Friday, January 3, 2014

The Gweilo Dojo: NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR (2013)

Let’s not beat around the bonsai: We love ninja movies here at Video Junkie.  I dream of a day when I can have Richard Harrison screaming “ninnnnnjjjjjjjjjja!” as a ringtone and Tom is always contemplating a full back Sho Kosugi tattoo.  Growing up in the ‘80s, ninjas were part of our everyday viewing life, thanks mostly to the Chuck Norris vehicle THE OCTAGON (1980) and nearly half the catalog of The Cannon Group.  The masked assassins were on our screens and hiding in the dark recesses of our minds.

With ninjas on the brain, you can no doubt understand that the announcement back in 2008 that director Isaac Florentine, currently the best action director going, was going to make a ninja film hit us like a throwing star to the chest. Even better, he was going to reteam with Scott Adkins, currently the best action star going, for this journey into the land of ninjitsu.  Holy shinobi, this was gonna rule.  Unfortunately, by the time NINJA (2009) arrived, our hopes were a bit dashed.  Sadly, Florentine took some major missteps with this project.  He abandoned his trademark fluid shooting style for action scenes in favor of a heavily edited “crash-zoom-morph” style that was more distracting than anything.  It did a disservice to the film’s main selling point, the martial arts skill of leading man Adkins.  Fans complained and, thankfully, Florentine and Adkins listened.  The team rebounded quickly with the excellent UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION (2010).  And now they are back with a NINJA sequel that throws a flash of powder in the eyes of fans, making the problems with the first film disappear.

NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR picks up after the events of the events of the first film back in Japan. Casey (Scott Adkins) is living a peaceful life and running a dojo with his wife Namiko (Mika Hijii), who has just told him that she is pregnant. Uh oh. You know in an action movie that means one has a big target on their back and she is dead before the 11 minute mark. Casey believes the culprits were a pair of thugs who tried to rob him and, having recognized a distinct kicking style in his earlier brawl with them, becomes an ass kicking Sam Spade.  This involves him heading to a dojo and whooping the asses of 5 dudes.  He quickly finds the pair and brutally exacts his revenge upon them. When I say brutal, I’m not kidding as he chops one dude's hand clean off.

Needing a bit of a respite (and getting the hell out of dodge), Casey heads to Thailand to stay with family friend Nakabara (Kane Kosugi), who runs a marital arts school and antiques business.  While there, Casey loses his cool during a sparring session and, unable to put the death of his wife behind him, proceeds to go out and get plastered among the locals.  Bad news for the locals as booze plus lightning fast reflexes ends in lots of busted heads from this drunken master.

Goro gives new meaning to
the old ball and chain
Back at the school, Casey opts to atone for his behavior by picking fruit but a kind student takes his place.  Minutes later this poor kid is dead and, even worse, is sporting wounds similar to those Namiko had around her neck. When Casey brings this up, it leads Nakabara to tell the story of Goro (Shun Sugata). During World War II, a squadron of ninjas was sent into Burma by Japan.  The leaders were Namiko's dad, Nakabara's dad and Goro's brother. When Goro’s brother went off the deep end, he was killed by the two dads and his younger brother swore his revenge.  Now a big time drug dealer, Goro is living up to his promise with his barbwire studded chain weapon. Naturally, Casey decides to head into the jungles of now Myramar to get his revenge.  Not only does Nakabara give him a map, but he also tells him where a cache of ninja gear is buried in the jungle.  Game on!

Chances are if you are watching something called NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR, you aren’t looking for DOWNTON ABBY style dramatics. And, to be fair, the plot of this action sequel isn’t going to win any awards. Like White’s earlier UNDISPUTED sequel scripts, the scenario is riddled with martial arts movie clich├ęs (the only thing that doesn't happen is Casey being thrown into a tournament) to the point that you feel he and Florentine are paying homage to the classics from the ‘80s without feeling the need to mock them.  (You get that sense of respect also with the casting of Kane Kosugi, son of the legendary ‘80s ninja star Sho Kosugi.  Kane is not only an excellent fighter, but he acquits himself well as an actor.)  And, honestly, the film could have the plotline of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981) and I’d be happy as long as it has fantastic fight scenes like the ones on display here. Ten minutes can't go by in this film without some brutal brawl taking place and I think this sets the bar for the number of fights in a Florentine film (thirteen in total). Choreographer Tim Man lives up to his surname as there are some beautiful moves on display. He plays Goro's right hand man and his showdown with Adkins is the highlight for me. The fight was so good that I had to watch it twice so I could see every intricate move.  Honestly, his work is a beautiful ballet of brutality where people miss and get hurt, creating a storyline within the fight itself. Thankfully, Florentine also captures it to maximum effect.  There are lots of long take shots going on here so that you can see all the moves and Florentine films it all with fluid motion.  The end result is probably Florentine's best action film so far.  Yes, we may only be three days into 2014, but I have a sneaking suspicion NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR is already going to be the best action film I see this year.

The obligatory Scott "Boyka" Adkins 
topless/shirtless shots to ensure our blog gets hits:

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