The Tragedy of ‘Beverly Hills Ninja’

My conflicted feelings regarding this stupid (and occasionally hilarious) Chris Farley film.

by Chris van Dijk
Beverly Hills Ninja

I’m probably writing this article prematurely. On my reading list, I have somewhere — beneath hundreds of other books I promised myself I would read one day — Kevin Farley’s supposedly touching memoir about his brother Chris, The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts. I’m sure that reading that book would give me greater insight into the departed comedian, and would increase the emotional resonance of this solemn retrospective of Beverly Hills Ninja, a film that is now officially 25 years old.

Yet I couldn’t help myself. Perhaps in the future, I will return to this article. But there are a few things I want to say and share about this maligned Chris Farley vehicle. The mixed feelings I have about it. How I can’t listen to “Tarzan Boy” without picturing Chris Farley swinging on a large palm tree. How I feel like there’s an undeniable sadness hidden beneath its silly appearance.

The First One

Beverly Hills Ninja was the first Chris Farley film I ever saw. As an impressionable child, I had seen the VHS cover — an overweight ninja doing the splits above a rising sun — many times while surveying rental stores. I wasn’t much of a reader back then, though I did read TV magazines religiously. This was before the age of IMDb. If you wanted to discover cinema, you had to do it via TV magazines. Every film received a short summary and a short review. The critical feedback for BHN was considerably negative. Only one star. I chanced it anyway.

It was hard for me to defy the wisdom of the TV magazine. If they told me a film was bad, it had to be so — critical thinking wasn’t my forte. Yet I had to admit, I liked this silly movie about the bumbling overweight ninja trying to prove his mettle against the criminal underworld of Beverly Hills, while also trying to gain the respect of his patrimonial sensei (Soon-Tek Oh) and far more talented brother (Robin Shou).

Even during the midst of my brooding teenage years, I had affection for this movie. It certainly wasn’t the best Farley I’d seen — the most obvious contender for that one was Tommy Boy — but it was impossible for me to dislike it.

I had heard about the untimely demise of Farley. Another cautionary tale of drug abuse. I remember thinking as a child that he seemed similar to John Belushi, not knowing their connection to SNL.

Live from New York

Most of the quotes in this article come straight from the book, Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, a collection of interviews from the cast, writers, producers, and staff of SNL. It details the show’s inception, its heyday, its lesser years, and how close it came to cancellation, till its 25th anniversary. It’s the definitive book for anyone interested in comedy history or SNL’s prominent place in television history. Almost anyone alive who you can think of is quoted in that book — besides Eddie Murphy, who had a long-running feud with the late show which catapulted him into stardom but would make a glorious return during its 35th anniversary year.

The book is filled with fond remembrances of Farley, most coming from one of his closest friends and colleague, David Spade. While there were rumors there was a falling out between them, since Spade didn’t show up at the funeral, according to Spade himself, none of that was true, “…I think people misunderstood me not going to that funeral… it was just too emotional, and I wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

You’re Not John Belushi

The first and most obvious sad fact to point out is that Farley never really reached his potential as a film star. Belushi might have died far too young, and I don’t doubt that he had so much more to show us, but he cemented his cinematic legacy with his performances in Animal House and The Blues Brothers.

The connection between these two SNL figures isn’t just because of the superficial physical similarity, nor their penchant for drug abuse. Farley idolized the former Blues Brother. “Chris looked up to Belushi as the King,” David Spade would say.

Some feared he hoped to emulate his rise and tragic fall. “You’re not John Belushi,” SNL heavyweight (and notoriously hard-to-work-with) Chevy Chase told the young comedian, “…and when you overdose or kill yourself, you will not have the same acclaim John did. You don’t have the record of accomplishment that he had.”

Even so, there was a definite difference of attitudes toward drug abuse, between John Belushi’s, which coincides with the birth of SNL, and Farley’s, who joined the late-night show in the early ’90s. As John Belushi’s surviving brother would say, “everybody was getting high… none of us knew any better… It wasn’t popular to get cleaned out until after John died.”
Al Franken, performer and writer on SNL (and also Minnesota senator), would say “with Belushi, we did not know that you died that way. We didn’t understand what addiction does…  With Farley we understood it.”

Farley’s habits were concerning to many working at SNL. Contrary to Belushi, Farley was sent to rehab numerous times. it was in his sobriety that he starred in his arguably most acclaimed film, Tommy Boy.

