Bridge of Dragons (1999)

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Nu Image make the sort of films I love, pretty much. Starting with low budget sci fi and action (Cyborg Cop, Project Shadowchaser) in the early 90s then, in recent years, lucrative deals with action superstars like Sylvester Stallone and Gerard Butler (the Expendables series, Olympus Has Fallen), they’ve got a good thing going and clearly learned well from their old bosses at Cannon. They’re one of the main companies operating out of Sofia, Bulgaria, where aging stars like Jean Claude Van Damme and this film’s own Dolph Lundgren make action movies just like they used to at their height.

Then there’s director Isaac Florentine, one of the kings of this new straight-to-video world. He’s made a few films with Scott Adkins, like the amazing “Ninja”, and, weirdly, quite a lot of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” episodes. This is from relatively early in his directing career, and is also the first film that Nu Image made in Sofia before buying a studio there a few years later. So what’s it all about?

After a good old traditional “soldiers storm the rebel base” scene to kick us off, we’re introduced into the film’s world, and it does something simple and clever that more low-budget films ought to do – sets the action in a fictional country, so you don’t have to worry about landmarks and trying to make a normal town square look like *famous city*. It’s a place with princesses and evil generals, where high-tech military equipment rubs shoulders with horse-driven carts; and Dolph is “Warbird”, one of General Ruechang’s top mercenaries. Ruechang has seized de facto power after the death of the old king, and is about to marry Princess Halo to make the power “legal”. Only problem is, she doesn’t want to, so escapes, and Dolph’s a good guy so after a bit of tracking her down, goes over to her side, and that of the rebels.

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Because of the location, there’s lots of really great scenery and set-pieces. They film in what I assume is the grounds of the old Communist government’s headquarters, and there’s palaces and so on that would be way out of their price range if they filmed in Britain or the US. It’s an interesting visual style and even when the action’s not very active, there’s usually something to look at. It is a bit weird how all the evil empire’s vehicles have a large “666” written on them though.

The problem is, surprisingly, the action. Florentine makes some weirdly goofy choices when it comes to how to film – Lundgren looks awful running in slow-motion, for one; and some people are very obviously yanked out of shot in a weird, awkward way when an explosion happens. I’m guessing budgetary constraints stopped the use of squibs, so people just seem to fall over when guns are fired in their general direction too. Perhaps it’s a problem with HD as opposed to the viewing method of choice for low-budget action, a crappy VHS tape, as sometimes all you notice are the extras holding guns in the background who’ve clearly got no idea what to do.

The actual one-on-one fights are decent, though, with Lundgren (who’d apparently just qualified for his third-degree black belt in karate before filming started) acquitting himself well. The General, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who you’ll have seen in hundreds of similar movies, is great too, and there’s a surprisingly good bit of fighting from Dolph’s sidekick, Gary Hudson (a fine “That Guy” actor).

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It’s a curious one. For all the interesting choices it makes, it’s hampered by a hundred little things, niggles that you’ll notice in pretty much every scene. Florentine certainly improved, but Dolph seems like he had stopped caring a few years previously, and realised that just scowling and kicking ass were all he needed to do. Shame. I think this also qualifies for our misleading title award – no bridges, no dragons, nothing you could metaphorically call a “bridge” either.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Ninja Squad (1986)

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What the hell was that? This is perhaps the laziest film I’ve ever seen, with absolutely no effort made to produce a plot that made any sense, an ending that was in any way satisfying, or anything else that you’d expect if you wanted people to pay to watch the thing you’d made.

Godfrey Ho and Richard Harrison are back – we’ve discussed their careers in our reviews of “Full Metal Ninja“, “Ninja Terminator” and “9 Deaths Of The Ninja” but this one has managed to find new ground below the bottom of the barrel, although I feel like my word might not be enough, though, so I’ll tell you a bit more about it. We start off with perhaps the slowest training sequence ever, as a man and a child very gently swing swords in vague patterns. He then tells the child about the history of the ninja, which is absolutely wrong, and doesn’t even make any sense on their own terms. Richard Harrison, playing Gordon the Ninja, is dressed in one of the most insane getups of all time – a ninja outfit which is a pink-purple colour with silver trimmings, and a headband which says “Ninja” on it. STEALTH!!

