeans at a crucial moment. This gives him enough leverage to pull out the come-from-behind victory. Go Grandpa!
Except Grandpa Mori forgot that Snyder has a gun and is an asshole! Turns out he’s not taking his promise to let them all go seriously; he will instead murder them in cold blood. Luckily, Dad arrives with the feds at the last minute to shoot him and learn a lesson about being present for his kids (so he can shoot people for them). Dad resists the temptation to go back to work again and instead tells his partner to collect the evidence his own self, then takes his family for pizza. Leaving the scene of an FBI raid before your duty is done is a peculiar moment to suddenly decide to be a good dad, but it’s alarmingly consistent with other 90s kids movies where the education doesn’t seep in until someone gets shot.
Sidekicks has no such final gunplay to wake its audience up, just a last moment on a bench at sunset between idol and kid with newfound confidence. Chuck Norris dispenses some advice and then apparently vanishes into thin air leaving behind only Barry’s rumpled and worn Chuck Norris magazine. This time Chuck’s disappearance is acknowledged by the film, like they planned it to happen, and implies that perhaps Chuck Norris is always a dream even in real life, and that maybe Barry has been jacking it to his image in a magazine. In any event, Barry leaves the magazine behind for another lost soul and exits the movie with his father.
There’s no substitute for dads after all the very good substitutes for dads have disapparated, been taken to the hospital, or evinced pyromania. The credits roll, the FBI gives one last warning about piracy, and the tape beeps and stops. The surrogate’s shift is up, time to find your real parents again. They may not be the worthiest mentors, they almost certainly aren’t the most magical ones. But if we’re lucky, they’re there. And if not, we can hit rewind.
* Sidekicks has Piscopo in yellowface so try as it might, 3 Ninjas can’t crawl under the standard of its competition.
– The Credit Where Due Awards! Jonathan Brandis gets the lone genuine laugh of Sidekicks with an “I know, right?” look at Norris as Barry pulls out a rocket launcher. I gave plenty of credit to the fight choreography in 3 Ninjas, the humor is not so praiseworthy, although there is some occasional solid physical comedy.
– A further note on violence: 3 Ninjas had a tough time squeezing its violence into the then still-profitable PG-rating. Disney picked it up for distribution but punted the film to the more mature-minded Touchstone label. Streaming has mixed up the theatrical, home video, TV and international versions, but in general the wide American releases do the most to tone down the number of gunshots and sprinkle in more “boing!” sound effects. It’s still a movie that makes a poop joke while a gun is pointed at a young girl’s head and a child kicks a grown man down a flight of stairs. But the European version has these things and an alternate ending where one of the brothers beats the shit out of the bully leader in the street so… American innocence saved.