I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Ninj*

tn_ninjaAll I wanted for Christmas was NINJ*. But it doesn’t come out in the US until March, so I ordered it from Thailand. It’s a Christmas miracle!

Over the last year or so, while sci-fi nerds all over the world were dreaming of the possibilities of AVATAR, a much smaller, more specialized band of connoisseurs – DTV action fans – were dreaming of NINJ*. It showed promise because of three reasons:

1. Isaac Florentine. The Israeli martial artist turned filmatist is the only reliable DTV auteur I know of. His movies usually have a fun tone and always have great, well-staged fights with energetic camera movements (and sound effects whenever somebody moves their arm or turns their head). He’s made distinctive vehicles for Dolph (BRIDGE OF DRAGONS), Michael Jai White (UNDISPUTED II) and Van Damme (THE SHEPHERD: BORDER PATROL – although he disowned that one. But I liked it.).

mp_ninja2. Scott Adkins. The British martial artist who was stunt double for Ryan Reynolds in WOLVERINE and also took over as Weapon XI (it wasn’t his fault) has been stealing movies from his co-stars for a while now, especially in Florentine’s movies like SPECIAL FORCES, THE SHEPHERD and UNDISPUTED II. It’s about time he moved up to the starring role.

3. Ninjas.

In NINJ* Adkins plays a ninja who does ninja stuff, sometimes against other ninjas, etc. To be more specific, he plays Casey, an orphan raised in a dojo in Japan that teaches an honorable form of ninjitsu. Casey is clearly sensei’s pet so Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA) is bitterly jealous and gives him shit about his deadbeat parents and lack of proud Japanese heritage and what not. While sparring, Masazuka loses his shit and throws his sword at Casey, so he’s banished from the dojo where he’s lived his whole life.

This scene could be really routine, but instead it’s full of emotion and ambiguity. Masuzuka is heartbroken, he can’t believe his sensei would be so harsh. He doesn’t lash out, he falls to his knees begging and crying. Casey just stands in the background, stone-faced. I kept wondering why he doesn’t say something, ask the sensei not to banish him. Is it because he agrees with the punishment? Because he knows he has no say in it? I think by keeping his mouth shut, by not stepping out of place or showing emotion, he’s trying to be more Japanese. Ironically, if he would’ve been more American in this one instance then it might’ve smoothed over their feud a little. But since he does nothing there’s no turning back – the ninja war is on.

“Some time later” there’s some sort of ninja graduation going on at the dojo, and Masuzuka shows up without an invitation. He seems totally different, a cocky outsider, having become a big time assassin. He wears a cool leather jacket, like a former nerd showing off a the high school reunion. He threatens everybody and the sensei realizes it’s time to hide “the Yoroi Bitsu,” a box full of antique ninja weapons that represents his school. He knows Masuzuka is gonna try to get it, so he sends it to New York along with Casey and some others to guard it. Basically, it’s an old box taking part in the Ninja Protection Program.

And then the story is about Casey and this bad ninja fighting over the weapons in fake New York City. I like that the story is very simple and compact (it’s only 86 minutes long) and I like that it’s all about this box of weapons. You know, there’s a girl that gets kidnapped and everything but for the most part the motivation seems to be the stubborn protection of a box of swords and shit. I like that the movie never questions whether it’s worth it.

The character of Casey isn’t a real detailed or memorable one, but his simple backstory redeems it for being yet another white ninja movie. In Japan Masazuka ridicules Casey for not having parents. In New York Casey tries to locate his birth mother, but finds out she died. Those two small scenes give meaning to the ending, when he defeats Masazuka (SPOILER). Basically they are brothers, both orphans with the same father figure. But although he is racially an outsider Casey is more true to the ideals and traditions of their father. He earns his place in the family.

The story is very streamlined, but there’s room for a few bits of flare. One great one is The Temple, the secondary bad guys. They’re this oil conglomerate that hires Masazuka to assassinate the competition, but they’re also some kind of satanic cult who do rituals in robes and brand a symbol onto their chests. They’re mostly just set up briefly in order to be robed enemies in a big fight scene, so it’s an enjoyably absurd touch that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Before NINJA ASSASSIN came out I was convinced that these two would start a resurgence of ninja movies. But NINJA ASSASSIN turned out to not be good enough to be noticed. I liked it more than most, but it wasn’t the instant classic I was hoping for, and although it had the bigger budget and the presence of Sho Kosugi I do think NINJ* turned out to be the better movie. Its fights are better. Maybe or maybe not in choreography, but definitely in the way they’re put on screen. No closeups or quick cuts that confuse what’s going on, because Florentine is all about showcasing his great fighters.

