If you search for Dancing Ninja (2010) on YouTube, you’ll find three kinds of video. First is the trailer. Second is the entire film, in poor quality, dubbed in French (which I don’t speak), sans subtitles. Third is a video review by two people who spend five minutes dismissing the film and 25 minutes recounting its unusual production history. Granted, it really isn’t for everyone, or for everytime: I happened to catch it on TV on a lazy Thursday afternoon. Yes I still have a TV, precisely because I might stumble across films like this—and whaddaya know? I loved this film!
It’s also an obscure film. Not only is it missing from Wikipedia (well it technically is on Wikipedia), it isn’t even listed on the Wikipedia page of David Hasselhoff, who plays the main villain, a guy fittingly named Ansel LaDouche, and who also happens to be the best-known White guy in the film. LaDouche is a washed-up action star whose Evil Masterplan is to assassinate-by-bomb all the other big(ger) action stars, leaving him the sole candidate to host the new 24-hour Fight Channel (apparently I’m not the only one who still has a TV).
The only one who can stop him is . . . well, except for the TV executive (Gary Hudson) who is forced to hire LaDouche, nobody really cares. That’s right, the hero’s motive for confronting the Big Baddie has absolutely nothing to do with his Masterplan. Our hero is Ikki (Lucas Grabeel, spouting an over-articulated “Asian” English and having the time of his life), who is spared the charge of whitewashing with an animated opening scene where we see him being tossed from a sinking boat and ending up “somewhere in Asia,” as is actually mentioned in multiple lines of actual dialogue in the film. (South Korea. It’s South Korea. But if that were made explicit, the film could never have pulled off Lily Tien and Eric Tsang, probably the biggest Asian actors in the film, as Ikki’s adoptive parents.) One day while making a delivery for his dad, Ikki sees a martial arts demonstration and falls in love with the star pupil, Kimi (Judy Jung-hwa Kang, who is the only Korean actor to have a significant role in the film). He follows her back to her dojo and resolves to try out to join the program and become a ninja (no, seriously, that’s what they call themselves). Of course he is utterly inept. But upon seeing a strange tattoo on the back of Ikki’s leg, the Sabu (or master, Patrick Gallagher in another ludicrous “Asian” accent) lets him train there anyway, with great reluctance (“I am not your Sabu!”).
On his way home, Ikki passes a Dance Dance Revolution arcade machine. He is attracted by the beautiful dancing girl graphic (Elise Estrada, playing herself as seen later in the film), goes to try it out, and is immediately a pro, getting song-length perfect combos while executing ridiculous dance moves with his back to the screen . . . if by “immediately” you mean two years later.
He still sucks at ninja-ing, but in real-world fight situations, a rhythm literally animates him from within, and he somehow kicks major ass by dancing—ergo, dancing ninja. A later scene where the dance is a tango with Kimi has to be seen to be (dis)believed. There’s also some sort of prophecy involved, but the only one who really cares is LaDouche, who stars in a montage of himself muttering “The dancing ninja grows stronger” in absurd situations.
Apparently, LaDouche actually has some skillz, because it turns out he also studied under Sabu, who he comes back to kill to get a secret scroll to make him powerful enough to force the TV exec to let him host the Fight Channel. Ikki brushes past the departing LaDouche and finds I’m-not-your-Sabu bleeding to death from a gunshot wound (because, LaDouche is . . . a douche). What follows is the most winkingly hilarious death scene I’ve ever enjoyed; seriously, this scene alone is well worth the film’s price tag. Anyway, Ikki vows vengeance, the TV exec turns out to be Ikki’s biological father, Sabu from the plane of enlightenment (afterlife) orders Kimi to help Ikki from the shadows, sexual contact between boy and girl unlocks the dancing ninja’s full potential, LaDouche plunges to his death from a low height, and Bob’s your uncle.
What makes this film brilliant, aside from the dance-fighting, the knowing irony, Ikki’s intentionally silly acting, Sabu’s lasciviousness (did I mention that?), and David effing Hasselhoff, is its continual subversion of the tropes of a comic book superhero origin story. There’s an unimportant prophecy, a meaningless character reveal, an oddly straightforward yet still dastardly Evil Masterplan, a moronic villain who manages to wreak havoc anyway, and of course a weirdly Asian-but-not-really setting that completely flips the “journey to the East” trope on its head (the most recent notorious case of which is Doctor Strange (2016)—by the way, a traitorous pupil returning to the dojo in Asia to steal a tract of secret power: sound familiar?). It’s like writer-director Mitchell Klebanoff walked out of Batman Begins (2005) thinking, “Man, that was a really stylish way to tell a really corny story,” and decided to do the exact same thing, the right way.
And really, that’s the major attraction of the film. It points up the utter ridiculousness of comic book superhero conventions while wearing its love of comic book superhero conventions on its sleeve. It’s a work of clear-eyed adoration, and boyish glee shines through every frame.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.