Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Ninja (2010)

Hot ninja-on-ninja action!

Back the 80s, it seemed like an action hero couldn't get anything done without running into a bunch of ninjas. Ninjas everywhere. Damn ninjas. Thanks to hucksters like Godfrey Ho and the commodification and pussification that accompanies any fad, the market became oversaturated and the public suffered from ninja-fatigue. Kind of like zombies today. With the ongoing revival of everything 80s I guess it was only a matter of time before filmmakers dusted off their ninja costumes and gave things another go, and in a classic case of Hollywood synchronicity the film Ninja Assassin (starring Korean pop sensation Rain) was released right about the same time as this unrelated direct-to-DVD film, simply titled Ninja. To be honest I'm more interested in this one, since it's directed by Isaac Florentine (Undisputed 2) with a long-overdue starring role for his muse Scott Adkins.

In this film Adkins plays Casey, taking part in the great Hollywood tradition of the caucasian ninja. He was orphaned in Japan after his mother left and his father committed suicide, so the authorities did the responsible thing and put him in a bilingual ninja dojo so he could spend his life learning how to be a deadly assassin. Child services work differently there. He grows up to be the star pupil of the school, even the Sensei's cute daughter Namiko (Mika Hijii) has the hots for him, so he attracts the jealous ire of his main rival Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara). When Masazuka loses control during a match with Casey he is banished from the school. Usually in a film like this the hero will stand up for his fellow student, but Casey just sits there while Sensei chews him out.

A few months later, Masazuka, now working as a killer-for-hire for an evil oil corporation, gate crashes a ceremony at the school. He starts talking some shit about the school and the Sensei derisively calls him a "common assassin", which is pretty ironic coming from a ninja. The Sensei knows that Masazuka is really after the Yoroi Bitsu (which I presume is Japanese for "MacGuffin"), a box containing the armour and weapons of the last Koga ninja. To keep it safe he sends it to a Professor pal of his in New York, and sends Casey and Namiko along to guard it. I don't know why Masazuka wants it so bad, since he already has a whole bunch of sweet high-tech ninja gear, like kevlar armour and night-vision goggles. He also uses guns, which is cheating.

For some reason they decided that oil conglomerates just weren't evil enough, so they made the board members part of a secret cult that wears goofy robes and performs occult ceremonies in an underground chamber. They have an endless supply of goons who dress in conspicuous leather jackets that are emblazoned with the cult's symbols and it seems like every time they attack a couple of innocent bystanders get caught in a spray of machine gun fire. Plus they're pretty stupid; in their search for the Yoroi Bitsu they never think to check the university where the Professor works. They are the worst secret cult ever.

This movie is pretty short and very action-heavy. All of the extraneous subplots and side characters that usually pad out a direct-to-DVD action film are removed. Sometimes you think it's going to wander off into a subplot but it doesn't. For instance, while in New York Casey tries to track down his mother, but it turns out that she died from a stroke a few months ago. Boom. Subplot over. I appreciate the stripped-down approach, but it would be nice to have a few more character moments. No one is very memorable, particularly the hero, although I like to think it's part of his ninja subterfuge. What better disguise than a guy with no personality or defining characteristics whatsoever? I liked Namiko but considering she's a highly trained ninja assassin I wish they'd given her more to do. She gets to kick an ass or two, but generally gets beat in every single fight and Casey has to save her. She also gets kidnapped. You know, because she's a woman.

From the moment you see the Yoroi Bitsu you know Casey is going to dump it out like a kid with a toy box and put them to good use. When he finally suits up for the final battle it's Masazuka's high-tech ninja vs Casey's old-school ninja. It would have been cool if they'd included a a horse versus motorcycle chase scene, but since True Lies already covered that terrority I'll let it slide. The final battle is pretty cool and pretty much every single weapon in the Yoroi Bitsu gets put to good use; smoke bombs, chain sickles, nunchaku, swords, blowdarts, bow and arrows etc. I don't know if they should really be using these sacred antique weapons, but they seem to do the trick. There is a lot of cool ninja shit like somersaults and wall-flips and some sweet stunts like jumping over moving cars.

From a pure action standpoint I think this is probably Florentine's best one yet. He takes his typical old-school approach to action cinematography that I really enjoy, with lots of long takes, complex choreography, nice use of slow motion and not a lot of CG. He is always very careful about staging the fight and laying out the geography, so you are never left wondering where somebody is or who is hitting who, even when both fighters are dressed in black ninja outfits. Fights aren't at all "realistic" (whatever that means) but very acrobatic, with lots of flips and crazy flying kicks. Adkins excels at this. It's great when a director has worked with a martial artist for a long time, because he knows exactly how to get the most out of him. Yep, I really liked this one and it's got me super pumped for Undisputed 3.

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