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.
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.
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.