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An Oral History of ‘Surf Ninjas’

In addition to being one of the only Hollywood films with a majority Asian cast, it won the hearts — and wore out the VHS tapes — of kids everywhere

“You’re doing an oral history of Surf Ninjas? Why?” 

That’s what the movie’s director, Neal Israel, asked me as soon as we began our Zoom call. It’s a reasonable question — Surf Ninjas is hardly a film that impacted cinema history in any major way. It pulled in a mere $5 million at the box office and hasn’t enjoyed a huge post-theatrical revival either, only receiving a VHS release in 1993 and then a single DVD drop in 2005. Hell, 2021 isn’t even some major anniversary of the film. 

So, why talk about Surf Ninjas now? Well, sometimes movies just stick with you because they hit you at the right time and place. In 1993, I was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-obsessed eight-year-old, and I was excited to see Ernie Reyes Jr. — who was a major character in the second Ninja Turtles film — star in his own movie. It’s one of the very first films I remember seeing in theaters, and when it came out on VHS, I wore that tape out. My story is hardly unique either, as this is something the stars of the film would hear for the next three decades as they’d sign tattered VHS tapes at fan conventions all over the country. 

But Surf Ninjas didn’t just mean something to the fans, it also meant something to the people involved with the film. For Reyes Jr., it was the first movie where he was the star, and with that, it held the promise — even if unrealized — of more big movies to come. For Ernie Reyes Sr. — a legitimate legend in American martial arts — it was a chance to star in a movie with his son. For Nic Cowan, who was just 11 during filming, it would be the only major movie he’d do. It was also among the first films for Rob Schneider and Tone Loc and among the last films for Leslie Nielsen. 

Surf Ninjas was also something truly unusual in Hollywood, both at the time and today: It was the rare movie starring an Asian American and with a majority Asian cast. This was particularly notable in the years between 1973 and 1996, or the years between Bruce Lee’s death and Jackie Chan’s rise to Hollywood stardom. Thus, even a seemingly frivolous kids movie about surfing teenagers held some meaning.

If you’ve never seen Surf Ninjas, the title alone says most of what you need to know. The movie is about two brothers, Reyes Jr. and Cowan, a couple of L.A. kids who love to surf and are friends with Schneider (who, at 28, plays a teenager). The brothers know they’re adopted, but after they’re attacked by some ninjas, they find out that they’re heirs to the throne of Patusan, a fictitious Asian island nation that was conquered years ago by an evil general (played by Nielsen). The time is nigh for the brothers to reclaim their birthright with the help of their Uncle Zatch — played by Reyes Sr. — so they venture home to kick lots of ass and realize their destiny as the leaders of their people.

And oh, there’s a Sega Game Gear that can tell the future, which is also kind of an important detail.

Ernie Reyes Jr., founder of Kick Punch Club, “Johnny” in Surf Ninjas: In the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, I did all of the stunts and choreography for Donatello. Then, at the end of filming, the producers from Golden Harvest — which was the famed martial arts movie production company that did Ninja Turtles as well as made Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan famous — came to me and said, “We’re going to make you into a human character in Ninja Turtles II.” I took it with a grain of salt, but when I got the script, I was like, “Holy crap, I’m in the whole thing!” 

Much like the first one, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II was a huge success. The Monday after the opening, I’d gotten word through my manager that New Line wanted to meet. When we met, we were talking about the possibilities of the types of projects we wanted to do, and from there, we brought in the writer who had written the pilot for Sidekicks, an ABC show that I was on back in the mid-1980s. His name is Dan Gordon, and he pitched three movie ideas. They picked Surf Ninjas and that’s how it all started.

Ernie Reyes Sr., founder of West Coast World Martial Arts and 2021 Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award winner, “Zatch” in Surf Ninjas: When Ernie and I first started in Hollywood in the late 1980s, we were living in my aunt’s garage in a bad part of town. It was just one small bedroom, and Ernie slept on the floor. We didn’t even have a refrigerator — we just had a cooler and cooked on a hotplate. But then we got Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, where Ernie Jr. played Tai and I did the choreography. Soon after, we did Red Sonja and Sidekicks and we were on our way. 