It’s kind of funny, they do end up having alot of similarities. Both take place split between a Japanese dojo stuck hundreds or thousands of years in the past and modern cities. Both have rival ninjas, orphans raised in the same clan. Both have cops trying to uncover an assasination ring (thankfully this one has less emphasis on that). Both have the hero captured by the authorities and then escaping when the lights go out and the bad guy attacks. NINJA ASS. has a cool scene of ninjas fighting in traffic, NINJ* isn’t as epic but it does have 2 different scenes of jumping over moving cars (for real). Both have CGI blood, but N.A. goes for an over-the-top and stylized approach while NINJ* is a little more realistic. N.A. uses tons of CGI weapons, NINJ* has one part with a digital effect on a sword to make it look weird.

But NINJ* is a little more pure example of the genre. It uses the full range of ninja weapons: swords, bow staffs, nunchakas, arrows, throwing stars, poisoned blow darts, antidotes, a smoke bomb. It has the sensei trying to defeat someone in the dark by closing his eyes and listening. The hero doesn’t wear a ninja costume the whole time, but the villain does often wear high tech ninja armor with night vision goggles. Sometimes he’s out of costume though, but uses his ninja cunning to, for example, get a seat on a booked flight to New York. And at the end Adkins suits up into full ninja gear for a ninja-on-ninja battle. Also it has many of the other ninja staples that were in NINJA ASSASSIN like an assassination scene, alot of wall scaling, flipping, swinging, hiding in the shadows, etc.

This movie is so ninja in fact that the ‘A’ on the title is a throwing star. That’s why I’m spelling it NINJ*, it’s like when everybody decided SEVEN was supposed to be typed SE7EN. It makes me cool and in-the-know, as you can see.

Adkins doesn’t exactly create an iconic hero here, and in fact I could sympathize with the very cool villain at times. But I do think Adkins does fine in the acting department and is far less of a chump than the heroes of some of the classic white ninja and martial arts movies. More importantly his physical presence is great in the fights, stunts, and somehow even his sword stance at the dojo looks completely menacing. Maybe the next Florentine/Adkins joint will be SAMURA†.

I gotta respect a DTV movie with a villain this interesting, because aside from BLOOD AND BONE and Adkins himself in UNDISPUTED II that’s not something you see too often in DTV action. Also I like that the love interest is a warrior involved in some good fights (especially the one on the subway car) although it’s kind of a shame she still gets beat so bad. She’s the daughter of the sensei, maybe she shouldn’t have this much trouble with the random thugs.

Since this is a 2010 release in the U.S. I’ll take it as a good sign for the upcoming year of DTV. Okay everybody, point your anticipation in the direction of UNDISPUTED III.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Saturday, December 26th, 2009 at 5:40 pm and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

32 Responses to “Ninj*”

  1. “…uses his ninja cunning to, for example, get a seat on a booked flight to New York.”

    this sentence makes me want to watch this movie.

  2. I really enjoyed this movie and your review Vern, this was everything I wanted Ninja Assassin to be that it failed to be. Gotta admit that on the subject of “Undisputed III” I’m bummed that Adkins is the good guy. I am, however, more than a little stoked to see him squaring off against Marko Zaror. I’d recommend you check out Zaror in “Kiltro” and “Mirageman” they’re great little flicks.

  3. Haha, thanks for waiting until the end of the NINJA review to explain this “NINJ*” business.

  4. As long as Adkins doesn’t talk too much Undisputed III should be pretty good. The guy had zero charisma and was pretty stiff in Ninja but was great in all of the action scenes. The bad guy had 10 times more charisma then Adkins and he actually made me want to see what else he’s done. This was a pretty enjoyable action movie that pretty much gets straight to the point.

