This column is not, generally speaking, a review column. I don’t want it to be, my editors don’t want it to be and I’m fairly sure you, dear reader, don’t want it to be. However, I reserve the right to an occasional review if I have a reason for it. And right now I have a reason for it.
I have two, actually. The first is that this movie technically made it out in 2013, with a release date of December 31st (direct to Netflix, apparently), and I hadn’t seen it in time to talk about it in my 2013 Year in Review column. The second is that this movie is everything I love about action movies, everything that I remember about action movies and everything that drew me to action movies in the first place. And because of that, I need to talk about it and only it for a few paragraphs.
(WARNING: Plot spoilers for Ninja II follow. However, the plot isn’t really the reason to watch this movie, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If you’re the type who hates to know the story before viewing, though, you may want to stop reading now.)
While the first film is hardly required viewing in order to enjoy this movie, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear picks up very closely after the end of Ninja. Our hero, Casey Bowman (Scott Adkins), has taken over the school of his sensei, killed in the first film, and married the daughter of the same. She is pregnant with their child, and they are happy. You know this can’t last, right?
Well, no sooner does Casey have a run-in with two would-be thieves, than someone breaks into his house while he’s at the convenience store and kills his wife. It goes without saying that whoever’s responsible must pay. What follows is 90 minutes of bloody revenge, as we follow Casey from Japan to Thailand to Myanmar. The twists and turns don’t matter nearly as much as the action, and this film has it in spades.
Star Scott Adkins is a trained martial artist, and it shows. The fights here are very well shot and edited (i.e. no quick cuts, no shaky-cam, very few close-ups), and what allows that is Adkins’ skill. There are several sequences that hold the same shot for as long as a full minute, while lengthy exchanges take place. This is rarely done in Hollywood action films these days, due to a combination of close-ups and shaky-cam being stylistically popular, and the frequency of actors being cast more for their acting than their ability to shoot a fight scene without a cut or stunt double.
This is what I really love about the film. I mean, it isn’t The Raid (the standard by which all modern martial arts films are judged), but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. It’s unapologetically low budget, its star isn’t really “a star” in the traditional sense, and the plot is paper thin. That’s what I WANT from an action film. Focus on the action, not the plot. I mean, sure, sometimes a Die Hard comes along and has a compelling plot to go along with great action, but that’s just a nice bonus. This film is about a dude kicking serious amounts of ass to avenge his wife and unborn child.
So after kicking, slicing and poisoning his way to the top, there is an absolutely AMAZING final confrontation in which Adkins has a fight to the death with a man he thought was his friend, but was in fact (transparently) behind the whole thing! Who knew?! Well, everyone who was paying attention, but who cares? The ultimate villain is played by Kane Kosugi, son of ’80s ninja action star Sho Kosugi. Kane is also a professional martial artist, and this fight is crazy awesome.
It’s too infrequent that a low-budget actioner these days is worth your time. Too often, they’re watered down, cheap imitations of what Hollywood is shitting out, and not what they used to be. The films of the ’80s and ’90s starring c-tier action stars like Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Billy Blanks and even Sho Kosugi relied on action. Pure, awesome martial arts action. Hell, even Van Damme’s early films like Bloodsport and Kickboxer relied on that and were relatively low budget (not Bloodfist low budget, but much lower than anything Stallone or Schwarzenegger were doing at the time). There was no money for fancy sets or effects or even interesting plots. There was only time and money to film guys punching each other. And Ninja II honors that tradition well. The acting isn’t great. There aren’t any flashy effects to speak of. The plot is predictable. And none of that matters, because it has better action sequences than 90% of the films I’ve seen in the last five years, and that includes most of the movies on my best of 2013 list (Man of Tai-Chi is its only real competition). So, get to your Netflix machine and watch Ninja: Shadow of a Tear. It’s a damn fine way to spend 90 minutes watching dudes kick each other.