25 Years Ago: ‘Beverly Hills Ninja’ Ends Chris Farley’s Hilarious Run
Beverly Hills Ninja, the last Chris Farley film released before he died, may not be his best outing. But in many ways it's the one that best represents his career.
The movie premiered on Jan. 17, 1997. Eleven months later, Farley would be found dead in his Chicago apartment, the victim of an accidental overdose at the age of 33.
His story is as tragic as it is well known. A devout Catholic who grew up in a small suburb of Madison, Wis., Farley was always big, and was teased for it as a kid: He actually listed some of the names he got called in a 1997 interview with Rolling Stone: "Fartley, Lard Ass, Tubby and, of course, Fatso was standard." Although he was a good athlete, swimming and playing football in high school, Farley suffered from what he and many others termed a deep self-loathing, and eventually found two ways to deal with it.
The first was comedy. He started his career in Chicago, first at Improv Olympic, and then at Second City, the famed feeder company for Saturday Night Live. Farley made it onto SNL in 1990 and stayed until 1995, when he was released from his contract and began pursuing a film career in earnest. He stared two movies with his best friend David Spade – Tommy Boy and Black Sheep – and then was given a starring vehicle of his own in Beverly Hills Ninja.
Farley's other way of dealing with his anxiety, as well as his increasing fame, was drugs and alcohol. He was a notorious partier at SNL, getting suspended numerous times for substance abuse. But Farley repeatedly tried to get clean toward the end of his life, including at least 17 trips to rehab facilities. He was well aware that his struggles in that area might cost him his life: "It is a demon that must be snuffed out," he admitted to Rolling Stone. "It is the end."
Watch Chris Farley's 'Great White Ninja' Scene
Farley's comedic style epitomized all of these pressures. It was relentlessly and almost violently physical. "Try to kill the audience," the director of Second City once told him. "I want you to make them laugh so hard that they vomit and choke on their own vomit." That's exactly what Farley tried to do, every time. And yet beneath this lay a deep, wounded humanity, the vulnerability of someone who has spent a great deal of their life feeling insecure.
Beverly Hills Ninja provides a perfect arena for this physicality matched with vulnerability. It tells the story of a ninja clan in Japan who find a white baby in a chest that has been washed ashore after a shipwreck. They decide to raise him in their martial arts tradition. That baby, named Haru, is portrayed Farley, and he of course grows up to be a terrible ninja.
Nevertheless, he falls into a mystery involving a counterfeiting ring in Beverly Hills. In the course of defeating this ring – with the help of an actually competent ninja named Gobei (Robin Shou) – Haru makes friends with a Beverly Hills Hotel bellboy (Chris Rock), finds himself a girlfriend (Nicollette Sheridan), and discovers that when he's angry he's actually a pretty good martial artist.
Beverly Hills Ninja became the top-grossing film the weekend it was released, and managed to turn a profit – which, by some estimates, 80% of films do not do. Still, the movie was roundly panned by critics.
A writer for the Washington Post said Farley was a "real lightweight compared to such late, great predecessors John Belushi and John Candy," adding that he made "a fat ass of himself" in the proceedings. The Austin Chronicle said Beverly Hills Ninja was "nearly as much fun as a case of scabies," and claimed that it left audiences "waiting for Adam Sandler to save the day."
Watch a Fight Scene From 'Beverly Hills Ninja'
Farley made audiences laugh, but there were still a lot of people out there who wanted to write him off as nothing more than a plump guy who fell down a lot. Farley himself wondered if he would ever be able to break into serious parts. He was signed on to do a biopic of Fatty Arbuckle when he died, but felt trapped. If audiences forced him to never do anything but pratfalls his whole career, he noted, "I’ll understand and abide by their wishes. I signed on as the clown, and, by golly, I’ll keep up my end of the bargain."
Beverly Hills Ninja, the first film in which Farley's was the only name on the poster, in some sense became the epitome of that trap. He was a star, and he could carry a film, but doing so meant playing the exact role that had deviled him his entire life: a gentle, insecure, overweight man who loved to make people laugh by clowning about his own physical proportions. The thinking seemed to be that if he made them laugh first, then they were laughing with Farley, and not at him.
Critics sneered, but here's the thing they forgot: There have been, in the history of Hollywood, only a handful of people who have been able to carry a film through physical comedy. Belushi, for all the comparisons made with Farley, was a different kind of performer: verbal and expressive, rather than purely physical. The better comparison for Farley is Peter Sellers, specifically his Inspector Clouseau character. They both earned so many laughs from the things they did with their body, and the way that resonated with what we know is going in in the character's head.
Beverly Hills Ninja is neither a great nor a terrible movie, but it is full of belly laughs. When Farley brags to his soon-to-be girlfriend that if she closes her eyes and counts to nine he will use his ninja skills to disappear, and then runs to hide behind a post, tries to disguise himself as a lamp, and finally in desperation as his time is running out simply leaps through the wall of his dojo, it's funny.
Some of the many other gags in the film don't quite work, but a lot of them do. And they work because, for better or worse, Chris Farley succeeded because he made himself enormous fun to watch.
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