When it came to Surf Ninjas, that was written specifically for Ernie Jr. and I by Dan Gordon, and it was one of the greatest opportunities for us as a father and son. As a martial arts film it was great, too. It wasn’t just kicking and punching — the story was really about honesty, loyalty, family and bravery. I’ve been studying martial arts for 53 years and those are the most important aspects of martial arts — honesty, loyalty, family and bravery.

Reyes Jr.: I grew up doing martial arts demonstrations with my dad all over the country. My dad and I were making 16-millimeter martial arts movies way before I even got into Hollywood, so for us to be able to make a major motion picture together, that was super cool. 

Neal Israel, director of Surf Ninjas: I got hired after the script was written, and Ernie and his dad were already attached. I didn’t really want to do a movie like this, but the script made me laugh and I thought it was really fun. So we talked about it, and all of a sudden, I was doing it. 

Nic Cowan, illustrator and graphic artist, “Adam” in Surf Ninjas: I was about eight when I started acting and did some commercials and TV shows. When Surf Ninjas came around, I was about 11. In the original script, it said my character had a Game Boy, so when I read for the part, I brought my Game Boy with me. I remember one of the casting agents even said, “He brought his Game Boy,” so I think that helped me. 

Later on, it was changed to a Sega Game Gear, and years later, I found out that Sega helped finance the film, which is why there was a Game Gear tie-in game with the movie. It was an incredibly hard game to play though. I could never beat it so I don’t even know how it ends. I mean, I think I know how it ends because I lived it, but I’ve never beaten the game.

But anyway, I got a callback and this time I read with Ernie Reyes Jr., who was also an executive producer on the film. I was nervous because I knew him from Ninja Turtles and Sidekicks, and, to me, Ernie was a star. Like, I once did an audition where I read opposite Jon Voight, but I didn’t know who that was. But Ernie, man, I was a fan! I guess I wasn’t too bad because I got the part. Ernie told me later that I reminded him of one of his brothers, which is why I think I got it.

Israel: Surf Ninjas was a hard movie to make. Most of the movie was done in Thailand, then some of it was done in Los Angeles, and there was a B-unit in Honolulu to film all the surfing stuff. It was a lot. 

The crew was all Thai except for the few people we brought. We did all practical locations — Leslie Nielsen’s cave was an actual cave. I even hit my head on one of those stalactites, and I was bleeding from the top of my head. They took me to this emergency clinic in the middle of the jungle. The guy there said, “You have to pay extra if you want a new needle,” and I said “Yeah, let’s go with that.” As he was sewing me up, I was looking at the ceiling and I saw this giant lizard crawling on it. 

Also, it was 110 degrees every day, and it was during monsoon season.

Reyes Jr.: Filming in Thailand was awesome. It was hot, it was sweaty and we were trying to do a lot in a short period of time. The stunt guys were first-time stunt guys. They were all local Thai guys who didn’t even really know what a stunt was. 

Israel: You know how in movies, when a guy jumps out a window, there’s a bag there to catch them? Not these guys! No bag! They’d just fall on the ground and keep going. Totally gung-ho!

Cowan: The atmosphere on set always felt fun. Neal was a really cool guy, and everybody was really nice to me. I mean, maybe it was because I was just a kid, but everything seemed like a lot of fun and no one on set was a diva. 

Rob Schneider was really fun to be around. I was the only actual kid in the movie, so I think Schneider saw me as kind of a built-in audience. He seemed to gravitate to me a lot because he could always make me laugh. 

Tone Loc was also super fun to be around. The two of us had to do some crazy stuff together. Like, I had to ride on him while sliding down a mountain. I don’t know many people who can say that — that they rode Tone Loc down a mountain. I also remember we were waiting around one time during filming and he sang this song about a mosquito landing on his dick: “There’s a skeeter on my peter, get it off — there’s a bump on my peter from the skeeter!”

I knew who Leslie Nielsen was, and I was a fan. I didn’t really have any scenes with him, but I made a point to be around while they were filming his scenes. I even got a photo with him, although I guarantee you he thought I was just an extra on the film. I mean, do you think Leslie Nielsen read that whole script?

Nic Cowan and Leslie Nielsen during filming in Thailand (courtesy of Nic Cowan)

Israel: After we wrapped in Thailand, we got back to L.A. and two days later we were filming again for the last bit of the film. The jet lag was brutal.

