Way back in the eighties an American film critic called John Bloom came to the realisation that the critical vocabulary of the mainstream film critic was incompatible with the joys and virtues of the exploitation movie. Too much film criticism is mired in the conventions and expectations of literary criticism without recognizing that film is a vastly different medium to the printed word. Film critics who ape literary critics tend to focus on an intellectual analysis of narrative at the expense of an appreciation of the visual and visceral qualities that set cinema apart. To redress this imbalance Bloom created the persona of drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, a boorish, sexist redneck with a fine appreciation for broads, supercharged muscle cars, and good honest exploitation movies. Ninja: Shadow of a Tear is exactly the sort of movie Briggs specialises in.
The plot is… pfft, who cares frankly, but here goes.
Casey (Scott fucking Adkins) runs a martial arts dojo in Japan with his wife Namiko (Mika Hijii) but his life is shattered when she is murdered. Police rule the death the result of a robbery gone wrong, but Casey is convinced that there is nefarious purpose behind the deed. After seeking solace in Thailand at the dojo of friend Nakabara (Kane ‘son of Shô’ Kosugi) a further murder sets Casey on the trail of Goro (Shun Sugata) a drug lord with a connection to his wife’s late father that dates back to the use of Ninja warriors in World War Two.
Viewed through a prism of ‘respectable’ criticism, this film is easily dismissed. Its characters are simple cyphers motivated only by revenge or greed. Its story is a hastily assembled series of unlikely coincidences and events contrived to send the protagonist from one East Asian location to another. The hero is frankly a huge idiot who massacres a small army of faceless bad guys on the flimsiest of pretexts.
But to fault director Isaac Florentine’s film for such ‘failings’ would be to grossly miss the point. This is a martial arts film; narrative coherence is to the genre’s pleasures as landscape photography is to operas. In fact the irrelevance of the narrative is clear as this is a sequel to 2009’s Ninja a film I’ve never seen. Did it matter? Did it heck. In fact I watched the whole movie thinking it was a DTV sequel to Ninja Assassin an entirely different film I’ve also never seen.
What Ninja: Shadow of a Tear is about is physical combat, cinema distilled to its purest form as a visual dance of death. The actors are athletes performing feats of physical prowess that are part technique and part illusion, choreographed and molded by the director’s decisions on how to place and move the camera and a great editor’s ability to create pace and tension in the juxtaposition of shots. The effect is to create an extravaganza of bodies in motion as precise and spectacular as any ballet performance.
Adkins, originally from Sutton Coldfield, is unusual for a martial arts actor in that he is a pretty big guy (a muscular 5’ 10″ according to his IMDB bio) but he moves with a remarkable fluidity and grace. Watch out for his leg work which is particularly good. The fight scenes are sustained and brutal, but also have a marvelous flowing style. One early scene has Adkins take on five opponents in a single handheld take clearly shot at a high frame rate so that the action slows to showcase a particularly impressive punch, throw or kick. Throughout fight scenes eschew obvious wire work or CGI; this is martial arts cinema in uncut, unadulterated form.
If the story appears to have been scribbled on the back of a beer mat, the fight scenes show a remarkable degree of invention and wit. Florentine is a veteran of the trenches of action cinema and has a significant amount of Power Rangers on his CV. Here he demonstrates a mastery of his craft that would shame many hot young studio directors. Along with the single take marvel, my favorite outbreaks of fisticuffs include a terrific bar room brawl where Casey’s British roots show as he takes extreme offence to the spillage of his pint. Another great brawl happens immediately after the character is forced by ridiculous circumstances to smoke crack. Yes this is the film where you can say, ‘It’s kung-fu ON CRACK’ and it isn’t pull quote hyperbole.
Twenty years ago someone with Adkin’s obvious skills (and rugged Ben Affleck-a-like looks) would have been a DTV star alongside Van Damme or Seagal, in fact probably a bigger star being that he doesn’t have a Belgian accent or a horrible ponytail. Today as fight flick enthusiasts suffer under the tyranny of the PG-13 action film, he is a deadly whisper on the lips of skulking fans of crunching screen violence.
Behold, and rejoice, my brothers of the exploding fist, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear is a lean cut of prime bloody martial arts goodness, pan fried with shallots and served exquisitely rare.
Ninja: Shadow of a Tear is now available on UK Netflix, get some beers in!
This review first appeared on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/