Ninja is as simple, effective and to the point as its cover suggests. The word hangs at the top of the DVD cover all alone, avoid of such descriptors such as American, assassin, mutant, red, shoguns, teenage, turtles or warriors. Its only companion is a picture of a single man in a black costume wielding a sword that may very well be in mid swing. In both title and image, this cover tells you this flick delivers ninja
period, and that is no lie.
At the heart of Ninja are bitter rivals Casey (Scott Adkins) and Masuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara). Casey is an all around good guy who, despite being a westerner (P.C. for white), just happens to be a top student at a prestigious ninjitsu school in Japan. To ensure we see him as sympathetic, the movie reminds you he's an orphan every fifteen minutes or so. Masuka is the other top student and (surprise, surprise) hates Casey with a passion usually reserved for pedophiles and fascists. When Masuka goes as far as to try and murder Casey during a sparring match, the school's headmaster sends him packing and sets things into motion.
There are a lot of things which occur during the 86 minute running time of Ninja. There's a trip to New York City to retrieve an artifact for the school. There's also a secret society that feels straight out of a comic book and comes off as 1/2 cult and 1/2 mafia. There's even the budding romance between Casey and Namiko (Mika Hijii), the headmaster's daughter. But all of this is background to what we all want to see in films like this; ninja and action starring ninja.
While there are only two ninja in the film, the sheer amount of badassery present dares you to feel shortchanged. Most of the action deals with Casey fighting members of a mysterious cult who're in league with Mazuka, and these scenes deliver. Name a martial arts move and, odds are, it's used to great effect here. Scott Adkins is the real deal and is effortlessly able to tread that thin line between believability, practicality and style often lacking in more mainstream action flicks. While the scenes with Mazuka take a back seat, they still do a damn good job of establishing him as an extremely viable threat and a reason to keep the lights on at all hours. While Ihara's not a martial artist in real life, you'd truly be hard pressed to know it by how well he compares to Adkins' physical performance.
Between Casey and Masuka, more asses are kicked around the Big Apple than in the typical play through of Arkham City. And, I have to say, the beatdowns seen here veer dizzyingly close to being a live action version of that game. No matter how good that may sound to you, believe me, it looks even better in action. However, it all comes down to a bloodfued between two ninja that can only end with one left standing.
When the finale comes around, this is when Ninja's ninja really starts to shine through. The hand to hand takes a backseat to the likes of caltrops, shuriken, katanas and even poison. Things definitely get ramped up as the two rivals leave an impressive trail of bodies in their wake as their final conflict looms. And, that climatic showdown does not disappoint. By film's end, there is only one ninja left standing. But, at several points, it felt like it could have gone either way.
Now, while Ninja is everything you've been trained to believe a film with ninja in the title can't be (namely good), there are a few points of contention I had with it. First, the costumes looked like a cross between the Power Rangers and something from an old Sho Kosugi flick. While they worked within the context of the movie, I personally find the more traditional shozoku robes to convey a much more powerful image on screen. Then there's the ending. I think this movie would've benefited greatly by ending immediately after the final confrontation between Casey and Mazuka. It would've made a better, longer lasting impression by being more brutal, final and cutting edge (pun intended). Also, it would've kept things open for potential sequels. American Ninja was like smallpox on celluloid, yet it spawned four sequels. Relative Oscar bait by comparison, Ninja is easily of enough quality to warrant at least one follow up treatment as it's a sincerely entertaining film. All in all, Ninja stands heads and shoulders above the likes of similar fare such as the theatrically released Ninja Assassin.
Also, I just want to say Scott Adkins may very well be the single best Bruce Wayne ever and, sadly, one we'll probably never get to see on screen. Still though, one can only hope someone at Warner Bros. might take notice of the obvious match between looks, age and skills, coupled with some solid acting chops, and have that proverbial light bulb go off over their head.
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