Cowan: I never did learn how to surf — not at all. Until then, I’d never been on a surfboard in my life, and I’m still not a big fan of the ocean in general. The surfing shots in the movie were all done in Hawaii with people who looked like us. None of us ever went there.

When we got back to L.A., we did the opening scene of the movie where Ernie and I are supposedly surfing. That was done in Santa Monica, and we filmed that in the parking lot near the beach. We were on top of these carts with wheels and they just pulled us along in front of the camera and sprayed water and foam at us. That’s budget movie-magic right there. 

Reyes Jr.: I knew that Surf Ninjas was a big step because it was a vehicle created for me, which was different from plugging into an existing franchise that already had an existing fanbase. I was just 19 at the time, and even though the movie was a group effort, the project was built for me, so the success or failure of it was going to ride heavy on my shoulders. If it did well at the box office, great, now I’d get to take the next step. If it failed, it would have been all on me and it would have been over. It was a lot of pressure being young and trying to take that step. For what we were trying to do, I think Surf Ninjas was a success, but the box office wouldn’t end up reflecting that.

I could see what was happening because we drove around that weekend and you could see that there were just not people at the theaters. Mind you, we had done test screenings and kids were in the audience, jumping up and down and having the time of their lives. But come opening weekend, there were no people in the seats. Then that Monday came and I read the headline “Surf Ninjas Wipes Out.” I knew what that meant. That three-picture deal became, “Well, we’re not making a second picture, whether it’s Surf Ninjas or anything else.” It was definitely a huge disappointment in my life. 

The great news is that now — some 25, 30 years later — there’s a legitimate fan base out there for Surf Ninjas. These were the kids who rented it over and over again from Blockbuster, because it was a big Blockbuster hit. Now it’s cool because there are these conventions and things like that where I have the opportunity to meet people. Everywhere I go, people come up to me and tell me, “Surf Ninjas is my childhood!” I’ve also done a few Q&As at the Alamo Drafthouse where Surf Ninjas tickets sell out in less than a day. So it’s nice to see that the movie did make an impact. 

Kelly Hu, actress, model and founder of 33Edge, “Ro-May” in Surf Ninjas: Even though it didn’t do well at the box office, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve met people at conventions and stuff who are like, “I had the VHS tape, and I wore that thing out!” That or it’s kids who got stoned in college and watched that thing over and over again. So when people come up to me with that DVD to sign, I always ask them, “Did you watch this as a kid or stoned?” I haven’t gotten stoned in a really long time, but I should get stoned and watch it now to see how it holds up.

Israel: You would be surprised how many fans there are of Surf Ninjas — a lot of people love that movie. I stay off social media, so it’s hard to find me, yet somehow people do and I get emails and things about it all the time. One guy even tracked me down and called my house and left me a message.

Cowan: I’ve met a lot of awesome Surf Ninjas fans over the years and I try to respond whenever I see people talking about the movie on Instagram. It was particularly cool when the podcast How Did This Get Made? did a Surf Ninjas episode. I got to go to the screening and be on the show. I also run the Surf Ninjas Legacy page on Facebook, and I’ve written a screenplay for a sequel. I mean, Cobra Kai has shown that people love a reboot, so I think Surf Ninjas would be perfect for that!

Nic Cowan putting his graphic design skills to work.

There’s also another aspect to the movie that I think gets overlooked. Surf Ninjas was somewhat groundbreaking in that it had a predominantly Asian/minority cast in all the lead roles — even Rob Schneider, people forget, is half Filipino — which is incredible for a major studio picture in the 1990s.

Reyes Sr.: There are a lot of superheroes today, but back then, to have Asians be the superheroes, that was pretty significant. There was Bruce Lee, and that was it. Even Jackie Chan wouldn’t become big in America until a couple of years later.

Hu: It was really hard for Asians at that time to get roles of any kind so I was just happy to be working. It was especially hard for Asian guys. Ernie was like, the only Asian-American lead for anything at that time, and he had a lot riding on his shoulders. Even now we struggle to get Asian men in lead roles, so it was really a breakthrough. Even if it may not have moved his career forward the way he might have hoped, I really credit him with helping to move forward Asian Americans in this industry.

Reyes Jr.: I look back on Surf Ninjas with fond memories. We were trying to do something awesome, and we were trying to do great action. It was definitely a stamp in time, and I look back on it with a warm heart.

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