It’s a hallmark of proper exploitation to produce a low budget version of a theatrical sensation and even though Ninja Assassin seems to have slipped through the cracks of this year’s much-bemoaned short box office dollar, there’s certainly room for imitators because ninjas are timeless, baby! Who doesn’t like a good ninja movie? More to the point, who doesn’t like a bad ninja movie? In the 80’s, Golan Globus and Sho Kosugi carved veritable video store empires with a series of godawfully shameful ninja flicks, many of which starred round eyed gaijin holding high ranking positions in a tradition of martial arts that is historically exclusive to the Japanese. This, itself, is hilarious but it’s also an artifact of 80’s racist policies about Western audiences embracing ethnic hero archetypes in their schlocky, stupid fucking movies. Still, it’s an ironic breath of fresh air to find that this policy is alive and well in 2009.
Isaac Florentine’s Ninja, which I feel the need to spell explicitly every time for the benefit of search spiders, has got to be one of the strangest real-life anachronisms I’ve yet to encounter. This kind of ninja movie is hard to conceive of. A part of its spirit seems locked firmly in 1985 and that’s a really good thing because it seems to exist outside of time. I really love martial arts movies but usually only when they’re produced in Asia because fighting actors are more commonly found in Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo than they are in the West and it usually makes for that difficult combination of skills that makes characters a believable lot. Here in the states, fighting actors tend to be picked from a more capable stable of stuntmen. For whatever reason, maybe they did Brigadoon in High School before their career path found them leaping off of tall buildings while on fire for a living. Or in Scott Adkins’ case, maybe you’re just a good looking dude. Whatever the case is with Adkins, it’s pretty clear why he had his mouth sewn shut as Weapon XI in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
In a fairly familiar plot, the head of this particular ninja school is getting old and has narrowed his list of successors down to a couple of his most accomplished fighters. Among them is the hot headed and probably evil Masazuka and the American orphan of a drunk serviceman, Casey, who is totally the good guy. When a match of sword sparring results in Masazuka nearly killing Casey, Masazuka is cast out of the school and he uses his considerable training to become a highly accomplished assassin. He returns to the school to claim what he believes to be rightfully his, a case full of ninja weapons handed down through students over generations but Casey and the Soke’s daughter, Namiko, flee to New York City with the case in order to hide it but Masazuka comes after them and employs the aid of one of his clients, a corporation that is a front for a malicious cult of vaguely satanic bad guys. This movie has it all, folks…
…And that’s why it works. Make no mistake. It falters in the acting department as this is a movie cast almost entirely out of professional stunt men and martial artists. Though, star Scott Adkins is beginning to appear in a lot of direct to video fight movies, he’s nothing short of typical as far as Western fighting actors go. He’s physically impressive and his ability to whip ass with empty hand or weapons is remarkable but his ability to convey the emotions of a man confronting the forces of chaos that have, more or less, uprooted his entire life, are less than impressive. Thankfully, we’re all here to watch him kick ass on everything that moves and this movie features many, many setpieces that are short on dialog and long and kicks and punches. Florentine, for an American director, has a knack for directing exciting, well paced fight scenes and it should come as no surprise considering his background directing the Western adaptations of Japanese Sentai shows.
Ninja’s plot is about as cliched as they come and most of it seems to be lifted right out of Enter The Ninja minus Franco Nero but the idea is very much the same. This left-field element of the literally evil corporation turns the entire picture on its head. Given the proper comic book treatment of the material, which seems like something straight out of a backup story from Punisher War Journal, it all seems perfectly acceptable and adds a little melody to what would ordinarily be a one-note picture characterized by throwing stars and black suits.
Ninja paints a strange picture of actual ninjas, portraying the school that spawns Casey and Masazuka as a group of noble fighters on par with samurai, adhering to a strict code of honor. I’m sure that this was a device meant to paint our hero in a positive light but actual ninja were, in fact, nothing more than a group of craven mercenaries. Historical inaccuracies aside, Isaac Florentine’s Ninja is a blast. Adkins has a meathead quality about his prsonality and the love story angle between Casey and Namiko, though developed over the course of the running time, never seems to coalesce into a believable plot device but Masazuka and his sweet ninja suit that includes a night vision helmet and guns makes for a killer bad guy. A staff of talented fighters also buys the movie some credits as it is stuffed with fantastic fight scenes, culminating in a many on two brawl on a subway train. Even if this scene does nothing to convince me that an aluminum crutch is an adequate weapon against hardened brawler bad guys, it’s still quite something to behold.
Ninja, shot on the cheap, mostly in Bulgaria, has a lot of fun with its script and cast and is great fun to watch in equal measure. Adkins, the star, has nothing approaching star power, even on the direct to video circuit, but his prowess as a fighter paired with Florentine’s excellent action direction makes a flimsy looking movie rise above its often obvious limitations. Innovative in places, such as tracer visual effects following the tips of clashing swords, and downright insane in others (eg. Gene Simmons cape as a means of drifting to safety from great heights), Ninja deserves to reach the cult market and embrace each and every one of you. Ninja is a shamelessly cheesy movie that hearkens back to the age of the action shelf at your local video store. Florentine takes a grade of action movie most accurately represented by kickboxer flicks on VHS and ushers in a new age of exciting but cheap-ass martial arts entertainment. It’s rare when a white guy martial arts movie works so make sure you don’t miss this one.