Tommy Boy

Tommy Boy is basically what every Happy Madison film should be. It’s the type of film Adam Sandler could make regularly if he wasn’t too lazy or too busy getting Netflix or Sony to finance one of his vacations under the guise of making a “film.” Besides partaking in enormous amounts of caffeine, Farley remained sober throughout the production of Tommy Boy. Out of his starring roles, Tommy Boy is the only film that received mild positive feedback. Though looking at the overall Rotten Tomatoes score, it’s one of those cases where the critics stand in tall opposition (42% approval rating) to the general audience (90% approval rating). According to David Spade, “the only thing people talked about was Tommy Boy… And they didn’t care about Beverly Hills Ninja or whatever else…”

Tommy Boy II, But Worse

Farley followed Tommy Boy with Black Sheep, which paired him once again with Spade. Paramount was desperate to capitalize on the success of Tommy Boy and pushed writer Fred Wolf to rush out a draft. The production was troubled. Director Penelope Spheeris clashed with producer Lorne Michaels, as well as co-star David Spade.

Farley hated Black Sleep. According to close friend Jillian Seely, he hailed it as “Tommy Boy II, only worse.” The critics despised it, especially Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. It’s not quite clear when, but shortly after, or maybe even during production, Farley would have a relapse.

Despite its bad critical reception, Black Sheep was a commercial success. The studio was more than willing to bank another Farley vehicle. This would become the dreaded, and strangely beloved, Beverly Hills Ninja.

The Incredibly Sensitive Kid

Beverly Hills Ninja was remembered, not-too-fondly, by co-star Chris Rock: “He gave me a little part in Beverly Hills Ninja, one of the worst movies ever.” Besides the film being notoriously praised by Christian Bale of all people, many others consider the film to be one of the worst of Farley’s career.

Farley had actually passed on the script several times before relenting when he was offered $6 million for the main part. Producers Bernie Brillstein and Marc Gurvitz told him not to do the film. ‘”It’s about a fat guy in tights. Who wants to see Chris like that?”

One could postulate Farley accepting the role of Haru, the overweight ninja, was hazardous for Farley’s mental health. Chris Rock shared a similar thought in regards to the infamous Chippendale sketch, in which a shirtless Farley dances alongside a far fitter Patrick Swayze: “He felt ugly, he didn’t feel attractive. He didn’t feel like people wanted to be around him and that sketch kind of fed into that.”

According to Brillstein, Farley was heartbroken with the end product, even so far as crying on his shoulder during its premiere. Lorne Michaels, one of the creators and producers would say, “Chris was an incredibly sensitive kid. No matter what he did, he always had some kind of pride in his work and so for Chris to do something that empty just didn’t feel right.”

Beverly Hills Ninja being a commercial success didn’t sustain Farley’s creative ambitions. During this time, Farley’s drug abuse would continue to spiral out of control.

The Film That Couldn’t Save Him

Farley’s final starring role would be in Christopher Guest’s Almost Heroes. On every front, the film had promise. The original blacklisted script (originally called Edwards and Hunt) was considered brilliant. Guest was a phenomenal comedic director. They amassed a great supporting cast, including Matthew Perry (though they originally wanted Hugh Laurie, he wasn’t considered “well-known” enough) and Eugene Levy. Everything seemed to flow in the right direction. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the obvious: studio interference. The studio changed its original conceit of an ensemble comedy into a buddy comedy. Important (not to mention funny) scenes — those that didn’t focus on either Farley or Perry — were cut. As Bokeem Woodbine, one of the film’s co-stars said, “it was one of those things where they should have left well enough alone.”

On a whole, the film is actually not bad. But it’s another example of a never-ending list of films with so much potential, let down by studio meddling.

The Last Four Days

Before Farley passed away, he was set to star in a Fatty Arbuckle biopic written by David Mamet. The fact that we never got to see this, that we never got to see Farley’s dramatic range, is another one of cinema’s greatest losses.

The last four days of Farley was one continuous drug-induced binge. As always, there were plans to change his ways. He would go to meetings after meetings. It’s important to note that he tried very hard to reform himself. It just wasn’t enough.

John Farley, Chris’ brother, would find him dead in his apartment. He was thirty-three years old, just like his idol John Belushi.

Does Christian Bale Have a Point?

So what do we make of Beverly Hills Ninja? It’s strange having nostalgic affection for a film, knowing that its star hated it so much, it made him weep. It’s hard watching the film without thinking about the tragedy of Farley, the few films we had with him, all this potential that was squandered on this silly “fat ninja” comedy. Knowing this film is disliked by not just the star, but by those who loved him.

Nonetheless, some scenes still make me laugh. Its weak script is elevated by Farley’s physical comedy. His frame is not what makes his performance funny. It’s Farley’s willingness to go all the way. Some of the many pratfalls on screen might be tedious, but there are many that work. Even with a subpar script, the talent is undeniable — and Christian Bale sides with me on this one.

And while Farley was known to have a temper, there’s also a sweetness to him that’s evident on screen. For all his silliness, Farley was reportedly a big man with an even bigger heart.

Farley was in the business of making people laugh. He would do whatever it takes to make you smile. “He always felt he had to be funny,” Kevin Nealon, another SNL alumni would say,  “that was his torture.”

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1 comment

Nick Kush January 28, 2022 - 2:22 pm

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