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Ninja
(2009)

Director: Isaac Florentine  
Cast:
Scott Adkins, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Mika Hiji


Sometimes I take a pause in my activities and think about what life will be like in the future. Unfortunately, when I do so, my mind often concludes that life will be not only rougher for me, but rougher for all of mankind. In several decades, for example, we will have run out of oil, and what will we do then?  Other things to worry about include the population of the world doubling about every thirty-seven years or so, and food prices going up every year. My feelings of more doom and gloom coming in the next few years extend even towards my prime hobby, which is (of course) the motion picture industry. Though I love movies, there are times when what I see coming out of the motion picture industry upsets me greatly, and I'm not talking about movies that were made to pull on my heartstrings. As I write this, Hollywood seems crazed with the idea of making movies in 3D, even though I personally feel that 3D makes movies look darker, murkier, and gives you an eye ache by the end of the movie. Plus, it makes admission to a movie much more expensive. There's another trend in the movie industry that upsets me, and that is with the way martial arts movies are being made. If you look at your typical American-made martial arts movie, you'll see that the fight sequences are far from satisfying. They like to shoot the actors from the waist up, and throw in so many edits during the battles that it appears that anyone could pass themselves off as a martial arts expert. What is worse is that Hong Kong martial arts movies, which used to typically have top-grade fight sequences, are now starting to imitate the Americans with the camera being up close to the action, as well as multiple edits during the battles.

But even though there is certainly plenty of stuff that might make one think that the future isn't going to be pretty good to experience, at the same time there is what Pandora found in the bottom of the box that she opened - hope. Bad stuff happens all the time, sure, but there are also plenty of good things that come into our lives and make our lives much richer and more enjoyable. As a child, I never had the Internet, and I certainly didn't see it coming. Now it's a big and positive part of my life. As for the decline of martial arts movies (both domestic and foreign), I have seen a glimmer of hope that makes me believe that the martial arts movie may not be altogether bad in the future. Let me now introduce you to that hope, a hope that comes in the form of a man you've probably never heard of before. His name is Isaac Florentine. I believe that the first time I experienced Isaac Florentine was way back when I reviewed the Dolph Lundgren movie Bridge Of Dragons, which Florentine directed. It was like no other movie I had seen before, but more importantly, the action scenes (especially the martial arts moments) kicked major ass. As the years progressed, I saw more Isaac Florentine movies, and I saw that this man definitely knew his action, martial arts and otherwise. Some of his other triumphs include Undisputed II and III, U.S. Seals II, Special Forces (the version with Marshall Teague and Scott Adkins), and the Gary Daniels vehicle Cold Harvest. While none of these may by major Hollywood studio movies, all of these movies deliver the goods in a way that many major Hollywood studio action movies would love to.

I am not saying that every Isaac Florentine movie is a winner - the Antonio Sabato Jr. movie High Voltage, as well as the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie The Shepherd were both disappointing overall. But even then, Florentine added a spark to these movies that made them Ninjabetter than if another director had helmed them. So if you should ever come across an Isaac Florentine movie, you should definitely check it out. The man knows his action, especially when it comes to martial arts. An accomplished martial arts master in real life, he knows what a fight scene should have. So you can imagine that when I learned he helmed a movie called Ninja, I absolutely had to see it. The fact that it was a production by the studio Nu Image (who make slicker than average B movies) gave it even more promise. Though I must admit that the fact that the script was co-written by the man who wrote and directed The Last American Virgin - which wasn't exactly filled with action - made me pause... but not for long. Ninja starts off in modern day Japan, and quickly introduces us to its hero, an American named Casey (Adkins, The Bourne Ultimatum) who was orphaned at the age of 12 and raised by a kindly ninja sensei (Togo Igawa, The Last Samurai). However, fellow student Masazuka (Ihara, Letters From Iwo Jima) resents Casey, and after almost killing Casey during a training session, the sensei banishes Masazuka from the dojo. Masazuka becomes a professional assassin, and when he subsequently threatens to take the dojo's sacred box of ancient ninja weapons, the sensei gets Casey and several others of the dojo's ninjas to take the weapons to safety in America. However, Casey and the other ninjas soon learn that putting an ocean between them and Masazuka is not enough to protect them, especially since Masazuka now has a group of assassins under his command...

