Judge Dan Mancini was inspired by a not-so-popular YouTube video.
"Power to the people."—Afro Ninja
Considering the numerous feature film adaptations of television shows, comic books, video games, and toy lines coming out of Hollywood these days, is it any wonder that someone would eventually get around to making a movie based on an 18-second YouTube video? I thought not. Afro Ninja: Destiny is writer-director-actor Mark Hicks' low-grade feature-length expansion of his low-grade slapstick vignette, which has attracted over six million hits on YouTube (as of this writing). The movie tells the tale of sadsack postal worker Reggie Washington (Mark Hicks, Body Shots), who becomes a national joke/folk hero when video of his clumsy martial arts battle against a gun-wielding, shell-shocked crackhead hits the internet and late night talk shows. Soon after, an encounter with an aged Japanese woman and a pair of glowing nunchucks endows the formerly flabby Washington with washboard abs, a giant 'fro, and astounding fighting abilities. When local thug and sneaker pimp Black Lightning (James Black, Love and a Bullet) shakes down Washington's soul food restaurant-owning Aunt Mary (Marla Gibbs, The Jeffersons), the Afro Ninja must spring into action to protect his neighborhood.
Afro Ninja: Destiny is a bizarre little misfire. The original video was a one-off slapstick gag good for a quick laugh mostly because you can't tell at first whether it's real or was staged. Like the video, the feature's first act is comedy but relies too little on slapstick and too much on poorly written dialogue. Once Washington becomes the Afro Ninja, the comic bits become fewer and farther between as Hicks attempts to forge an honest-to-goodness action picture. Wearing his love for Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon on his sleeve, Hicks attempts to assemble an over-the-top parody/homage of martial arts and blaxploitation flicks. (Kelly, by the way, makes a cameo appearance as the ghost of Afro Ninja's father.) It's a noble effort, but the low-budget flick doesn't achieve any of the textural or stylistic hallmarks of either genres. On the plus side, Hicks—who has stunt credits considerably longer than his acting credits—has the physique and martial arts skills to be a credible action hero. His roundhouse kicks impress, and I liked how the fights were staged liked real martial arts bouts, sans wire-fu and other stylistic excesses. Not surprisingly, the fight choreography doesn't approach the epic scale of Enter the Dragon or other Bruce Lee movies, and the cinematography isn't anywhere near as interesting, but Hicks' naturalistic approach is cool (despite the occasional comedy gag that falls flat due to poor shooting and editing). Afro Ninja: Destiny is a barely competent misfire, but a misfire shot with limited means and its heart in the right place, so I'm not inclined to savage it or Hicks.
Despite its 1.78:1 anamorphically enhanced transfer, Afro Ninja: Destiny looks atrocious on DVD. Colors are weak, detail is hazy, and the image is consistently riddled with combing and interlace artifacts. The transfer is about the quality of a YouTube video. Audio is presented in a cramped and limited Dolby stereo mix.
Extras are fairly beefy considering Afro Ninja: Destiny is a low-profile straight-to-DVD release. A Behind the Scenes section has eight featurettes covering a variety of scenes from the film: "Outtakes and Clips" (14:54), "Dog Attack" (5:04), "Anatomy of a Fight Scene" (17:06), "Kata Workout" (1:39), "Explode Through Window" (5:21), "Lightning's Camp and Office" (5:11), "Mark Directs Jim Kelly" (4:09), "Fight Finale" (7:16). Honestly, I enjoyed the collection of featurettes more than the feature itself—a lot more. Hicks and his cast and crew come off as personable and dedicated, and the vignettes provide a fascinating look at micro-budget filmmaking. The documentaries even trump the feature in terms of video quality. In addition to the behind the scenes material, there are also video interviews with eight of the movie's cast members, including Hicks, Marla Gibbs, and Jim Kelly. Finally, there are three deleted scenes.
Mark Hicks seems like a nice guy, but I can't lie. Afro Ninja: Destiny is a bad movie. So bad, in fact, it's not even worth a rental.
Guilty as charged.
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