“Scott Adkins plays a ninja” – those words alone are a strong enough incentive to sit back and give “Ninja” a look. The fourth collaboration of Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine, “Ninja” is a good film that isn’t quite the slam dunk that they’ve typically delivered, nevertheless emerging as a good actioner overall.
In his first outing as a leading man, Scott Adkins portrays American Ninjitsu expert Casey Bowman. In or out of his sleek ninja attire, Scott is absolutely flawless as a ninjitsu master, and sure you’ll find it interesting that he’s adopted an American accent for his first leading role! Tsuyoshi Ihara portrays his adversary Masazuka, an impatient, hot-tempered ninjitsu disciple whose thirst to become the greatest ninja of all sends him down a dark path of vengeance against Casey. Togo Igawa portrays their ninjitsu mentor Sensei Takeda, while Mika Hiji assumes the role of his daughter and Casey’s love interest Namiko, a student of ninjitsu herself.
As a child, Casey Bowman found himself orphaned in Japan after his mother fled to America to escape his alcoholic father whose addiction ultimately got the best of him. Sensei Takeda, the wise head master of the Koga ninjitsu school, took Casey in as a child and brought him up as his student and adoptive son. Now an adult, Casey is one of the two most promising students in the school. The other is the equally skilled Masazuka, and both men know that one of them will eventually succeed Sensei Takeda as the school’s Soke (Head) and inherit the Yoroi Bitsu, an ancient box of armor containing the weaponry of the last of member of the Koga ninja clan. However, Masazuka’s dark side unveils itself when he attacks Casey with a katana during a sparring match, and Sensei Takeda immediately excommunicates him from the dojo.
Some time later, Masazuka now uses his ninjitsu skills as an assassin for hire, and embarks on a quest to steal the Yoroi Bitsu. Sensing that Masazuka will return, Sensei Takeda sends Casey and Namiko to New York City with the Yoroi Bitsu. Unbeknownst to them, Masazuka enlists the help of a shadowy cult of assassins known as “The Ring” to retrieve the Yoroi Bitsu and claim his revenge on Casey and Sensei Takeda.
“Ninja” is a film so fast-paced that it almost feels as though someone hit the fast-forward button through the first twenty minutes. It’s here where the film’s primary flaw surfaces, in that it feels like it was intended to be about ten minutes longer. It’s a good bet that the rivalry between Casey and Masazuka in the opening act is where much, if not all, of that ten minutes belongs. Both men are established early on as being the most promising students in the dojo and rivals to inherit the Yoroi Bitsu. However, Masazuka’s attack on Casey is amazingly abrupt in how suddenly it happens, and as a result, it feels as though much of the build up towards Masazuka’s willingness to kill his major rival is missing. A bit more focus on their training and upbringing alongside one other would have helped lay the foundation for Masazuka’s instability and bloodlust, but his hatred for Casey is given little early development beyond a snide comment about the demise of Casey’s parents.
The film’s opening training scenes at the Koga dojo, however, are excellent in their depiction of a traditional school of Japanese martial arts. Students at the school train with every classical Japanese weapon from bo staffs to shuriken to kamas, while the famed karate legend Fumio Demura evens makes a cameo as one of the dojo’s teachers. For all his flashy gymnastic maneuvers and aerial kicking skills, it’s the sight of Casey locking out one leg six feet in the air in a side-kick position that truly sells him as the genuine article in the realm of ninjitsu.
Florentine and the film’s action director Akihiro “Yuji” Noguchi make a concerted effort in the film’s many action sequences to give a distinctly Japanese feel to the combat. This results in Scott Adkins adopting a somewhat less gravity-defying fighting style than he’s known for, relying primarily on knife-hand chops, reverse punches, and leveraging techniques to dispatch his enemies. That approach results in one of the more painful looking death scenes in the film during the brawl aboard a subway train that culminates with Casey delivering a fatal knife-hand strike to an opponent’s neck, a moment so powerful that even he appears rattled and distraught by the life he’s just ended.
By contrast, Casey gets an opportunity to really cut loose when he takes on The Ring single-handedly. Intended by Florentine as an homage to the dojo fight in Bruce Lee’s “Fist of Fury”, Casey must call upon the full extent of his skills as he mercilessly pummels over twenty opponents single-handedly. Amid his wrist throws and joint manipulations, Scott also gets to draw upon the full repertoire of his phenomenal kicking skills, including his trademark Guyver Kick, a technique that simply has not and won’t ever get old! The film is at it’s strongest, however, when Masazuka arrives in his high-tech, futuristic ninja suit. The contrast of a traditional and high-tech ninja doing battle in the modern world is by far the greatest motif of the film. Masazuka’s ninja suit comes complete with a night-vision mask, armor plates, retractable swords, and a winged bat-suit (although the CGI on this last asset leaves something to be desired), among other advantages.
By contrast, Casey’s ninja garb from within the Yoroi Bitsu carries a design that’s both classical and akin to a superhero’s uniform with it’s leather texturing and the Power Rangers-esque brims above the shoulders. The finale sees Casey battling the henchmen of The Ring and Masazuka one after the other, and manages to balance both Scott’s kicking skills with the weapons-based combat effectively. The final one-on-one match up with Casey and Masazuka is, however, a little on the short side, which does a disservice to how well it’s staged and choreographed. This is the culmination of the rivalry of two of the world’s greatest living ninja masters, akin to the rivalry of Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow in the “G.I. Joe” series, and elongating it would have lent more emotional as well as physical impact. However, the resolution of their duel considerably makes up for that shortchanging.
As a throwback to the ninja craze of the 80’s and 90’s, “Ninja” is a fun popcorn flick. Lengthening the film’s running time and adding a bit more depth to the rivalry of its hero and villain could have elevated the film from good to great, and the fact that it was released in the shadow of the admittedly surprisingly awesome “Ninja Assassin” certainly didn’t do it any favors, but as is, it’s an all-around decent ninja blast. There’s certainly no point in weeping over it not being the ultimate modern ninja movie, considering that the sequel, “Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear“, convincingly earned that title a few years later!
- The film was released theatrically in Malaysia on 22 October, 2009.
- The lead character was originally Japanese before Scott Adkins was cast for the film.
- Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine have also collaborated on the films “Special Forces”, “Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing“, “The Shepherd: Border Patrol”, “Undisputed 3: Redemption“, and this film’s outstanding sequel, “Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear”.
Film rating: 7/10