Thursday, May 20, 2010

NINJA (2009) - by Mark Oswald

Good news, friends. The Direct-to-Video Action renaissance continues with another joint venture by DTV auteur Isaac Florentine and rising martial arts badass, and Soda on the Roof favorite, Scott Adkins. I’ve previously mentioned these guys in my reviews for Michal Jai White’s Blood and Bone and The Tournament. White co-starred with Adkins in Florentine’s Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, where Adkins played the Russian villain, Uri Boyka. In Ninja, however, he gets promoted to hero duty with the character of Casey, a white orphan who is raised in a Japanese dojo where the sensei teaches his students the honorable ways of the ninja. When his rival at the dojo, Masazuka, is banished and eventually comes back for revenge, Casey is tasked with transporting “The Yoroi Bitsu”, a chest containing antique weapons and tools of the original ninjas, to America where it can be properly hidden, because Americans are good at hiding things, I guess.

Ninja creep

You see, this box of weapons is apparently the most prized possession a ninja of this dojo can ever hope to attain, and can only do so by being named Sensei, of which both Casey and Masazuka were in the running for until Masazuka loses his shit during a wooden sword fight and goes after Casey with a real one. I really liked the end of this scene because when the Sensei banishes Masazuka from the dojo for his actions, the guy doesn’t just storm off in anger. Instead, he is truly heartbroken by his banishment. He breaks down and begs for forgiveness, but his pleas go unheard. This actually sets up Masazuka as a really solid villain. The character is given a surprising amount of emotional weight considering the depth usually given to Action movie villains; which is to say, not much.

The character of Casey is unfortunately not as fleshed out. We do get a little back story about his mother leaving him at the dojo and his father committing suicide, though. I mentioned in my review of The Tournament, how the British Adkins rarely seems to be cast as an Englishman. He’s played Russians in the aforementioned The Tournament and Undisputed II, while playing an American in Florentine’s The Shepherd: Border Patrol. Well the streak of non-British characters remains unbroken here. Adkins does a commendable job of hiding his native accent, but like a lot of European actors playing Americans, he comes off a little stiff at times. That isn’t to say he gives a bad performance though. His acting is several steps above a younger Van Damme and Lundgren, and he is much better at portraying a wider range of emotions than Seagal ever was. His natural charisma makes him likeable enough in the hero role, but he has even admitted himself in an interview on his message board that he feels more comfortable portraying characters with an edge, rather than the clean-cut hero type he plays here, which is easy to see in comparison to his other, bad guy roles. Even if he couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag, though, his talent in the martial arts makes the fight scenes remarkable. His forte is being able to more convincingly take on numerous attackers at once, rather than in a lot of fight films where they seem to attack one at a time.

As a whole, this movie is essentially an 80’s Action flick set in the modern age. Aside from the whole white ninja thing which was done to death in 80’s flicks like American Ninja, Enter the Ninja, etc., when the action shifts to New York City (clearly not really NY, but they get an A for effort, or A-ffort?) they seem to view it still as dirty old 80’s New York at times. When Casey and his Sensei’s daughter, Namiko, are trying to find a hotel, the one they walk into is run-down, filthy, and clearly used by rich business men for a little “side action”, if you know what I mean. I could’ve sworn I was watching an old Walter Hill production, not a movie that came out less than a year ago. Also, when Casey is captured by the police, the camera pans around the precinct where there are numerous cops walking flashy hookers around in handcuffs. This is a classic 80’s Action staple, seen in films like Beverly Hills Cop, Robocop, and other films that may or may not have “Cop” in the title. Let us also not forget the hilariously evil rich white guy and cult leader who has been hiring Masazuka to assassinate anyone who’s been going up against his oil business. I couldn’t help but smile every time this guy recited his lines with the subtlety of a battering ram.

Well, there you have it. Ninja is a solid throwback to 80’s Action flicks in more way than one. My only real complaint was the abundance of CGI blood that kept creeping in during a lot of the very gory ninja kills. But aside from that and a couple other instances of budget restriction, this movie was a lot of fun; a streamlined old school Action flick with great fight scenes shot so you can actually tell what is going on. Since Florentine is a former martial artist himself, he likes to make sure that his talented fighters aren’t short-changed by an abundance of quick cuts. I have to also appreciate the classic “Whoosh” sound effects whenever the characters make any dramatic movements; classic. So I proclaim this another success in the Florentine/Adkins cinematic arsenal, and I’ve already got my eyes set on Undisputed III: Redemption. Let’s do this…

Body Count – 54

Scenes where you feel the Sensei’s daughter should be a better fighter - 5

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