The Art of Deception

In the face of the death of physical media, DVD and Bluray packaging continues to be, let’s say… inventive… in its methods of persuasion.

Hey, deception was a legit ninja skill, right?

As ninja movie fans we’ve all been duped by shinobi-fied covers to VHS or DVDs of vanilla kung-fu fare shamelessly retitled “Ninja-something-or-other.” These, however, step the game up a notch — one ninja movie camouflaged as another!

Note this new label for the Scott Adkins vehicle NINJA, deliberately biting on the much wider known NINJA ASSASSIN.

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Who can keep either of these 2009 films straight anyway, just buy them both!

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It’s one thing for an indie movie to “align itself for marketing shorthand” to another bigger film coming out at the same time, but THIS is another story altogether:

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This recent overseas label for the Hiroyuki Sanada / Conan Lee slugfest NINJA IN THE DRAGON’S DEN strives for recognition and relevance from the video gamers of the world by shamelessly crowbarring-in a stolen rendering of Sega’s Kage-Maru from Virtua Fighter.

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But they re-color him black so he looks more like Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden.

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Us non-gamers will also recognize Ryu Hayabusa from his hit indie film Alien vs. Ninja!

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Oh, wait… no, that’s right… NONE OF THESE CHARACTERS ARE IN ANY OF THESE MOVIES!

Laughable as this chicanery, these hijinks, might be, I do love the idea of Virtua Fighter (and even Matrix) fanatics possibly getting duped, then being subjected to some old-school ninja fare that was… ewww, shot on FILM… that those of us longer in the tooth would consider superior.

If only a small percentage of those victims stick with it, maybe some new fans of old-school ninja media are born?

HA HA HAHAHAHAH HA! Made myself laugh… Like anyone under 40 is going to buy physical media!!!

In fact, ignore this whole post.

I’m going to go fool around with my abacus and listen to player piano reels.

NINJA II now widely available

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 6

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Was it really four years ago that I wrote this gushing review of Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine‘s throwback NINJA?

Ninja was to the more widely known Ninja Assassin what Deep Impact was to Armageddon or Tombstone to Wyatt Earp — a cheaper, more exploitive and ultimately more enjoyable alternative to a bigger property. Ninja Assassin aimed for a mainstream audience, and largely missed. But worse, with its overly-digital post-Matrix aesthetic it also missed the expectations of the frontline genre enthusiasts. In short, it kinda pissed off old guard martial arts movie maniacs, and us ninja geeks.

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The one thing I felt super guilty about in my dislike of the more-style-than-substance Ninja Assassin was not showing the proper love for Sho Kosugi‘s return to the screen. I supported the flick when it was in theaters, but have never returned to it, and in reading this site you’d hardly knew it existed. However, that guilt is now blunted somewhat, as Adkins, Florentine and, well… A Kosugi… return in Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear!

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Kane Kosugi, that is. All grown up, pretty damned ripped, and looking A LOT like his pop!

As was with the first film, they don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Writer David White (who also scribed the superb Undisputed 2 and 3) spins a soundly-structured revenge plot that takes advantage of Thailand filming locales, weaves in some genuine ninja lore, but mostly gets the hell out of the way so the fights can take over.

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We’re reunited with Casey and Namiko, now living happily and rebuilding after the dojo-pocalypse of the first film. Things are looking good. Then he goes and gives her a medallion as a symbol of his commitment.

A medallion.

Seriously, he gives her jewelry.

Giving jewelry to a loved one in a martial arts movie…

GOOD IDEA CASEY, WONDER WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT???

By the chiseled-in-stone laws of  the genre, Namiko is immediately killed, launching Casey on the vengeance trail so he can of course eventually slaughter the men responsible, then look down at the pendant, circle of blood now closed and whatnot, and cue the end titles…

And dammit I LOVE these movies and this team for doing this! They don’t hide from the old conventions, they embrace them. This crew is determined to not let the world forget how damn SIMPLE it really is to make a fun martial arts movie.

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Casey’s quest for justice begins with some high-kicking rehab at the dojo of old family friend Nakabara (Kosugi), and even though he seems to know a whole lot about the drug cartel responsible for Namiko’s death, shifty couriers are discretely delivering un-marked packages to him, and he has a goatee, Kane’s obviously not the actual villain of this movie, so yeah, bonding time!

Now here’s where Ninja II drops the awesomeness like carpet bombs!

Nakabara knows three things: 1.) Namiko’s wounds are the result of the signature chain weapon of a ninja-gone-bad named Goro. 2.) this same Goro is running drugs out of Burma, a land heavily populated by stuntmen waiting to have their asses kicked, and 3.) some 75-odd-years-ago, Japan’s fabled “Last Ninja” Fujita Seiko trained a squadron of WWII shinobi and unleashed them in the jungle, where they wreaked bladed havoc on the Allies and hid a bunch of arsenals, just like THIS MAP shows!

