You Get What You Pay For: Ninja
We return to test out another free flick’s mettle. Can this Ninja cut the muster, or will we break his Dojo’s signboard?
Exactly two entries into the new You Get What You Pay For series and IMDb TV causes me to break my format. How auspicious. The selection on IMDb TV was so limited, that I couldn’t really find enough movies of a certain genre to do my normal “Pick 3” format. So I went with the one that had the schlockiest movie jacket. And here we are: Ninja, a 2009 film that beat Ninja Assassin to the punch by a month. It then got beaten like a rented mule in every other regard.
Casey (Scott Adkins) was orphaned at an early age. The head of the last surviving Dojo devoted to ninjutsu takes him in, and in time he rises as one of the few capable of succeeding the elder as Shisho. Also, the elder’s daughter Namiko has the hots for him. Not bad, gaijin-san!
Both of these facts royally piss of Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who despite being supremely talented, is held back from becoming Shisho due to his temper. When a duel gone wrong ends in Masazuka’s banishment, he decides to seek counseling for his anger issues. Just kidding. He kills everyone in the Dojo except for Casey and Namiko, who were sent to New York with the Dojo’s #1 treasure: the last remaining weapons of the Koga Ninja clan. As you might suspect, Masuzaka wants those, too.
The Adkins Diet
Remember the good ol’ days of trashy B-movie goodness on the likes of TNT and USA? Scott Adkins does, and he’s hauling the 80’s on his well defined back. This modern day Lorenzo Lamas has been pumping out nostalgia tinted action fests left and right, and the two I’ve watched have done the timewarp the right way.
A lot of movies going for that old school vibe come across as shameless cash grabs or cynical satires. Scott Adkin movies feel like a continuation. It’s like B-grade companies kept right on making “Up All Night” fodder, with only the camera resolution and choreography improving. Same laughable plots, not quite ready for prime-time acting, and hokey special effects; yet his movies feel earnest and dedicated to entertainment. Whether you are actually entertained will probably vary based on if you find a modern(ish) redux of that kind of movie refreshing or tedious.
For me it helped.
State of the Art of the Fire-Wheel
Listen. I’ve watched every single episode of Naruto. I’ve beaten all the NES Ninja Gaiden games. I’m pretty much THE leading authority on ninjas. As such I will be grading Ninja harshly, but fairly.
The action in Ninja is a mixed bag. Scott Adkins has the martial arts chops: his kicks, punches, and flips are impressive and impressively choreographed. His nunchuk skills? Those leave a lot to be desired. This movie loves showing off two things: Adkins chiseled body, and Adkins getting his ass kicked whenever it comes to a weapon fight. Masuzaka kicks his ass several times. Namiko kicks his ass several times. The elder isn’t shown kicking his ass several times, but I’m sure the director’s cut is just a montage of Shisho kicking a young Casey’s ass up and down the Dojo.
Which is a shame, as the fight scenes not involving ruining Casey are very well done. And Ninja doesn’t just get down with throwing stars and swords. This movie loves showing montages of the Koga Box of Ninja Playthings, and they all get a whirl. Think of just about anything Japanese doo-dad you can wreck a dude with, and someone’s using it. They get points off for using the “secret Ninja poison” trope too many times, as well as penchant for tacky CGI blood-spurts. Otherwise, Nathan-Sensei approves.
The big knock on the movie is for wasted opportunity. They show Shisho, Casey, and Masuzaka using hand seals when preparing for a ceremony or a fight. We all know hand seals are supposed to be used for cool Ninja-shit like breathing fire and strangling people with your shadow. It’s a glaring omission. This film would have easily rocketed up to “best thing I’ve seen this decade” if Masuzaka had hit Casey with a shuriken just to find that Casey had switched himself with a log. Bold filmmaking requires bold choices.
The plusses for Ninja are it’s earnestness and the choreography, as well as it’s nostalgia value. It’s demerits is for using Scott Adkins as a punching bag, and it’s terribly cliché plot. How cliché, you ask? This film is almost a complete ripoff of the Kyodai Ken episodes on Batman: The Animated Series.
American Orphan turns out to be the white savior of an ancient Japanese art? Check. American has a rival that brings dishonor to his clan? Yup. American sets up shop in Gotham-Fucking-City? You betcha. Rival comes seeking revenge? Go ahead and notify the lawyers.
Listen, B:tAS wasn’t recreating the wheel with that story either, but it was done better. “Night of the Ninja” and “Day of the Samurai” do in 40 minutes what Ninja tries to do in an hour and a half. The acting is better in the cartoon to boot.
Two Thumbs Up All Night?
It doesn’t make Ninja trash, but it does mean you have better options out there. As such, I’d say to stick to Adkins other works (which are Undisputably better) unless you want a express train to 1989 basic cable.I know I keep banging that drum, but man did this film feel like someone had locked it in a time capsule shortly before Rhonda Shears ran out of hair spray. If you want a whiff of what was in that capsule, go ahead and give Ninja a spin. If not, I’d go visit another Dojo.