“Twenty years after their heyday, ninja movies are all the rage again in Hollywood. As someone who grew up with movies pitting ninjas fighting Caucasian gangsters in broad daylight, I couldn’t be happier.”
This was Nix’s own opening from his review of James McTeigue’s “Ninja Assassin,” the Wachowski Brothers, Hollywood backed big budget Ninja flick. I use this quote because the review goes on to state how far removed from those classic 80’s flicks “Assassin” was. It was a ridiculously over the top, and stylish take more on the mythology of ninjas and the supposed mystical abilities they had than it was about those behind the dark mask and shadows. It was violent, bloody, and just plain awesome. After watching Ninjas in anime and videogames melt into shadows and perform ninjutsu (ninja magic) or whatever it’s referred to in said shows or video games, it was great to see it brought to life here in America. Previously all we had was “Shinobi: Heart Under Blade,” which is a great movie and should definitely be checked out. “Assassin” is visceral and just plain fun.
That said I was also looking forward to the lesser known and much smaller budgeted “Ninja” starring Scott Adkins and directed by Isaac Florentine. Both are mostly unknown to the world but both have been around for a bit using their martial arts backgrounds to get some decent direct-to-disc action films out. Adkins a amazing martial artist in his own right, hails from Britain and has most recently been seen as the fight and stunt double for Weapon XI in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and will appear reprising his role Uri Boyka in “Undisputed 3.” Florentine is an Israeli born director who has directed martial artists Michael Jai White, and Jean Claude Van Damme in his films that include “Undisputed 2,” and “The Sheppard: Border Patrol,” respectively.
I used Nix’s quote to illustrate the major difference between “Ninja” and “Assassin.” While “Assassin” eschews its 80’s roots for a modern yet mythical angle, “Ninja” stays firmly entrenched in its 80’s roots. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. First let’s start with the good. Scott Adkins is underrated as a martial artist, as is his co-star from “Undisputed 2,” Michael Jai White. In “Ninja” Adkins plays the role of Casey Bowman, an American raised at a Japanese dojo run by the last surviving descendant of the Koga Ninja Clan. The story is simple and to the point. Sometimes to the detriment of the film, but again, it’s a throwback and I think Florentine consciously made it such. After the other top student at the school is expelled, he returns sometime later to stake his claim as the next Soke (teacher/leader) of the school and protector of the Yoroi Bitsu, the last remaining artifacts of the Koga Clan. The chest is sent to New York to keep it from Masazuka, who kills his former teacher trying to get to it.
What works for the film is its minimalistic approach to the work. Much like “American Ninja” before it, this story gives us an American (British) protagonist who grew up studying the ways of the ninja. Much like those films before this, Casey isn’t wearing a Ninja suit for most of the film and much of his adventure takes place during the day and he’s fighting gangsters and thugs. This film does a great job of showing off Adkins’ skills. There are two fight scenes in particular that are top notch, and the editing and multiple angles really sell his moves. There are scenes where he starts a fight and the camera is facing him as he dispatches his adversaries, but as he spins to kick an attacker approaching from behind another camera catches the action from the new angle just before he connects. This isn’t the film, cut, edit technique that most films use to make their star look more adept than they are. This was simply placing multiple cameras so that you can catch the action from as many angles that would allow you to make a fluid fight scene. No behind the back, cut to close ups here. Masazuka has an incredible, but all too short standoff in the rain early in the film that has some cool camera work too. It zooms in and out kinetically and allows you to get right up on the action and zooms out just in time to see the broader picture.
I mentioned before “ninja” was a more realistic look at the ninja, albeit realistic in a “no shadow melting” way. One thing I really liked was Masazuka’s gear (seen on the cover of the DVD) which is basically modern ninja gear, including night vision visor, grapnel gun, and fire arms. Yes I said fire-arms. I didn’t much care for it (if you’re a ninja shouldn’t the guns at least be silenced) but hey it works for the character as he really has no honor. Of course this sets up the traditional versus the modern fight at the end but hey it was still very cool to see. Though “Ninja” may be 80’s inspired it did make some improvements to what in emulated. The day scenes were pretty sparse and short and not much action happened during them and was mostly indoors. They actually had night scenes, though they were brightly lit. And the choreography was great
On the other side of things, the low budget diminished the scope of the film and really limited what could be done. The sets were obviously backlots, and being from NYC I could tell during the rooftop scenes that they had no idea where in the city they wanted this to take place, despite their labeling each place at the beginning of scenes. It seems like the whole film took place within a ten block radius. The chase scene in the middle of the movie starts in the exact same spot the climax of the movie happens. The dialogue was rather bad, and all supporting characters were cardboard.
The female lead is also a student at the ninja school, and even bested Casey with a staff during practices, and yet she gets tossed around like a ragdoll. I mean yeah she gets a punch in here, and a kick in there, and is just dangerous wielding a crutch, but seriously she’s just a damsel in distress. It’s like she there for Casey to get angry about and whoop some ass. Lastly and most importantly are the plot issues. There are several that just made my head hurt, but the biggest was the introduction of an Illuminati like group, who seemed to have an endless number of hooded thugs to send after Casey. It was like a video game at some parts with these guys just coming out of the woodworks. How do they track this guy? They just always know exactly where to go.
Plot aside I wasn’t going into this looking for Oscar worthy performances and big budget awe. I went into this looking for something to take me back to the world of the Ninja just like when I was a kid. And I was not disappointed. Scott Adkins carries the torch that Michael Dudikof lit many years ago, and he carries it well. I’m hoping Hollywood notices this guy, as he’d be great for “Iron Fist” or the character of Roper in that “Enter The Dragon” remake I keep hearing about. So as long as you’re just looking for some decent martial arts wrapped in a cheesy but yummy 80’s candy shell “Ninja” is for you.
Isaac Florentine (director) / Boaz Davidson, Michael Hurst, Zaki Rubenstein (screenplay)
CAST: Scott Adkins … Casey
Tsuyoshi Ihara … Masazuka
Mika Hijii … Namiko
Todd Jensen … Det. Traxler
Togo Igawa … Sensei
Garrick Hagon … Professor Garrison
Miles Anderson … Temple
Valentin Ganev … Klimitov