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HOT DAMN! Cue the travel montage…

Casey heads out into the jungle, finds an old cache of leather-and-canvas-era ninja gear and the storming of the requisite enemy compound is on.

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Goro is played by Shun Suguta, a veteran character actor of over 100 films, including Ichi the Killer. He knows how to pose and gesture like a deadly lunatic, and is pretty damned great as the master of the barbed manriki chain.

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Casey kills a pile of guards, has a brutal fight with Goro’s right hand heavy, then disposes of the villain amidst the light of a burning drug empire. Case closed…

OR IS IT?

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It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Adkins and Kosugi were cast together for a reason, and after a big surprise reveal the final chapter of Shadow of a Tear sees them tear each other apart, trashing room after room, alternating arsenals and exotic flying spin kicks in equal amounts. Absolutely great! One almost nostalgically roots for Kane here, and I swear if he had his rocket-assisted weapon-laden Huffy from Pray for Death, Adkins would have been toast!

Once again, Florentine and friends deliver a hybrid of two distinct eras of martial arts cinemas — weapon-centric ninja combat of the 1980s and the high-kicking spinning and jumping combo-based movie kick-boxing that ruled the 1990s. Both are retro by now, and the heart and soul of each period is retained, and embellished with some modern touches. One modern crutch they NEVER lean on though is the ubiquitous and utterly contemptible shakey-cam. No jittering camera trickery to hide the casting of non-martial artists or overwhelming digital fixes that for many of us have ruined fight scenes in modern action cinema.

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The purists (aka haters) out there will complain that either the ninja stuff ruins a perfectly good kick-boxing movie, OR that the kick-boxing ruins a perfectly good ninja film. Obviously I come from the ninja side of things, and if there’s one complaint with Ninja II it’s that it leans a lot more to the 90s side of things than the more 80s-centric first film.

In fact, one could almost edit out the ninja elements entirely and still wind up with a conventional martial revenge film. Perhaps an Undisputed-related script was retro-shinobi-fied here? A bit of a shame, as the idea of the Fujita Seiko legacy, powering up with antique WWII gear, etc. is so damn great I wanted it more at the center of the film.

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Historical images of the fabled “Last Koga Ninja”

The reality, however, is that combining the shadowy ninja visuals with the more contemporary unarmed combat makes these movies a whole lot easier to market to worldwide audiences, and as these are genuine indie movies they need each and every sale.

So VN is officially giving Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear 5 (Ninja) Stars. It’s an essential purchase for any ninja movie buff.

It’s really important we all support this movie, too. It does well enough, we’re that much closer to a fourth Undisputed getting funded. By purchasing and spreading the word, you’re not only rewarding the filmmakers who worked their asses off here, you’re checking a YES vote towards old school movie martial arts, towards holding the camera still and letting legit screen fighters and skilled choreographers do their thing. And you’re not letting the 80s ninja craze be forgotten.

Misters Florentine, Adkins and Kosugi… THANK YOU!

Buy Ninja II on Amazon in Bluray or DVD formats.

Available to Netflix streaming subscribers here.

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I have such insane love for this press still from REVENGE OF THE NINJA…

10 Things I love about Isaac Florentine’s NINJA

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp. Deep Impact vs. Armageddon. Films rushed out ahead of bigger budgeted studio tentpoles that ended up being better, more satifying and in general more FUN films. Its happened again (albeit a little late in this country) as Isaac Florentine‘s throwback Ninja kicks all kinds of ass over last year’s forgettable and regrettable Ninja Assassin.

Ninja Assassin took itself way too seriously, had poorly filmed fights and was too slick for its own good. It looked expensive, but in what was an ultimately dumb movie, you end up resenting that bigger budget feel. I can’t remember liking much of any of it, save for Sho Kosugi’s big screen comeback.

Exploitation films are a guilty pleasure to many because they are cheap and fun as hell, and what money they do have is spent in the right places – hiring more stunt guys and martial artists and blowing more shit up. When Golan-Globus beat the big studio development of Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja to the screen with Enter the Ninja, they proved how little money the genre needed to totally work (and the proposed major studio project never went anywhere as a result).

Fast forward three decades and here we are with Ninja, a throwback romp full of weapons fights and black costumes. Damn if it isn’t as warming to my soul as the 80’s Canon fare was back in the day. As a lover of that 80’s clamshell VHS and late-night cable period, as well as 90’s direct-to-video fare, I have to salute this film’s fighting spirit!

