Friday, January 17, 2014

Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013)

After the events of Ninja Casey (Scott “Best Western Martial Arts Actor” Adkins) and Namiko (Mika Hijii) have gotten married and are continuing Namiko’s father’s ninjitsu dojo. Now, Namiko is pregnant, and we all know what that spells for women in martial arts movies: death. Consequently, one night while Casey is out indulging Namiko’s pregnant wishes for chocolate and seaweed, someone murders her.

Casey assumes it was an act of vengeance for a little lesson he taught a couple of robbers, and does some murdering of his own. Vengeance leaves Casey with anger management problems and no proper direction to his life, so he takes the invitation of his senpai Nakabara (Kane Kosugi, not as horrible as usual) to visit his dojo in Thailand to get a grip on himself again.

However, it soon turns out that Namiko’s murder had rather more complicated reasons, and that Goro (Shun Sugata), the son of a former enemy of her father, is the man truly responsible, and still rather vengeful too. Casey decides perhaps a little more vengeance will make him feel better about himself, so he travels to Myanmar, where Goro has built quite a career as a jungle-based drug lord, to finish matters between them.

With Shadow of a Tear, director Isaac Florentine and actor/martial artist Scott Adkins continue their mission to make martial arts and action movies in a more classical style, which turn out to be as good as anything you will find in the genre. Unlike the first Ninja, this isn’t quite as much a love letter to even the cheesiest and silliest of Western made ninja films (though it shares the first film’s basic respect for Japanese culture as well as the highly excellent concept of casting actors from the correct parts of Asia to play the role of characters from said regions), but more interested in being a classic martial arts revenge movie. Which only is a bad thing to the degree the film can’t do anything better than kill Mika Hijii’s character – the only woman with an actual role in the film – off early on to motivate its male protagonist. Not exactly a plot device I love, though it would on the other hand have been quite difficult to find any other reason to get Casey back into the killing habit.

At least, and this is something Florentine always does well beside his obvious virtues as an action director, the handful of scenes between Adkins and Hijii do sell them very well as a loving couple, and Hijii as a person, which is a good way to keep Adkins sympathetic once he gets down to violent business. Florentine is one of the handful of directors in contemporary action cinema who actually seems to understand that the moments when people aren’t fighting are important too, and who is able to use these moments to build a modicum of emotional momentum. A modicum of emotional momentum of course being all a film needs that expresses most of its emotional content through violent action.

By now, it seems hardly necessary to talk about Florentine’s – damn correct – idea of how to film a martial arts fight in a way that shows off the performers and keeps an audience excited as well as oriented about what is going on, nor to praise his ability to go back to this older, non-shaky, style of action filmmaking without eschewing what modern technology can provide, namely giving the camera a physical presence during the fights which makes them all the more dynamic. Unlike some other Florentine admirers I’m not using the word “realistic” to describe the fight scenes, because of course, these fights are as beautifully (and brutally) choreographed as only screen fights can be. Realism, on the other hand, would be rather less attractive (and would probably not contain performers on the level of Adkins or Tim Man), and would look nothing at all like the glorious one-take fight in a dojo relatively early on in the movie, or like the explody ninja action in the film’s pre-finale.

All of Ninja: Shadow of a Tear’s beautiful carnage is presented with great flair for good location work (most of the film being shot in Thailand), actually intelligent use of colour filters (which is to say, a use that knows where and when not to use them too), and the enthusiasm of true believers in the martial arts film as an art form that can and does express a lot of things through its violence. I, for one, am certainly much too distracted by excitement to disagree with this enthusiasm.

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