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Television Review

'Samurai Girl' fights with might

'Samurai Girl' Jamie Chung stars in ''Samurai Girl,'' an ABC Family miniseries. (Eike Schroter/ABC Family)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / September 5, 2008
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"Samurai Girl," the three-part miniseries that premieres tonight on ABC Family, is a kind of modern mash-up of "The Karate Kid" and "The O.C." Or maybe it's "Kill Bill" by way of the Peach Pit. You know the idea: a martial-arts love story where the fights are set to rock music and interspersed with wisecracks, and no major life trauma can get in the way of a really good hairdo and makeup job.

Based on a series of young-adult books, the plot centers on Heaven Kogo, the 19-year-old adopted daughter of a wealthy Japanese family. She seems to be just another demure-looking, doughnut-eating teen, all set to submit to an arranged marriage that, for some unexplained reason, is taking place in San Francisco. Then a set of ninjas attacks her wedding, kills her brother, and sends her into the sword-wielding arms of her brother's American friend, who happens to be a martial-arts master.

We get through this whiplash-inducing setup fairly quickly, in order to get to the task at hand: presenting Heaven's supposed transformation from Geisha Barbie to Ninja Barbie. It actually doesn't take long. Heaven turns out to be a martial-arts savant who, within days of picking up a sword for the first time, can dispense a ninja assassin using a hockey puck and a snow globe. She can also do an incredible Nastia Liukin sort of move where she jumps in the air and spins a few times before delivering a knockout kick.

Her real talent, though, appears to be adapting to American culture. Because for all of her cloistered Japanese-palace upbringing, she also has an uncanny knack for walking around in go-go boots and flirting with bouncers, the better to weasel her way into the fancy nightclubs where the bad guys do their dirty work.

There's so much for Heaven to do here - learn those ninja skills, banter with her wisecracking new American friends, have cryptic conversations with a British secret-agent type, who always seems to show up in a supermarket - that we barely get a chance to know her character at all. She's played with wide eyes by Jamie Chung, first introduced to the world as a cast member of MTV's "The Real World: San Diego" - a fact that is conveniently left out of ABC Family's press materials. And she's surrounded by standard teen-drama types: Within minutes of landing on US soil, she's got her own sassy, wisecracking female best friend, plus a geeky computer-whiz buddy named Otto, who exists for comic relief. Former pro wrestler and "Dancing With the Stars" contestant Stacy Keibler will show up later as a rival for the love of Jake, the mysterious and broody ninja master played by Brendan Fehr.

It's hard to know exactly what purpose a six-hour spectacle like this serves, other than to offer a paint-by-numbers vision of modern-teen female empowerment: Hey, kids! Girls can swordfight, too! As reluctant samurais go, Hiro Nakamura, the breakout character on the NBC series "Heroes," is a lot more intriguing. As female pinup fighters go, Jennifer Garner was better at kicking and pouting. "Samurai Girl" takes up a lot of time and space, but manages to do only one surprising thing: prove that it's possible to be action-packed and dull at the same time.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to www.boston.com/viewerdiscretion.

Samurai Girl

When: Tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday at 8 p.m.

On: ABC Family

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