Here’s ten reasons to buy/rent/stream this thing NOW:

(images ©Nu Image / First Look Studios)

1.) Illustrated pre-credits and a logo using shuriken as one of the letters

The graphic designer side of me gives thumbs up all around.

2.) Scott Adkins – MARTIAL ARTS ACTION STAR!

He's 'Casey' - American ninja student in Japan. In an age of mainstream actors and pop stars being digitally composited into wire-assisted fight scenes, Adkins is what the genre needs again - a real fucking karate guy on screen! Seems like he works out on occasion, too...

3.) Cute-as-a-button Mika Hijii

She's the hot daughter of the dojo's sensei. When the school's #1 Japanese student (Tsuyoshi Ihara) sees Casey making the moves, whadda ya think is gonna happen? Hijii is a real trooper in this, getting thrown around like a 90's HK heroine. Her posing is excellent and she blends seamlessly with her stunt double in some very nice action scenes.

4.) Wait a minute… is that Fumio Demura!?!?

I marked out for not only a training sequence cameo but a full-on fight scene with legendary karate / weapons expert Fumio Demura, a familiar face in martial arts mags and books in the 80's.

5.) Actual effort expended on costume design.

OK, you have an evil student who decides to throw away tradition and strike out on his own as a modern merc. Of course he'd update the gear to reflect 21st century tech. The evil Masazuka's costume is definitely in the Blade / Snake Eyes vein, and considering those property's successes, not a bad decision by the film makers.
Night vision for a ninja (makes all sorts of sense) via a rather video-game-like visor that turns any fight scene into a first-person shooter.
I'm thinking the filmmakers consider this flying wing gimmick something right out of BATMAN, but in reality it has a much older pedigree, harkening back to the spy kite from such properties as AKAKAGE.
Casey's more traditional gear is of the MORTAL KOMBAT vein. Makes sense, as Florentine's resume includes POWER RANGERS and the unsung WMAC MASTERS.

6.) Evil cult led by even more evil international industrialist!

I really lost it when this scene came on - such a throwback to an era I so miss. Not that you needed extra villainy in a ninja-laden betrayal / love traingle flick, but why the hell not. Combining both the evil hooded cult with the logo altar and secret warehouse chamber AND the evil industrialist cliches is sheer brilliance.

7.) Power-up scenes and hidden weapon caches

More tenets of the 80's genre! Hand symbol power-up in front of weapons chest - CHECK! Although by strict union rules, this chest should light up from below and emit smoke...

Hidden closet full of martial gear - CHECK! Again, some smoke would have been nice...

8.) Actually trying something different with fight scenes.

Florentine employs all sorts of effects tricks and editing gimmicks to add some new life. Some work, some could be seen as annoying, but at least he's thinking and TRYING to push the envelope. This sword sequence with a sort of vapor trail effect is pretty damn nifty.

9.) No daytime night mission gear!

Ninja has some really nice night time lighting, exterior compositing, and low light cinematography.

Florentine never puts a ninja in night gear in a sunlit scene. Seems like a common sense thing, but even the best of the 60's Japanese films did stupid shit with black clad ninja running around in cane fields in broad daylight.
See, with the right lighting (and it is excellent throughout), you can put a black-clad figure against pavement and still read details. Well done!

10.) The “Only a Ninja Can Stop A Ninja” commandment is obeyed in full…

Its traditional weapons vs. high tech violations of tradition in the climactic ninja-on-ninja showdown!

Man was this movie like seeing an old friend. Overall, Ninja looks great and is the product of a director who cares about martial arts. I wish this had gotten US theatrical and stolen some of Ninja Assassin‘s thunder, but at least it beats it to the home video shelf.

If you were raised on Kosugi/Dudikoff fare, I think you’ll dig the retro soul of this movie. I almost want to dub it down to an old VHS tape and watch it full frame to see if it can really hang with Pray for Death and The Octagon.

The 2000’s model of American martial arts cinema was built on Blade and The Matrix, while a generation of young movie goers have only seen big screen shinobi via Batman Begins and GI Joe. Florentine’s Ninja addresses those aesthetics, but processes them through an 80’s/90’s martial exploitation model that puts a genuine karate guy in the lead and delivers on everything you could ask for in a modestly budgeted but ambitious actioner.

In short, this is the FUN American ninja movie we all wanted last year but didn’t get. See it!

Amazon has the best price on this of anyone – buy it here.

And while yer at it, the same team is responsible for the superb 2007 film Undisputed 2 – a throwback to 90’s kickboxing flicks, complete with illegal prison fighting rings! Absolutely awesome combat, with a sequel coming.