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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
2009’s Ninja was a weird little gem of a movie. I at first thought it was designed solely to cash-in on the recently released big-budget Ninja Assassin movie directed by James McTeigue and produced by the Wachowski brothers (in fact, I accidentally rented Ninja thinking it was Ninja Assassin. I had no idea that it wasn’t just another The Asylum knock-off filmed in Bulgaria for $40 and a few handfuls of change. Starring Scott Adkins, possibly the best on-screen martial artist since Tony Jaa burst onto the scene in the early 00s, the film looked and felt somewhat cheap, but at least had a sort-of can do spirit to it. It’s 2013 sequel Ninja II, which neither returning director Isaac Florentine nor star Scott Adkins actually considers a sequel, still looks fairly cheap, but has more action spectacle by way of awesome martial arts fights and choreography than any of the big budget movies I saw in theaters this year.
Scott Adkins returns as Casey Bowman, the eponymous Ninja from the first movie but additionally an American martial arts expert living and training in Japan (Adkins is himself British in real life). When his pregnant wife Namiko (Mika Hijii, who is the only cast member other than Adkins from the first film to return) is brutally assaulted and murdered, Casey must track down the perpetrator(s) on a worldwide quest and seek revenge for the loss of his family. Also joining the cast are Kane Kosugi (son of martial arts legend Sho Kosugi), who portrays Bowman’s sensei and friend Nakabara as well as Shun Sugata, who portrays the heavy, a villainous drug kingpin known only as Goro. It should be known that you basically need to know zero information from the first film to enjoy this one, so you don’t even need to seek out the original Ninja.
Being equal parts Jean Claude Van Damme as well as Liam Neeson, Adkins is an unstoppable ass-kicker throughout the 95-minute running time of the feature. This is in no way a criticism – it is unbelievably awesome to witness all of the insane martial arts shit that Adkins can pull off. Whether escaping from prison or creating homemade poisonous smoke bombs, he can pretty much do whatever the fuck he wants. Adkins is not an award-winning actor, but I think he does just fine with the material he has. It helps that he has a leading man look as well (and really, he could be Ben Affleck’s stunt double). The film takes Bowman from Japan to Thailand to Malaysia and the scenery the filmmakers are able to pull off on such a cheap budget is pretty good (the film was entirely shot in Thailand, a beautiful country as is). Production design is notably cheap looking, but that actually works in the film’s favor. It’s nice to see a movie where everything in the background isn’t shiny, clean, and new.
There are fights aplenty in Ninja II (awesomely known as Ninja: Shadow of a Tear in some promotional materials). I would estimate that there is an awesome martial arts action set piece probably every ten to fifteen minutes, meaning the film is absolutely packed to the brim with great fights and stunts. My favorite set piece in the whole movie was perhaps Casey’s Thailand bar fight, where he faces off against five or so super angry locals (this film might have the most angry extras of all time in it) after an inadvertent mishap. The film never cuts away from the action and the entire thing is framed so you can absolutely see what is going on and who is fighting whom. Outside of 2012’s The Raid, I haven’t been this impressed with a martial arts film since perhaps 1994’s Drunken Master II (released state-side in 2000 as Legend of Drunken Master). The choreography is just that good.
The film is impossibly cliché however, and as noted earlier it is not a high budget feature by any means. Though Adkins’ star has grown noticeably over the past few years (especially after appearing in both X-Men Origins: Wolverine where he was Ryan Reynolds’ stunt double as well as The Expendables 2 where he played Van Damme’s second in command) and his screen presence is impressive, he is not the kind of actor who can carry a massively budgeted production. I don’t mind this at all, because a film like Ninja II would probably lose a lot of its luster if it had such a budget. Florentine and Adkins have been cranking out these weird little action gems for years now, and with services like Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, and Amazon on Demand, there is certainly an audience out there for them. Ninja II may be a cheap action film, but it certainly offered more awesome, visceral thrills for me than any of the huge Hollywood blockbusters I saw last summer.