First Look Pictures // 2009 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // March 26th, 2010
A silent warrior. A lethal mission.
Until George Lucas invented Jedi knights, with their laser swords and mind tricks, ninjas were the most badass warriors in the history of everything. They're still awesome. Relentlessly efficient mercenaries from Japan's feudal era, they sneak around in the shadows, lop heads off with swords, bash faces in with nunchaku, zing shuriken into foreheads, poison corrupt bureaucrats, and make black pajamas look like the coolest article of clothing ever invented. Put the word "ninja" in your movie, and I'm pretty much there. But that doesn't mean that any movie involving these famed assassins is automatically a winner. 2009's Ninja is a case in point.
Orphaned as a youngster, American expatriate Casey (Scott Adkins, Mutant X) was taken in at a Japanese dojo and raised in the ways of ninjitsu. Because of his western origin, he's resented by fellow star pupil Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara, Letters from Iwo Jima), who sees himself as the rightful heir of their sensei (Togo Igawa, The Last Samurai). When the volatile Masazuka violates the code of the ninja, he is ejected from the dojo and becomes a rogue assassin. He is determined to one day seize possession of the dojo and its prized artifact: the Yoroi Bitsu, armor and weapons belonging to the last great ninja. Realizing that Masazuka will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, Sensei sends Casey, his daughter, and the chest of armor to America, out of his former pupil's reach. But when Masazuka discovers Casey's location, and travels halfway around the world to obtain the Yoroi Bitsu, an extravaganza of ninja combat ensues.
If I wanted to be a smartass, I could say that Ninja is a live-action, though far more cartoonish, retread of 2008's Kung Fu Panda. The observation wouldn't exactly be fair because both movies hew closely to the most well-worn martial arts flick plotline: the apprentice who must perfect his craft in order to avenge his master from a turncoat villain. It's not as if Kung Fu Panda originated that storyline. Still, it doesn't speak well of Ninja that a picture featuring a clueless, slacker panda bear provides a more lively, action-packed, entertaining, and even nuanced presentation of this seminal fight flick storyline. Martial artist Scott Adkins -- who is most familiar to mainstream audiences for playing minor heavies in The Bourne Identity and X-Men Origins: Wolverine -- certainly has the physique and fighting skills to take on the mantle of an action movie hero, but it's not clear from Ninja that he has the raw charisma. The British-born actor has the chops to pull off a convincing American accent, but Casey is a bore as a protagonist, going through the genre-dictated motions between the fight sequences in which Adkins can really shine -- though, even then, he's hampered by cookie-cutter fight choreography and Isaac Florentine's (Undisputed II: Last Man Standing) workmanlike direction. Tsuyoshi Ihara, meanwhile, is a charismatic villain, but the screenplay gives him little to work with in terms of motivations or even scene-chewing badassery. Ninja, then, is a battle to the death between opponents that inspire more yawns from viewers than either love or hate. One recognizes that a final showdown is inevitable, but it's nearly impossible to care.
The rote nature of the proceedings and middling performances might not be a problem if the movie showcased truly kinetic and inventive action sequences. It doesn't. On paper, there's something mildly refreshing in Florentine's choice to choreograph, block, and shoot the fights traditionally, sans over-the-top embellishments like wire work and computer-generated blood and guts. Unfortunately, the onscreen results are a low-energy drag. Perhaps I've been so desensitized to stylized martial arts violence by the likes of Kill Bill, Sukiyaki Western Django, and Ninja Assassin that I can no longer appreciate good, old fashioned action, but Florentine's set pieces feel more like languid ninjitsu demonstrations than an off-the-chain cinematic throwdown. I could barely stay awake.
First Look Pictures delivers Ninja on DVD in a competent A/V presentation. The 2.35:1 anamorphically enhanced transfer looks decent if unspectacular. Colors are natural, black levels are reasonable but not perfect, and detail is acceptable. The image isn't an eye-popper, but most of its limitations are probably rooted in the shot-on-a-budget source. The Dolby 5.1 surround track makes decent use of the entire soundstage without being particularly showy. The score and some sound effects find their way to the rear soundstage, but there's not a lot of directional panning, limiting the track's immersiveness.
The reverse side of the keepcase lists items such as "5.1 Digital Surround" and "English SDH and Spanish Subtitles" as extras, which is another way of saying the disc is barebones. With the exception of trailers for Ninja and a handful of other First Look Pictures releases, there is nothing on the disc except for the feature.
Like Ninja itself, this DVD is forgettable.
Guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R