AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY: 12th May
RUNNING TIME: 94 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
American martial artist Casey Bowman is Soke [head] of the Koga dojo. Whilst shopping for a pendant in town for Namiko his pregnant wife, he encounters and fends off two knife-wielding muggers. Later that night, Casey goes out to buy some food, but when he remembers that the muggers took his wallet, he rushes home only to find Namiko dead, with markings of a barbed wire weapon around her neck. On the day of the funeral, the dojo is visited by a former student named Nakabara, who offers Casey to train at his dojo in Thailand to ease his pain, but Casey declines the offer and heads straight for the Azuma dojo to find the muggers….
“The fight scene is the purest kind of cinema”.
I’ve never really thought of the above in that way, but star Scott Adkins says this in the ‘making of’ documentary on this Blu-ray/ DVD, and actually he’s right. While I was watching Adkins was going toe to toe with Kane Kosugi [son of the legendary Sho Kosugi] near the ending of this film, I did think that what I was watching was a kind of ballet of movement and power. This kind of thing is not that different from watching a spectacular song and dance number in a musical, requires employment of many of the same skills, and can be just as aesthetically exhilirating, yet is rarely given the proper respect by mainstream film critics. And there is a purity to it. You don’t require things like dialogue. It’s all about what you see, what is real, and what isn’t.
Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear is a throwback to the glory days of the 1980’s, where in the US you had loads of lone heroes from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Michael Dudikoff posing as one-man armies to destroy bases peopled with loads of bad guys, while in Hong Kong, the likes of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung were engaging in ever more elaborate, bruising martial arts fights. Though hopefully the success of The Raid and its bigger and better sequel will change things, and there are already signs that it’s doing so, the martial arts movie, and by extension the action movie, is not in a very good place right now, and hasn’t really been for quite a while. Rapid fire editing and shakycam haVE all but ruined screen fighting, but it’s also very convenient because it doesn’t require the participants to be good at martial arts anymore. Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear is not really that good a film, with acting and plotting that are mostly quite rudimentary. It’s certainly not the greatest DTV film ever, as some excitable souls have been saying. However, it’s easy to share their initial enthusiasm, and if you’re a true action movie fan you should still check out this film.
This is actually a sequel to the 2007 film Ninja, and, never being one to pretend I’ve seen a film, it’s a movie I’ve not seen, though I can definitely say that the previous two collaborations between director Isaac Florentine and Adkins, the two superior sequels to Undisputed, are well worth watching if you’re a martial arts fan. For a start, Florentine is very good at filming fight scenes and some of the directors working on big budget Hollywood movies should take lessons from him and learn what it’s all about, while Adkins is one of the most skilful American martial arts actors around and needs his big break. Maybe The Expendables 3 will do it, though I can’t see the film giving him loads of intricate fight scenes. The general opinion about Ninja, and it’s one shared by the filmmakers themselves, was that they could have done better, so here we have the first sequel [I reckon they’ll be others], though I can’t really work out why it’s called Shadow Of A Tear, though I suppose it does sound corny in the best way. It follows directly on from the first film, bringing back three characters, but you certainly don’t have to have seen it to enjoy it – it exists quite well as its own film.
The film opens with some old black and white newsreel footage of Japanese soldiers in Burma during the Second World War. Apparently the Japs used ninjas, and we then see some American soldiers being disposed of by shuriken [throwing star], blow-pipe and sword. Now that would be a great starting point for a whole other film, in fact they could easily make a third film into a kind of prequel and easily connect it to this one [Adkins, Florentine, anybody else involved with making this film, are you reading this?]. Anyway, we now relocate to present day Japan and our hero is head of a dojo, sparring with his wife though not too violently because she’s pregnant. It’s only a few minutes before we get to our first fight and it’s quite short but immediately showcases both Adkins’s adeptness in karate and taekwondo [with a bit of plain old kick-boxing in there] as well as his skill in making his efforts look good on screen. Then, before you can say Charles Bronson [though you could really put Chuck Norris in the lead role], Casey leaves his wife alone for just a few minutes and comes home to find her dead [though thankfully not raped]. Casey sets off for the dojo where he thinks the robbers study, and in a simply incredible bit of martial arts cinema, bests most of the men there in one single take. Even Bruce Lee [it’s generally considered that he called the shots on most of his fight scenes] used some judicious editing for his similar scene.
The story soon resolves itself into a typical revenge tale with at least two major plot holes, though there is a good twist near the end which I certainly didn’t see coming. The film doesn’t look too good, with a slightly irritating green look to it for a start which isn’t too well employed, but there are some good lines, such as a good variation on a Bronson line from Once Upon a Time In The West where Casey is told how a man out for revenge must dig two graves and replies: “They’re going to need a lot more than that”. Adkins is not the best actor but broods quite convincingly, and in any case he’s given a fight scene every ten minutes or so. In one brawl he’s drunk on some lethal liquid but still manages to beat his assailants before staggering home. In another he’s smashing up half a bar and kicks down a guy coming at him with a table. Of course he employs his trademark ‘Guyver kick’. The choreography by Swedish-Chinese kicking ace Tim Man [who also appears and fights in the film] is truly impressive throughout and really comes together in the end fight between Adkins and Kosugi, who is on his way to bettering his old man but also needs that breakout hit. I could have done with some of the fights being longer, but I think we can forgive the brevity of some of the action considering how hard it must be to stage stuff like this with few cuts. How wonderful it is to see this kind of thing without struggling to actually see what the combatants are doing!
Florentine occasionally employs slow motion and possibly some undercranking, while there are a few obvious wire shots, but this all adds to the feel of watching an 80’s Hong Kong martial arts movie. There are also a few totally stupid bits like Casey being tortured with an iron being pressed on his leg, yet being able to easily walk in what seems like the next scene, and there’s not actually a whole lot of ninja stuff going on. They could have tried a bit harder with some of the other elements, such as the script which could have done with refining [though most revenge films seem to initially say that revenge is a bad thing and then go on to prove the opposite], but Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear does succeed where it counts – in its martial arts action. Maybe it’s not a true classic of the genre, but it’s still a breath of fresh air. Hollywood, how about giving Adkins and Florentine a chance with a big budget and the freedom to do all the action their way?
* The Making of Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear