December 31, 2013

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The best action movie of 2013 went direct to video. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear comes out today on DVD and Blu-ray, and was released on VOD earlier in the month. It is the seventh DTV collaboration between director Isaac Florentine and actor Scott Adkins, trained martial artists driven to bring clarity to the fight film, showcasing athleticism rather than camera blur. This is a ninja revenge movie without filigree, stocked with some of the most intricate moves this side of Fred Astaire, arranged by fight choreographer Tim Man. For his dance sequences Astaire demanded to be framed in long shots, to convey the full expression of his body, and Florentine takes a similar approach with Adkins. As Adkins told me in an interview yesterday: “We want to show the action, we don’t want to hide it. We know when they do the shakycam and everything we know why they do that. What you’re actually seeing looks shit, so you shake the camera to give the impression something amazing is happening. All you’re actually seeing is nothing. We try not to do that, we want to show the performers, the highly trained, physical performers, doing what they do best. In a very balletic, graceful way.”

The first Ninja (2009) was a broad comic book-style action movie, with a corporate death cult threatening the safety of NYC. Casey Bowman (Adkins) is the orphan raised in a dojo who tears down their international conspiracies with the help of fellow student Namiko (Mika Hijii). With its kitschy hooded villains and unconvincing Bulgaria-for-NYC locations, it’s more Adam West than Christian Bale, superhero-wise. If you are a cheese aficionado, it is a profound experience, but even if not, there are some miraculous fight sequences, including a closed-quarters slobberknocker in a subway car (which Jason Statham borrowed for Safe). For the sequel, they wanted to make “an old-school martial arts film”, as Adkins put it. This time around Bowman has married Namiko, and they run the Japanese dojo in which he was raised. A brutal attack destroys this idyll, and Bowman snaps, violently tracking down the drug lord Goro (Shun Sugata), whom he suspects of the crime. It’s a simple narrative line to hang a series of wildly inventive fight sequences on.

The revenge plot and use of ninjitsu is reminiscent of the Sho Kosugi ninja trilogy from the 1980s (Enter the Ninja (’81), Revenge of the Ninja (’83) and Ninja III: The Domination (’84)). All three were produced by Menahem Golan and Yoran Globus’ Cannon Films, and it was Golan that gave Florentine his first directing job (Desert Kickboxer (’92)). Florentine even casts Sho Kosugi’s son Kane in a pivotal role as Casey’s enigmatic friend and rival Nakabara. Adkins comes out of a kickboxing background, so his version of a ninja mixes in showy kick acrobatics with the Japanese styles. His influences also differ from Florentine. While the Israeli-born director emerged out of endearingly slapdash Cannon Films canon, Adkins grew up idolizing Bruce Lee and Van Damme before turning to martial arts himself. A real student of the form, he listed his fight film favorites as Enter the Dragon, Fist of Legend, Drunken Master 2 and Armor of God. Their interests complement each other, as Florentine learned how to stretch a buck while Adkins studied how to make bodies look fluid on-screen.

In one interesting experiment they attempt a one-take fight scene, set at a rival Japanese dojo. Casey is there snooping out information on two local thugs, and takes out all five men in an unbroken forty second shot. It is not as ambitious as those of Tony Jaa in The Protector or Choi Min-Sik in Oldboy, but it serves a different purpose. This is not a showstopper but a scene-setter, displaying Casey’s easily snappable temper and setting up the array of fighting styles to come. He takes them out with brawling punches, soaring spin kicks, and a submission arm-bar. Adkins, who admitted to being exhausted after shooting seven takes of this, is a stylistic chameleon, with the looks and power of a brute force brawler but with the ability to execute nimble air strikes. With a handheld camera Florentine and his longtime DP Ross W. Clarkson float around Adkins, a member of the bout rather than an observer. The camera privileges the fighter, but also engages in its own choreography, dancing with the brawlers. Adkins mentioned this camera choreography as party of his fight film philosophy:

A lot of people, the way they get it wrong is they document the action, as if making a documentary. From that side, that side, and that side, with a long lens or whatever. That’s not the way to do it. You need to get the camera in, with the action performers, moving in unison with them, and the camera should be as choreographed as the performers are. You’re part of the action, not watching it from afar. That’s what good action filmmaking is all about.

Their showstopper in Ninja 2 is a barroom brawl that tips its cap to Drunken Master and Kickboxer. Casey is drinking himself into oblivion when a loudmouth drunk splashes him with booze. Needing little provocation, he proceeds to decimate every loser in the joint. Ninja II uses inebriated fighting to darker comedic ends than the Jackie Chan and Van Damme films. The Chan and JCVD personas have something of the beatific innocent about them, their moves very clearly for show – a performance. Adkins is a more brooding type, his most fully formed character the anti-heroic convict Boyka in the Undisputed series, who fights not to please, but as an instinctual survival mechanism. The same is true of Casey, whose only remaining identity is tied to the dojo and the study of ninjitsu (although the film shows only a smidgen of that form). In the bar he completely loses his self control, revealing himself to be nothing other than a very nimble town lush. But he does it with style. Florentine keeps the camera at a distance, occasionally isolating the more spectacular feats with cut-ins and slow motion. But every blow is visible, as his regular editor Irit Raz (Florentine always works with the same crew) cuts the sequence percussively, on every meaty kick or knife-wielding snik.

There are countless other memorable battles here, which is remarkable considering the restraints of time, money, and Adkins’ aching back, which he seriously injured on the set. But despite all the limitations of DTV productions, Florentine and Adkins are relentlessly pursuing, and have nearly perfected, a pure form of the fight film, returning the genre to its roots as simply capturing fine-tuned bodies in collision-course motion. Hopefully we get to see their next distillation in 2014, with the highly anticipated Undisputed IV tentatively slated for release.