Saturday, January 04, 2014

Ninja (2010)

Nu Image, the independent studio that comes closest to emulating the output of Cannon during its Golan-Globus years, produced NINJA, a love letter to the numerous ninja flicks that flooded theaters in the 1980s—primarily Cannon’s own trilogy of ENTER THE NINJA, REVENGE OF THE NINJA, and NINJA III: THE DOMINATION. The excellent action filmmaker Isaac Florentine, whose credits include the wonderful-but-you-haven’t-seen-them U.S. SEALS II, BRIDGE OF DRAGONS, and SPECIAL FORCES, is better suited than almost anyone else to bring back ninjas.

Florentine also reteams with his frequent star Scott Adkins of UNDISPUTED II and UNDISPUTED III, sequels highly regarded by fans of direct-to-video action films. Both men are at the top of their game on NINJA, a formulaic martial-arts film blessed with creative, artistic action sequences staged by Akahiro Yuji Noguchi, who goes way back with Florentine to their days directing MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS episodes. The setup by Boaz Davidson (THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN) and Michael Hurst (MANSQUITO) is reminiscent of Marc Olden’s Black Samurai novels, as well as ENTER THE NINJA.

Casey (Adkins), an American orphan, and Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a hot-headed Japanese, are the top students at their dojo. Their sensei (Togo Igawa) banishes Masazuka for trying to kill Casey in a jealous rage. Years later, Masazuka is a top assassin who wears an outfit more like a superhero’s than a ninja’s, decked out with night vision goggles and shoulder pads. He kills the sensei out of revenge and pursues Casey and the sensei’s daughter Namiko (Mika Hijii) to New York City, where they have taken a chest containing the weaponry and costume of the last Koga ninja for safekeeping. More kicks, punches, and swordplay are forthcoming, and most of it excitingly performed for maximum effect by the actors themselves.

Where NINJA falls apart is its copious use of CGI blood, which looks phony and threatens to destroy whatever suspension of disbelief the audience can muster to accept the silliness of ninjas in New York City. Other bad CGI can’t be blamed on Florentine, but rather the money men at Nu Image who forced the director to replicate New York on a fake-looking backlot in Sofia, Bulgaria (that one subway stop sure shows up a lot). One fight between Ihara and Adkins on a rooftop looks ridiculous surrounded by the clearly phony green-screen effects surrounding it. With as much effort Florentine and his team put into making their fights and stunts look painful and real, it’s a shame they had to rely on such reality-shattering visual effects. Adkins and Florentine returned in 2013’s superior sequel, NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR.

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