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It remains as true today as it did in the days of the ancient Samurai: the weapons of the Ninja hold legendary powers for both good men and evil. The deadly weapons of the last Koga Ninja have now been entrusted to an American Ninjutsu student studying in Japan. Commanded by his Sensei to return to New York and protect the weapons at all cost, he must defeat the skilled Yakuza assassins hunting him and prevent the power of the weapons from falling into evil hands.
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The story: Casey (Adkins), a western orphan studying the art of ninja in Japan, is asked by his sensei (Togo Igawa, Memoirs of a Geisha) to deliver the prized treasure of their school to America to keep it safe from the hands of a jealous outcast, Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara, Letters from Iwo Jima), who has honed his skills and recruited members of an American gang-sect for the sole purpose of getting his hands on the prized heirloom.
Apparently, "Ninja" was created back-to-back with another Adkins vehicle, Undisputed III: Redemption; knowing this and comparing the production values of the two, it's easy to speculate that "Ninja" was lower on Florentine's list of priorities. Don't get me wrong, it's good-looking for a DTV production, but it fails to match the standard set by his other big project. Its superficial sleekness is interrupted by the occasional unnecessary post-production 'enhancement' and the fact that it's not backing up any particularly breathtaking action scenes. Again, what's there is better than any old DTV martial arts flick, but fans of Adkins will note that he's been in more exhilarating brawls than these and delivered much cooler moves. The close-quarters fight in the train is neat, as is the randori in the warehouse, but most of the other fights are either too short or one-sided to stand out. It's all better than quick-cuts and computer effects, in my opinion, but come on - was it really impossible to utilize Adkins as well as he has been in the past?
As a torchbearer of the ninja subgenre, the movie disappoints for choosing to ape the style of "Ninja Assassin" rather than classics like Revenge of the Ninja. There are some definite clichés and cheesiness to remind us of the good ol' Cannon days, but far from paying homage to the golden era of ninja movies, Florentine indulges in excessive CGI bloodletting and ends up making a minor mockery of the ninja archetype via some clueless character spins and occasionally exaggerating physical abilities to a ridiculous lengths (e.g. the disappearing-in-front-of-your-eyes trick was actually done better in "Ninja Assassin"). The 'modern ninja' aspect was pretty cool - use of night vision, retractable swords, etc. - but I wish it had been exploited a bit more, especially since the final showdown between Casey and Maz is billed as an all-out old school vs. new grudge match but didn't do much to perpetuate the premise.
Admittedly, maybe I'm being a bit too hard on the movie; I guess I was just hoping for Florentine to pull off another "Undisputed" and show up the multimillion-dollar Hollywood studios again. Alas, "Ninja" will fool no one about its DTV roots, for it fails to rise above all the stigmas of low-budget moviemaking. As mentioned, comparisons to the other big ninja movie of our time don't fare well for this one: though there's some definite quality here, it fails to shine as brightly as its super-glossy competitor. Florentine fans ought to remain faithful, but if you're looking for the truly defining shadow warrior flick, look to the past - it can't be replicated in modern times, it seems.
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.
That opening was 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.