As you can probably see, even with that relatively short plot description, we are not dealing with rocket science here. You probably recognized some plot elements coming from other movies. For example, the part with the former ninja student resenting the Caucasian ninja student in good graces with the dojo's sensei, and later hunting the Caucasian student down, happened before in Enter The Ninja. It should probably come as no surprise that the sensei has a beautiful daughter who thinks fondly of this gaijin in her father's dojo, and that a romance eventually blooms between the two of them. (For once, I would like to see a movie where an Asian man learning the art of American professional wrestling wins the heart of his coach's daughter, a Caucasian woman.) The sensei's daughter, by the way, is naturally shown to be a student of her father, so she obviously knows the art of ninjutsu. If you think about it, she should be even more accomplished at it, since she would have been trained in ninjutsu since she learned how to walk. However, during several scenes of martial arts battles, she is shown to be pretty much hopeless at fighting. She keeps getting beat up and requiring Casey to come in and rescue her from her beatings, or she needs Casey to take her by the hand as the bullets start flying, and quickly drag her into a safe zone. This is kind of insulting the more you think about it. Why couldn't this character been made to be able to hold her own? It would not only make more sense, it would improve the movie greatly, because one thing I have learned from martial art movies (like The Stranger) is that a woman who can kick ass is hot.

However, I do know that when you have a movie that is titled Ninja, people who pick it up are not looking for expert scripting. These people are looking for kick-ass action. I admit that's the primary reason why I decided to watch it, and I can happily report to you that when it comes to action, the movie delivers the goods. Isaac Florentine has triumphed once again. Watching the movie, I decided to study the action scenes carefully to see just what Florentine does to make them so well done. Looking at my notes, this is what I wrote: (1) We see it is actually the actors themselves - and not stunt doubles - doing the bulk of the fighting. Seeing the actors risk getting hurt is exciting and gives the scenes credibility. (2) Florentine usually steps back and shows the entire body of each fighter. You don't watch someone dancing from the waist up, and neither should you for a fighter. (3) The participants fight at the right speed. They are neither slow and boring, or so fast you can't make out what's happening. (4) Florentine doesn't rapid-edit. Seeing the fight participants execute complex martial arts with Florentine waiting patiently to say "cut" makes you admire the actors long and hard work. (5) Conservative use of slow motion. Florentine knows the right occasional spots to use slow motion to add impact to the brutality. (6) Frequent use of background flavor. For example, one fight scene takes place in the rain, adding atmosphere. (7) Florentine isn't afraid to move the camera around. Various swooping shots of the actors fighting add energy and excitement to what we are watching. (8) The fight participants often use their environment. A fighter might use a wall to run up and somersault off of, or swing on the support poles in a subway car. This adds variety to the fight sequences, making each martial arts battle unique.

As great and exciting as the action sequences might be, I have to admit that they are not perfect. When it comes to gun shot or sword wounds, more often than not the movie relies on showing blood with CGI. It doesn't look quite right, and makes things cartoonish. In fairness to Florentine, he does try to make it come across the best way as possible, such as darkening scenes where blood is shed, or in one clever moment making CGI blood seemingly splattering the camera lens. It's not just here that Florentine is trying his hardest to overcome the limitations that were dictated to him by the producers. For example, like most other Nu Image movies, Ninja was filmed in Bulgaria, despite the movie being primarily set in Japan and New York. Surprisingly, Florentine manages to pass off the various Bulgarian locations as Japan and New York better than you might expect. He is aided by stock footage as well as carefully chosen (and directed) locations around Bulgaria he shot on. Still, there are a few areas where even the best director in the world wouldn't have been able to do better than Florentine did. There are other script problems than what I've already mentioned, such as a key secret organization Casey finds himself battling whose motivations and workings are barely touched on and remain vague. Also, the acting by some of the cast leaves a lot to be desired. Though not a terrible actor, Adkins isn't able to make a fully fleshed-out character in part due to the screenplay not giving him enough to work with. As well, the Japanese actors in the cast struggle with their English throughout, making some of their dialogue hard to understand. But as I said earlier in this review, people who sit down to watch a movie with the title Ninja are primarily looking for great action, and in that category the movie delivers in spades. I can only wonder what Florentine could accomplish if he were given a bigger budget and more resources to work with.

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See also: Mafia Vs. Ninja, Ninja: Silent Assassin, Sakura Killers

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