Suffice it to say, expectations play a sizeable role in any viewer’s enjoyment of a film. In the case of 2009’s Ninja, it would be impossible to watch the flick with high expectations — the cover of the DVD/Blu-ray is admittedly nifty enough to gain some attention, but it is nonetheless a low-budget direct-to-DVD ninja actioner flaunting a white actor as its primary acting talent. Yet, much to the surprise of this reviewer, it is far more than a hack-job production with a wooden action superstar. A tight, furiously-paced actioner, Ninja is blessed with impressive fight choreography, unexpectedly decent production values, a slick look, and a general “cool factor” that most Hollywood action films are unable to achieve. Give me this over Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra or countless other terrible blockbusters that Hollywood has produced recently.
Set in contemporary Japan, the film introduces a young Caucasian named Casey (Adkins) who was orphaned at a young age and accepted into a Japanese dojo by the current Sensei. Being the only white guy at the school, in addition to being the teacher’s pet and the object of affection for cute female ninja Namiko (Hijii), Casey’s rival Masazuka (Ihara) becomes filled with jealousy and rage. Unable to handle Casey’s presence, Masazuka violently lashes out at Casey during training and is banished from the dojo as a consequence. Following this, Masazuka swears revenge and declares his intention to obtain the Yoroi Bitsu; a wooden box containing the weapons of a legendary ninja warrior. In order to protect it, the box is shipped to a college professor in New York, with Casey and Namiko also being sent along in case Masazuka comes knocking.
Ninja is hindered by all of the usual direct-to-DVD trappings: The acting is exceedingly wooden, the sets occasionally look cheap, the special effects are at times embarrassing, and the enterprise is cheesy as hell (the less said about the aftermath of the final battle, the better). But where the film fails as an artistic achievement, it succeeds mightily as a piece of entertainment. It is an almost-perfect update of the Golan-Globus ninja flicks of yesteryear, with its simplistic narrative and a focus on action. The film is simply packed with awesome, violent fights — roughly 70% of the film is pure ninja action. At the centre of the action is British martial artist Scott Adkins (The Bourne Ultimatum, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), who was not given much of a character to work with or dialogue to deliver. But that’s fine, because Adkins is a wooden actor who looks like a strange cross between Eli Roth and Ben Stiller. Thankfully, however, he is an accomplished physical star capable of very impressive martial arts moves. In fact, he has all the qualities that are required of an action star — he’s good-looking, muscular, athletic, and is a man of few words.
Ninja also boasts some of the best swordplay that has been preserved on the medium of cinema for years. Fumio Demura, the film’s martial arts consultant, did a magnificent job of choreographing the fight sequences — they are, for lack of better word, incredible. Director Isaac Florentine’s handling of the material is also impressive. While slow motion techniques can be irritating, the bursts of slo-mo during the action set-pieces are highly effective here. Additionally, recent action movies have been plagued by nauseating quick cuts to hide poor choreography. For Ninja, no such flaws exist — Florentine was so comfortable with the physical skills of his stuntmen that every nuance was captured in glorious detail. The filmmaking is astonishingly competent and professional-looking for a picture of low-budget origins. The fights are old-school too, with real stunts and hard-hitting martial arts. Unfortunately, some CGI was employed for certain instances of blood and gore, and it looks distractingly phony from time to time. Still, it’s easy to overlook the poor CGI — Ninja is assured, well-paced and satisfying. Certainly, it’s head over heels better than 2009’s Ninja Assassin.
As stated previously, Ninja is woeful from both a plot and an acting standpoint. It also shamelessly borrows elements from several other action pictures, ranging from TMNT to Highlander to Batman Begins, but this hardly matters because the action is frequent and spectacular. While action films with boring characters are normally awful, Ninja scratches a passing grade due to one thing: Absolutely no pretensions. Character-building takes all of 20 minutes at most, and thus the pacing never lulls and a viewer is not given much of a chance to ponder the plot too much. Besides, Adkins is an amiable enough presence, and the screenplay is surprisingly serviceable. The movie is in no way destined to be a classic, but it is one genuinely entertaining and satisfying B-movie.