Judge Patrick Bromley's collection of throwing stars makes him the coolest kid in school.
An ancient hero returns with a vengeance.
The best action movie of the year didn't cost $150 million to make. It doesn't star a big-name actor. It didn't even play in theaters. It's Ninja II, and it's going straight to DVD and Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
It's been several years since the events of the first Ninja. American Casey Bowman (Scott Adkins, The Expendables 2) and Namiko (Mika Hijii, Cherry Pie) are now married and expecting their first child. When some bad dudes pull a The Bourne Supremacy on Namiko, Casey goes to his dark place. Hell bent on revenge, Casey punches, kicks, drinks, stabs and murders his way through Thailand on the hunt for those responsible, turning to a former friend and fellow ninja (Kane Kosugi, Revenge of the Ninja) for guidance and help.
Action movies have had a rough go of it at the 2013 box office. Not the big summer blockbuster type movies (stuff like Fast and Furious 6 and Man of Steel); those are doing just fine. I'm talking about old-school, straight up action movies—the kind that came back into fashion with the success of The Expendables. Schwarzenegger returned to action movies with The Last Stand, an underrated effort that absolutely no one went to see; Stallone teamed with Walter Hill for the back-to-basics Bullet to the Head and again no one went. Stallone and Schwarzenegger even teamed up—which at one time was unthinkable and is cause enough to celebrate in the streets—but the result was the extremely disappointing Escape Plan. Jason Statham kept working, but made nothing that reached the delirious heights of Crank or The Transporter 2. Then there is Bruce Willis, who once again dragged the shell of John McClane out of retirement for A Good Day to Die Hard, the worst entry in the series and possibly one of the worst films of the year.
But off the big budget Hollywood radar comes the best action film of the year, Ninja II (or Ninja: Shadow of a Tear or Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear, all titles by which the film goes). The sequel to 2009's Ninja, Ninja II is an improvement in almost every way. The fights are better and there are more of them. The movie is darker and meaner. It's better made all around, giving up its DTV roots much less obviously. The original Ninja was a good action movie with great moments in it. Ninja II is just a great action movie.
Much of the credit goes to star Scott Adkins, easily the best action star since Jason Statham left the Guy Ritchie stable to make the first Transporter film. While he's not going to win any Oscars for his portrayal of Casey Bowman (I so wish the movie had been called Casey the Ninja), the sequel does give him more opportunities to stretch than its predecessor did. Here, he gets to play drunk and angry, brooding and vengeful. Daniel-Day Lewis he is not, but he gets the job done—especially where it counts, which is in the fight scenes. Adkins is such a specimen of athleticism and kick assery that he alone makes the movie worth watching; it's still incredible to me that he has only a few starring vehicles under his belt (though he has co-starred in several decent efforts, including Assassination Games and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, both alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme). The guy should be a huge star.
Adkins' best fight scenes are all under the direction of Isaac Florentine, a former stunt man and fight coordinator-turned-DTV action icon. After stumbling with his last effort, the mostly action-free (and mostly laughable) effort Assassin's Bullet, Florentine returns to fine form with Ninja II and shoots the best action of any movie this year. Fight sequences play out in long, unbroken masters, in which the actors can be seen from head to toe and the stunts are not covered by shaky camera moves or quick cuts. It's really them performing those incredible moves. The dialogue scenes are often clumsy and remind the viewer that this is a low-budget DTV action movie (though I don't think it was originally intended as such), but the fight scenes are where the movie counts, and Florentine nails those. Whether it's a brutal one-on-one battle or a quick-and-dirty four-against-one bar fight, Florentine and Adkins always bring the ass kicking goods.
Millenium's Ninja II (Blu-ray) gives the movie a solid A/V presentation while skimping on the bonus content. The 1.78:1 widescreen-framed compositions allows for more vertical picture information, which is great considering how many fights are filmed head-to-toe, and the 1080p HD transfer brings out tons of detail (check out Adkins' stubble!) and displays consistently strong black levels for a movie that's largely shrouded in darkness. The lossless TrueHD 5.1 audio track is full of cool surround effects and ambient noise while keeping the fights first priority, making you feel every punch, kick and thump. Unfortunately, the quality control doesn't extend to the supplemental section, which is comprised only of some interviews with Florentine and the cast and two short behind-the-scenes pieces. Disappointing.
Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear is not a "Great Film" in the classic sense, but it is a completely awesome movie that improves on the first Ninja and stakes a claim as the year's best action film. I'm getting to the point where I just want every movie to star Scott Adkins, and the teaming of him and director Isaac Florentine is one of the best pairings since Van Damme and Peter Hyams. Bring on Ninja III. Throw in Lucinda Dickey and I'll legally change my name to Casey Bowman.
So much awesome.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
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