  5. Still waiting for this one , I don’t know when it will be released here . I skipped some of the review for spoilers , but I see that you enjoyed it more than Ninja Ass. I’m okay with the more simple story , the real stunts and careful and realistic use of CGI blood and effects , but I also like that this seems like a smaller scale story , with the protagonist trying to solve his own personal problems , not a “saving the world” scenario so abused in action movies to create tension. So , in conclusion , the movie with ninjas in it with the better results , in terms of audience , is G.I. Joe ? Let’s hope this will do well in the DTV market for a sequel .

  6. Yay! A main character who is a male that’s named Casey! Sorry, that sounds weird, but I’ve almost never seen a movie that has a dude named Casey besides that new TMNT series. Oh, that’s my name, so that’s why I’m happy. Also, cool fact about the name Casey: it means “Brave Protector,” so the main character’s name has a deeper resonance, due to Casey having to “protect” the weapons. Sorry about the rambling, need to slow down on snorting rat-poison.

  7. Thanks for the review it cleared up a little confusion I had. Saw a trailer for this ages ago, but then got confused when Ninja Ass came out. Obviously 2 different films. Looking forward to this one. I checked out Undisputed II on your recommendation a while ago and loved it, but still haven’t tracked down a copy of Blood and Bone. I’ll have to look into if this is getting an Australian release.

  8. BTW, when did the whole “Sesevenen” shit begin? It’s not even on the poster written like that!
    http://www.impawards.com/1995/seven_ver1.html

  9. Hi Vern
    Hilarious read as allways but we couldn’t disagree more on the movie itself. It was a lifeless, formularic, badacted, bad staged and borring piece of shit film. Atkins is more lifeless than Michael Dudilkoff and no near the level of pure enjoinment he was in Undispited II. I followed some of your advises on DTV movies and saw Blood N Bone and Undispited II and loved every second of both. This though, I hated every second off.
    P.S. and I love the concept of ninjas

  10. CJ, it is on the VHS/DVD though…

    http://tinyurl.com/ygou46p

  11. Actually, scratch that. Just the DVD. On the VHS they spell it out. Weird.

  12. I wonder if sound effects in this one suck as bad as in BLOOD & BONE. GREAT movie, but will it kill ’em to use less crappy digitized “fighting” library sounds? Christ, in Shaw Brothers movies it was two guys doing all the foley and it’s still sound awesome and add to the excitement of the fights! If you ask me, those stupid sound FX are much more annoying than, for example, CGI blood.

  13. It seems in the trailers that , in addition to all the weapons listed by Vern , there’s also a kusarigama , sort of like nunchakas “on steroids” , with a long chain , and sickle and iron weight at the extremities . Yeah , like the one used in the Ninja Assassin trailer . That thing must be one of the most difficult weapons to master in the entire world , I can see myself cutting off my hands and balls ( while strangling on the chain ) just by looking at that shit. Imagine a scene like that , the master is talking to Casey or another student “.. and for the love of God , don’t even look at CallMeKermiT training with the kusarigama , that guy is a jackass “.

  14. I noticed that Undisputed II was at Walmart for 4 bucks. I should have bought it.

  15. CaseyF*ckinRyback

    December 28th, 2009 at 3:44 am

    Hey Raizo… not forgetting the king of all bad-ass Casey’s… Casey Fuckin’ Ryback!!!

    Damn, I’ve got alot of catching up to do, I haven’t seen one of Florentine’s flicks yet, altho I’ve been salivating over the UK release of NINJ* for a while now.

    I’ve read a few reviews for both of the Ninja pics, but Vern, yours were the ones I was waiting for! Counting down the days to this one!

  16. Great review Vern. I picked this up via Ebay but can’t get it to work properly on my computer, so I have to wait till I can watch it at my brother’s house. What I have seen of it looks good, but I can’t imagine it is going to be anywhere near as good as Blood n Bone.

    Also, as a side note I watched the A&E biography of Seagal last night. Has anyone here checked it out? It wasn’t bad, but I found it hard to take it seriously without Vern’s involvement.

  17. They actually did ask me to be interviewed for that, Charles. I had to say no on account of mysteriousness. At first I was bummed that some dudes from cracked.com were on there, but they didn’t say anything too smarmy, and I was impressed by Judah Friedlander’s non-ironic appreciation of Seagal. Anyway, my lack of involvement is my fault, not theirs.

