Ninja: Shadow of a Tear - Rebirth of a Franchise
Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, the latest title from director Isaac Florentine and star Scott Adkins proves this famous action team has a lot of new tricks on offer and plenty of fuel in the tank. What's more, after the underwhelming original Ninja (2009), this sequel offers enough of an old-school homage and fresh dose of energy to stamp the Ninja franchise back on the map and establish itself a cult status alongside the iconic Undisputed series. It might sound like a tall claim but I stand by it!
Although you don't need to have seen the original for this to make sense, the story takes place shortly after the first film with American ninjitsu master Casey (Adkins) now running the Koga Dojo with the his pregnant wife, Namiko (Miki Hijii). But when their home is invaded and Namiko is murdered in a brutal attack, the calm, disciplined Casey begins tearing apart the criminal underworld searching for her killers. With the help of his friend Nakabara (Kane Kosugi) who is based in Thailand, Casey discovers psychotic drug lord Goro (Shun Sugata) is responsible and trying to settle a score of his own. With only one outcome in mind, Casey sets out on a destructive path, waging war as a one man wrecking-ball to destroy Goro and his army.
This is a retro, cut-to-the-chase, straight up Martial Arts revenge film with the simplicity and directness of a 1970s or 80s Ninja movie. But on top of this, it's been injected with the unique action flavour of the Florentine/Adkins team and genuinely raises the bar above and beyond expectations.
The first point to note is that it truly ups the ante from the first film, which some found to be a little flat and underwhelming. This was in no way due to the talent involved, but the character of Casey was essentially a squeaky clean good guy with little edge. The action was varied and nice in places but didn't capitalize on the extreme physicality and jaw-dropping choreography fans have come to expect from this team. In contrast, here we have a much darker, moodier entry with Casey in full revenge-mode as a man with nothing to lose. With the stakes raised and the drama cranked up a few notches, the fights come thick and fast with Adkins' trademark athleticism and grace combined with a more violent streak; making use of weapons, full-contact slow-mo hits and major wrecks as bad guys are smashed through tables, cupboards and other objects. No wires or CGI here!
A great deal of credit should go to fight choreographer, Tim Man, who blends predictably high-kicking leg work with takedowns, grappling and weapons in a variety of cool settings; the street, the dojo, the jungle, an army compound, etc. Each fight is fresh, varied and tries something new. Tim Man also gets to play the main henchman and shares a cool fight scene with Adkins - surrounded by fire, gasoline and a lot of dead goons. Very cool indeed.
Kane Kosugi also deserves a special mention as a great co-star and someone who should gain better exposure in the action arena. His best known work includes Japanese movies and TV series like Muscle Heat and Ninja Sentai Kakurenjâ. American credits include DOA: Dead or Alive and War. Here he turns in a solid performance and reaffirms his physical skill and screen presence as a certified badass. It would be great to see more from him soon!
DOP Ross Clarkson, who frequently collaborates with Florentine, captures the tone, mood and refreshing 'East meets West' flavour with slick style. Particularly for fans of Hong Kong cinema, we sometimes take clean, crisp and legible action for granted, which only becomes apparent when served butchered, over-edited fights in American films. For anyone familiar with Isaac's work, that's simply never the case and once again he and Clarkson offer us stunning fights and exciting action set pieces - shot cleanly and framed widely so we can fully appreciate everything on offer.
Hopefully it won't be long before the film is released and fans can see the impressive new direction this franchise has taken. The film earned rave reviews at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas this year and it's great to see genre audiences celebrating a good thing. What's important though (also in reference to Undisputed IV which was recently announced) is that we get behind these films, shout about them, promote them and support them when they're released. Buy the DVD or pay to download it on iTunes, but DO NOT illegally download it. Piracy has affected so many low-budget films (a noted example being Undisputed III) and there's absolutely no sense in a film or franchise being raved about and then never supported commercially. As a business, these films need to make money for us to enjoy more from the filmmakers and studios. So please, when Ninja 2 lands on Blu-ray and DVD, make sure you support it!
In short, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear is not only one of the best western Martial Arts films of recent times, it's one of the best western Martial Arts films I've ever seen.