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But never mind that, because it’s quickly ten years later, and young Billy’s training is over. Instead of being a stealthy assassin like other ninjas, he decides to support his community by trying to become a cop. So far so ordinary (for Godfrey Ho, anyway), but then we come to the first roadblock, and that is the split storylines.

We’ve had examples of two films stitched together before, but this is different and worse. 90% of the film is Billy and his story, and the rest is Gordon being gradually stalked by Ivan The Red, a rogue ninja. Only Richard Harrison is barely even in any of these sections, so his first billing on the DVD cover is about the same as having “Star Wars” with Porkins (aka Red Six) as the top-listed star. So, Ivan The Red, for reasons never elaborated on, wants to kill Gordon, and Gordon doesn’t want to fight. So ol’ Ivan says he’ll kill another ninja every month until Gordon agrees to the fight, and then just keeps appearing at random intervals in the film, finding ninjas hanging out in clearings, and killing them very easily. Eventually he draws Gordon out, but more on their final fight later.

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Billy has spent ten years training as a ninja. I want you to remember that. He goes home to his shanty-town, where his mother and sister greet him (it looks like they filmed in a genuine shanty-town somewhere too). How they could afford to put him through ten years of ninja training, or why he didn’t think of job prospects before returning, are points sadly never elaborated on. Before he has much of a chance to do anything, though, the local crime boss’s goons have come round demanding their “rent”. Billy fights them off and then the rest of the film is the tit-for-tat of Billy and the crime boss fighting each other – more goons get shot, then Billy’s family is killed (apart from his sister, who’s kidnapped), and so on. Billy spends most of the film shooting people, so it might reasonably be said that his ten years of ninja training are not used to their greatest effect. Or at all (unless you count him beating up a few people).

His adventures seem sort of random – almost certainly because they are. He is asked to help out some timid local guy who has information about his sister – so he goes and rescues a bunch of kids virtually single-handed, then the timid guy turns into a cop and a trusted confidante (well, he has a shoulder-holster in public, so I’m assuming here). Then he wanders around a few warehouses? He saves a woman’s purse after it’s snatched and she offers him a job, but it’s never referenced again. His girlfriend’s father is the chief of police but he thinks all ninjas are criminals, so Billy is having no luck there either.

The ending, though, is what sets it apart from other so-called films. It’s thoroughly…well, I’m not sure, but whatever it is, it’s thoroughly it. Billy goes to a boat reclamation yard (the sole interesting thing in this film is this visual, as characters leap round rusted hulks) for his final showdown with the bad guys. He shoots them all, of course because that’s what ninjas do, up to and including the big boss. When the police turn up and tell him to drop his gun, as it’s all over, you kind of think “okay, it’s pretty dumb but this at least makes sense”. Then the boss, left for dead in the middle of the street, revives long enough to pick up his gun and shoot Billy a bunch of times in the back, killing him! What the bloody hell!?

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Before we have more than a few seconds to process this, cut straight back to Gordon, who’s finally agreed to fight Ivan. He senses that Billy is dead, and Ivan admits to killing him, even though we just saw what happened (oh, and he promised earlier that he’d not kill Billy til after he’d finished off Gordon, but whatever). Ivan is a surprising choice for a ninja master, looking sort-of doughy and going a bit thin on top. So the two ninjas, one in pink/silver, the other in red, have a fight. Ivan has his sword torn from his grasp, but in the next scene he’s holding another, completely different, sword – perhaps he had a spare somewhere. Their fight is short and predictable – Gordon stabs him, job done. But that’s not all – he then does a backflip and disappears in midair! THE END!

I hope this review has given you a flavour of just how odd this film is. To tie two completely unrelated films together, you really need to work at it, and this film almost made a negative amount of effort. The two different stories also don’t make any sense if you just take them separately, so there’s nothing to focus on. It’s mind-bogglingly incompetent in absolutely every way, and manages to commit the cardinal sin of also being boring for a fair portion of its running time. If I’d paid more than 25p for this film, I would have felt ripped off, and I can only recommend you do literally anything else other than watch this film.

