Kung Phooey: 9 1/2 Ninjas! (1991)

Dave stares stony-faced at a ’90s spoof that struggles to raise a smile.

Whether you lay responsibility at the feet of Mel Brooks or the Zucker brothers, the spoof movie gathered momentum through the ’70s and ‘80s before it hit a post-millennium glut of over-saturation. In between, the ‘90s found the form in a state of plateau; a steady constant in both terms of numbers (Hot Shots! (1991), Loaded Weapon 1 (1993)) and unexpected whims (Repossessed (1990)). Action and horror are low-hanging fruit for prospective satirists – but with erotica becoming a video store favourite during this period thanks to the likes of 9 ½ Weeks (1986) and Wild Orchid (1989), it was only a matter of time before the softcore smut genre was lampooned… And what better way to do it than under the guise of a ninja movie, right?


9 ½ NINJAS! boasts unquestionably the oddest premise for a send-up – especially so given that Carl Reiner’s perfectly on-point Fatal Instinct (1993) showed up two years later. Nevertheless, here we have Vogue, Joe Vogue (Michael Phenicie): a suave, perma-tanned, Bond-ish, gad-about-town with a hint of George Hamilton to him. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if Hamilton been offered the script first, only to turn it down for being too lacklustre even by his unexacting standards. Vogue is a ninja faced with eviction from his apartment by a diminutive nemesis called Gruber (Robert Fieldsteel), while the Kim Basinger-esque Lisa (Andee Gray) is in the same boat. Upon meeting, Vogue and Lisa hit it off and realise that they must band together to prevent Gruber’s real estate takeover and fend off his crew of black-clad combatants.

Penned by the writing team of Bill Crounse and Don Pequignot, whose only other feature was American Cyborg: Steel Warrior (1993) for Boaz Davidson, their script is bipolar in the extreme, switching from woeful to playful in the blink of an eye. And for the most part, it’s the former. Offering a discordant blend that doesn’t fit, Crounse and Pequignot shoehorn the iconic blindfold and feeding sequences from Adrian Lyne’s namechecked classic into a narrative that seems to shrug with bewilderment at the madness of it all.

For what it’s worth, director Aaron Barsky tries his best. An AD since the early ‘80s, Barsky built up his resume with the likes of Amityville II: The Possession (1982) and When Harry Met Sally (1989) – tragic, then, that his big moment to take control of the megaphone himself resulted in this mess. There are times when watching 9 ½ Ninjas! where the corner of your mouth will curl in an attempt to smile. But for all intents and purposes, Barsky’s film has to go down in history as a spoof to remain aloof to, alongside fellow stinkers 2001: A Space Travesty (2000) and Disaster Movie (2008).

Lensed over the course of three weeks in April 1990, 9 ½ Ninjas! is perhaps more notable for its multiple taglines that ranged from the sublime (“Twenty men couldn’t knock him out. But one woman might”) to the ridiculous (“An action-packed spoof of a famous sexy film”). An appearance on American home video came courtesy of Republic Pictures’ distribution arm in January ’91, while the film hit the U.K. twelve months later – although its release via Virgin Vision was pruned of thirty-five seconds due to a sequence involving the BBFC’s then-bugbear, nunchuks.

USA ● 1991 ● Comedy ● 88mins

Michael Phenicie, Andee Gray, Robert Fieldsteel, Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister Jr., Don Stark ● Dir. Aaron Barsky (as ‘Aaron Worth’) ● Wri. Bill Crounse, Don Pequignot, story by John Morrissey

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