For a few years now, Isaac Florentine has been one of the bright lights of the direct-to-video scene, up there with Roel Reiné and John Hyams as a director whose ability to frame action coherently outpaces the majority of people making action blockbusters on a far grander scale. Himself trained in martial arts, Florentine knows how to sync a camera to the movement of fighters, using long takes that can pan elegantly to follow the action or dart suddenly to add a mildly visceral thrust without resorting to the cut-up, close-up techniques that now define the genre at the multiplex.
The first Ninja (2009) was Florentine’s previous best showcase: tracking Casey (Scott Adkins), a gaijin orphan who grew up in a Japanese dojo and had to avenge his sensei’s murder, Ninja was pleasingly goofy, a throwback not only in content but style. Its sequel, Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear, finds Casey in a considerably darker mood. Namiko (Mika Hijii), the old sensei’s daughter and Casey’s love interest, is brutally dispatched in the first few minutes, driving the ninja to near-madness as he pursues his wife’s killer without mercy. If the first film had just enough stakes to ground an otherwise silly premise, the follow-up more closely aligns itself to the fashionably “gritty” mode of mainstream action filmmaking, the so-called post-Nolan approach to heaping seriousness onto an ostensibly facile genre in the hopes of legitimizing it.
Yet still Florentine has lessons for those working with budgets many times his own. If Casey is retrofitted from the earnest white man gaining acceptance, even elevation, from his Japanese peers (an entrenched archetype in its own right) to an indiscriminate anti-hero, at least this film actually challenges the audience on how much they identify with the man. The likes of Batman are almost always justified for their breaches of ethics and law, but when Casey gets drunk at a bar and starts viciously beating anyone who crosses him, any sympathy felt for his loss gives way to a revulsion of his inchoate rage.
To his credit, Adkins handles this shift in tone with heretofore unseen acting chops. Adkins is the clear standout star of current DTV action movies; 25 years ago he would have fit comfortably among the second tier of blockbuster heavies alongside his Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning co-stars Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The actor certainly has movie-star looks: a line of perfect stubble over a rock-hard jaw, muscular but not a freakshow of overdevelopment like Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Previously, Adkins excelled only in motion, but with Ninja II, he at last proves capable of emotionally handling the narrow range of modulation the genre occasionally demands from its protagonists.
Even so, he’s still at his best during a fight, and Florentine once again showcases the best in his muse. Florentine’s camera keeps its distance, taking in the full arc of Adkins’ kicks, the lightning-fast extension of an elbow into a devastating chop or punch. Paul Greengrass’ work on the Bourne films popularized an aesthetic devoted to portraying instant reaction, with split-second cuts standing in for the way a well-trained warrior could adapt to his foes and environment, but Florentine pulls the same thing off within a single shot. Every action sequence has obviously been planned and choreographed, but when Adkins slips under a bow staff and wraps himself around it to disarm an opponent, or leaps over a kick and bounces off a wall to deliver a kick of his own, Adkins’ gestures convey his quick thinking. One in effect gets a thrill not merely from the actor demonstrating that he can perform every move but the sense that he conceivably could have planned those moves himself. It’s the difference between actors who went through boot camp in order to look presentable and those with actual knowledge of what they do, who carry with them a history of discipline.
Ninja II isn’t great cinema, but it isn’t trying to be, which is something of a relief when the mediocre tentpole releases that exist to break obscure, thoroughly qualified box-office records are so often pitched as epic. It confirms Adkins as not only the best player in DTV but one of a precious few credible action stars in American movies today, alongside The Rock, Jason Statham and Milla Jovovich. And even when it briefly touches on the more serious side, it soon whips back to its true pleasure: the chance to see bodies in full motion, performing actions that are as bewildering as any superpower, if not more so for being identifiably the work of a human being, not a computer.
In terms of technical specs, Millennium Entertainment’s Blu-Ray of the film does justice to the film’s modest resources. Cheap digital video is the standard of DTV action movies, with ever-present noise and over-sharpened rendering. This time around, Florentine appears to be working with a camera of slightly higher quality: too-smooth tones have been replaced by more natural textures, and sudden changes of color do not throw the image for a loop. Audio is incredibly strong, with a booming 5.1 lossless track that emphasizes every sick thud of a fist connecting with a cheek. Extras are meager, and the individual cast and crew interviews that make up one feature are recycled for the general making-of featurette. No matter, though, Ninja II’s virtues are self-evident, and anyone looking for a fun, classical action film can’t do much better with recent fare than this.