Oh, one more thing – there’s no “Ninja Squad” in this film. Gordon makes a point of being a loner, and the only ninjas we meet are all solitary too. “Just Some Ninjas In Clearings” would have been a more accurate title, I feel.

Rating: thumbs down

Ninja (2009)

Before we get started, you might like to read this article. While some of it, from the excellent Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, is slightly OTT clickbait-style journalism (of course, I would never CHRISTINA HENDRICKS NUDE PICS do that) there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there about the modern world of direct-to-video action films.

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Sofia in Bulgaria is the central city to this new world, and it’s one where people like Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme continue to make the same sort of films they used to back in the 80s and early 90s, and where action films are treated as serious business, not as a faintly embarrassing joke of the recent past, “Expendables” style. It even has its big names – directors like Isaac Florentine, and stars like Scott Adkins, who went from martial artist to bit part player in British soaps to “bad guy 3” in some fairly big films (he was in The Expendables 2, as JCVD’s sidekick) to starring in his own films. We reviewed his surprisingly good Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning some time ago.

Adkins and Florentine have worked together on six films now, “Ninja” being the fourth. It must make certain things easier, knowing your leading man’s strengths and weaknesses, and it shows here. Adkins is Casey Bowman, an orphan who was raised in a dojo in Japan. He becomes one of the best martial artists there, even if according to my wife it looks like he spent a bit too much time on his muscles, with his main rival for the soon-to-retire Sensei’s position is Masazuka. The two of them are strong, but in different areas, and in classic kung-fu film style, the ultimate victor will be the one who learns most from the other.

There’s a huge MacGuffin in this film, the Yoroi Bitsu, a big case containing all the best martial arts kit. Or something. It’s really not important. Masazuka is thrown out of the dojo for losing his temper, goes away and trains as a ninja, becoming a hired assassin for a group of shadowy businessmen at Temple Industries. They hire him to steal the Yoroi Bitsu, but the sensei sends it with Casey and his daughter Namiko to New York to hide, and that’s where the majority of the film takes place. Temple’s thugs, known as “The Ring”, pursue Casey, and after Masazuka kills the sensei he joins in too.

First and foremost, this film is exciting. If you’re a fan of action movies at all, you’ll remember that moment, whether it was “Commando”, “Kickboxer”, “Cobra” or “Die Hard”, where some sequence had you completely fixated, where the artistry of the fighting and the staging of it had you cheering at the end (even if you were only cheering in your head). “Ninja” has tons of those moments, including the increasingly-famous subway fight scene and a few other set pieces that are just brilliant. Considering the extremely low budget (the New York city street is very obviously a set, and the subway trains are old Russian ones), the quality of the fight scenes is even more impressive.

A lot is made in reviews of action cinema about a sense of place, knowing where people are in relation to each other and how that affects the way the scene unfolds. It’s one of those things you don’t really notice until it’s done well, as Florentine has undoubtedly done here – there’s no shaky cam, no people suddenly beaming across large rooms to get involved in fights they were nowhere near. With a lead guy like Adkins, who can do pretty much everything asked of him in terms of stunts and fighting, it makes it a lot easier too. Heck, he can even act! He’s unlikely to win any Oscars, but so what? He does what is needed.

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The plot is pretty paper-thin though, if we’re being honest. From the reason Adkins was left in a Japanese dojo, to the evil plan of the Temple Corporation, to the rather crowbarred-in nature of some of the fight scenes; it exists mostly to hang the action on. The romantic subplot, while necessary to give Casey something to worry about in the amazing final fight, is a bit underdeveloped, and Masazuka’s expression is pure evil from the start, leaving his betrayal as less than a surprise. But if you watch a film called “Ninja”, starring a guy like Scott Adkins, and are worried about the romance element, then I suggest you’re doing it wrong. There’s an argument to be made that low-budget martial arts films are more highlight reel than actual movie; I choose to look at it a different way. Hollywood action movies are about marvelling at the amount of money spent on a scene, or getting a headache at the shaky-cam usage – the action has become secondary. A simple plot isn’t necessarily a bad plot.

“Ninja” is great, dramatic, exciting in a way few films are these days, and if you’ve got love for old-school action films at all, you’ll enjoy this one.