A lot of barrels were being scraped by the end of the 1980s. Booms became busts and all the crazy franchises exhausted themselves, ready for a new, less flamboyant decade to take over. The ninja boom was no exception. Ideas ran dry as quickly as the market for them and the sun was setting on the shadow warrior. Meanwhile, over on a different cinematic spectrum, the once successful Police Academy franchise was similarly burning itself out through a series of crappy sequels and even worse low-budget clone movies that transposed the “Academy” setting into various improbable careers. The template was simple; get a bunch of useless misfit underdogs, put them into training for something, have them overcome their deficiencies and pit them against some not-that-competent-all-along enemy they can defeat at the end. It was only a matter of time before Ninja Academy (1989) happened…
Surprisingly, it’s directed by Niko Mastorakis, whom trash fanatics will recognise for his astonishing debut film – the celebration of the perverse that is Island of Death (1976). He brings none of that energy or strangeness here though. Looking at his late 80s output, one can only assume he was a jobbing director for hire by this stage, taking anything that came his way without prejudice and providing a competent, if unenthusiastic, service. Gerald Okamura, whom ninjologists will recognise as one of the Ninjutsu trainers in The Octagon, is the only other name of note here. Everyone else is fished out of the late 80s Hollywood B-movie soup and none get chance to shine here.
Okamura runs the eponymous academy and his new recruits are a real bunch of goons. There’s a rich layabout from Beverly Hills whose dad cuts off his allowance until he learns some real skills (ie: martial arts). There’s a girl who wants to impress a dude she sees on the beach doing Tai Chi. There’s an ultra-clumsy bespectacled nerd with a permanent Walkman attachment, who seeks to improve his co-ordination. There’s a trigger-happy British spy (“Agent 00711”) whose boss thinks will shoot fewer people if he learns martial arts. There’s a crazy survival nut who wants to teach the Ayatollah a lesson (yep, this was the 80s, alright). There’s even a mime artist (!) who’s sick of being bullied and wants revenge.
This probably makes it sound sillier and funnier than it actually is. The characters are outlandish enough but the situations they’re put into are dull, slow and painful to watch. The first fifty minutes of the film is taken up with lacklustre training sequences, devoid of anything even remotely resembling a joke (unless you find, say, someone being covered with paintballs hilarious). The dialogue is horrible – it almost sounds like it’s improvised, it’s so unstructured. Characters just banter aimlessly with each other and then go for a run. And another run. And another run.
Eventually it’s revealed that Okamura has a rivalry with a paunchy middle-aged white dude (possibly a dig at Franco Nero in Enter The Ninja although I’m not sure the makers of this film have spent enough time watching any actual ninja films for this to be true?) who runs another local ninja academy. There was a fight many years ago over a pair of golden nunchaku and Okamura won so the paunchy dude wants revenge. Deadly revenge. Cue Okamura’s misfits banding together to defeat the evil ninjas and save the day.
This plot’s fine in itself but so minimal you need jokes and/or action to keep it going. We’ve established a lack of the former but, sad to say there are also no martial arts of any worth here either. The punches and kicks don’t even come close to connecting (again, could be intentional parody but if it is, it’s not funny so I’m going to chalk it up to incompetence?). There are no stunts to speak of and when you compare it to the kind of high-octane, laugh-a-minute martial arts comedy that was coming out Hong Kong at time (think Sammo Hung), it’s shamefully amateur.
It’s good-natured enough, reasonably well shot and quite gentle, so it feels mean to give it such a tearing apart but I feel genuinely exhausted from watching it. To give you an idea of how poor the pacing is, there is a 10+ minute dream sequence in which every single one of the main characters has a dream… AND THEY’RE ALL THE SAME. Just them fantasising about kissing one of the others. It’s such a limp half-joke anyway and feels like it goes on forever. Even as a lover of ninjas, B-movies, spoofs and goofball comedy, I couldn’t hack this. Ninja Academy is the opposite of funny. It’s not just that you don’t laugh; it’s like it somehow sucks all laughter from your soul and makes you wonder if you’ll ever be able to laugh again, if anything has ever truly been funny or will be funny again. I’m worried there’s now just a void where my sense of humour used to be.