    And no, NINJA is not as good as BLOOD AND BONE, but I enjoyed it alot, real simple straightforward ninja action with a touch of emotion.

  18. Vern,

    I am glad to hear that A&E approached you about working on the Seagal biography. As much as you would have brought a lot to the production I can understand your desire to remain anonymous. I do agree with you about Judah Friedlander. When I first saw that he was involved I was skeptical but he showed genuine appreciation for Seagal in the piece. The Cracked.com guys were not bad, but despite their Seagal knowledge they just seemed out of place.

    I am looking forward to finishing Ninja. Based on your review I am sure that I will enjoy it. I wish more action movies tried to keep it simple and straight forward. In the Seagal biography they talked a little about the decline in Seagal’s career coinciding with the rise of CGI and the Matrix style action movie. Do you think there will ever be a day when we see lower budget small scale martial arts action movies like Blood n Bone given a theatrical release? When I think of the action movies I enjoyed as a kid and young adult (Bloodsport, Lionheart, any of the early Seagal stuff) I can’t imagine any of them getting a theatrical release in today’s market.

  19. I need to start using mysteriousness as an all-purpose excuse.

    “Hey Majestyk, why didn’t you come to my birthday party?”

    “Mysteriousness.”

  20. The only problem I had with Ninj* (nice one) is that Namiko is shown at the beginning to be Casey’s equal in fighting – especially with a staff. However once in NY, she is relegated to damsel-in-distress. It would have been much more entertaining to see her kick more ass.

  21. Vern, you have me intrigued by “Blood and Bone” – never heard of it before, but its released here in the UK Jan 25th. I’ll be checking it out…

  22. Vern, you should have answered A&E’s questions through IM. They could then have one of those programs that read what you wrote in the accent of your choosing. The artificial voice would then be fed through your “Tell’s It” icon head’s gif-animated mouth. The crudely lip-synced zoomed-in on head would be seen on an old computer monitor (dimmed for your protection) behind a distorted glass shower door. Or maybe something even more complicated.

  23. MikeOutWest, prepare to have your Bell Rung on the 25th. “Blood and Bone” is easily the best DTV movie in history, and one of the best martial-arts revenge flicks ever made, period. Read the first few paragraphs of Vern’s review if you need any more convincing: http://outlawvern.com/2009/08/16/blood-and-bone/

  24. Already got it on order Newbs. I’ll let you guys know what I think once I’ve seen it. Cheers!

  25. my girlfriend insisted we turn this off, as she was bored as hell towards the middle. i’ll have to finish it sometime. i wasn’t blown away, but i think it at least deserves a full viewing.

  26. What the hell was up with those digital zooms. They took me by surprise, as I did not remember reading about them in this review. It’s something too big to overlook, specially taking into account that Vern uses to hate this showoffy crap.

    Anyway, not really a good movie. Maybe I should have watched Ninja Ass instead.

  27. Another great recommendation by Vern. This is exactly what I want in an action movie. Adkins is fast and graceful. Such impressive fight scenes. I’ll definitely check out his other work. Thanks, Vern, for breaking my Scott Adkins cherry.

  28. The acting and the fake New York almost ruin the movie. It’s still pretty awesome.

  29. Also, for it being a Ninja movie, it’s very reminiscent of late 80s HK action films. It has the zooming, the undercranking and the ludicris stunts.

  30. Finally caught this one – yeah, the fake New York was really distracting. I’m almost positive the final battle on the “street” was the same street at the end of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. And the subplot with the satanic cult of dudes in hoodies (who looked just like the main character in that videogame Prototype) was ridiculous, like something out of Dragnet ’87. But the fights were good and I gotta disagree w/ the majority – I thought Atkins actually had a lot of quiet charisma in this one. Sure, some of his line delivery was a bit clunky, but he has a good share of wordless glances and scenes that really work. (I love the subtle nod he gives the villain in their final scene.) Definitely a step down from Undisputed II, but a decent DTV nonetheless.

  31. I like the satanic cult. They don’t spend much time developing them, they just have them on screen long enough to get a laugh and then be used as generic thugs for Adkins to beat up.

  32. Thanks for that tip, Pikey! I always wondered what old bitters bottles looked like, but I never thought to do a google image search.

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