Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear (US - BD RA)
Gabe starts the new year with a couple hundred ninja kicks to the skull...
Fight everyone and trust no one: it's the code of survival practiced by martial-arts master Casey Bowman (Scott Adkins) after his life of domestic bliss is shattered by a savage act of violence. Vowing revenge, the fearless American stealthily tracks the killer from Osaka to Bangkok to Rangoon with the help of a wise and crafty sensei. His only clues: a series of victims whose necks bear the distinctive mark of strangulation by barbed wire. Fighting to avenge as well as to survive, Casey must sharpen his razor-like responses and take his battle skills to the next level, even using deep meditation to fake his own death. His target: the sinister drug lord Goro, who is flooding the streets with deadly meth cooked at his remote jungle factory. To prepare for his ultimate confrontation, Casey must finally become an invisible warrior worthy of the name Ninja. But just when his prey is cornered, an unexpected twist shows Casey that his battle is only beginning: he truly can trust no one. (From Nu Image’s original synopsis)
Back in 2010, I was sent a review copy of a relatively obscure, straight-to-video action flick with the bromidic title of Ninja. I knew nothing about it and assumed that its release was timed to coincide with the (video) release of James McTeigue’s Ninja Assassin. I was hoping for a throwback to the hyper-violent, Sho Kosugi-led ninja madness of the ‘80s, but was greeted with an entirely forgettable rehash of cartoon plotlines (the story literally mirrors episodes of G.I. Joe and Batman: The Animated Series) and barely above-average action sequences. In the intervening years, I discovered a subculture fandom devoted to STV action and learned that Ninja star Scott Adkins and director Isaac Florentine developed into cult superstars. Having never seen the likes of Undisputed II: Last Man Standing or Undisputed III: Redemption (I still haven’t, for the record), I assumed that Ninja was an accurate representation of the team’s skills. I also learned that the both director and star were almost as disappointed as I was by the film and that their sequel, the more imaginatively title Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear, was an attempt at righting the original film’s wrongs.
Florentine is obviously working on an itty-bitty budget, which shows in the semi-flat establishing shots and a very digital general look. He also hasn’t moved past some of his bad habits, like digital zooms and jump cuts, none of which help him overcome his budgetary limitations. On the other hand, these comparatively unattractive moments are a symptom of the chatty, story-driven set-ups between spectacular martial arts sequences. And the martial arts sequences are certainly spectacular. The key factor here is that Florentine keeps out of the way, allowing fight choreographer Tim Man, stunt coordinator Brahim Achabbakhe, Adkins, and all the other stunt players do their thing. He includes just enough stylistic flourish (a Dutch angle, a tastefully timed bit of slow motion, a sensible whip-pan), but he doesn’t jostle the imagery with shaky cam, nor does he over-edit things into non-descript flashes of visual noise. My only problem with Florentine’s action is that, despite its brutality, it’s rarely gory, which seems to go against the point of the exercise. The first Ninja was overflowing with digital blood, while this time the occasional gaping wound rarely oozes more than a dribble of claret.
Ninja II reunited Florentine & Adkins with writer/producer Boaz Davidson (under the pseudonym David White – edit: or maybe not? I took the first thing I read at face value), modern B-action’s answer to Roger Corman. Davidson’s script is only a script in the sense that it likely involved words written onto a page. The plot is thin to the point of near non-existence, the characterizations are goofy, and the dialogue is laughable. Davidson ( edit: or David N. White) is merely giving Florentine the excuses he needs to create more action. These admittedly lame set-ups, which, as I mentioned before, are also lazily constructed by Florentine, but they generally fit the STV ninja movie formula Florentine claims to have been paying homage to. The film manages to move very quickly between fisticuffs, leaving us little time to grow bored with Davidson’s faux-script. Unfortunately, there are more ingredients required to complete a truly great, low-budget action opus. Adkins’ lack of dramatic charisma isn’t a deal-breaker. It’s not as if Sho Kosugi was a dynamic screen presence when he wasn’t cracking heads. The difference was that directors like Sam Firstenberg ( Ninja III: The Domination, unrelated to this series) and Gordon Hessler ( Pray For Death) surrounded him with over-the-top personalities. Adkins is supported by a series of deathly serious actors that don’t appear to be having a lick of fun and it hurts the overall experience.
Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear was shot using Red Epic and Red One MX cameras and is presented here in 1.78:1, 1080p HD video. The look is definitively digital, to the point that some shots look like computer-generated effects, including smoothed-over background textures, thick contrast, and a complete lack of noise in many cases. This isn’t to say it’s an ugly or faulty transfer – Florentine and cinematographer Ross W. Clarkson have just embraced a non-filmic look. When not being stylistically blurred out of focus, details are perfectly sharp and complex. The palette is cool and fluorescent for the most part, but is more aggressively tinted when Florentine wants to hammer home a heavy-handed emotional response, like the moment towards the beginning of the film, where Adkins finds his wife murdered and the house is bathed in lavender. The more naturalistic outdoor shots include some wonderfully lush greens and rich warm hues (especially the day-set Myanmar sequences), all of which cut sharply against each other without noisy blending effects. The black levels are deeply crushed and consistent without creating notable edge enhancement effects (aside from a single establishing shot of Myanmar). Some of the darkest sequences have minor macro blocking effects between shadow clusters and some of the fade-ins/fade-outs have brief banding effects, but the film’s short runtime and lack of special features keeps compression artefacts at bay.
Millennium’s Blu-ray comes fitted with a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. The sound design is pretty weak where dialogue-heavy scenes are concerned. The words are clear, but the tonal qualities are inconsistent. This is probably due to ADR dubbing. The incidental sounds of city and jungle life are lively and well-layered, despite the fact that most of them were clearly collected from sound effects compilation CDs, but it is the action sequences that impress the most. These include directionally aggressive swishing limbs, crushing impacts, and metallic strikes. The LFE gets its share of activity, thanks to some punchy gunshots and exploding buildings. Logan Mader and Gerald K. Marino’s music is typical Asian-influenced stuff for the most part and includes a number of abstract textures, like shuddering percussion and throbbing synth sounds. These more surrealistic additions include heavy surround enhancement that helps cover the soundtrack’s occasionally thin crust.
The brief extras include:
- An EPK (7:20, HD) with clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and cast & crew interviews.
- Additional interviews with Florentine, Adkins, Kane Kosugi, Mika Hijii, and producers Boaz Davidson, Frank DeMartini &Tom Waller (12:40, HD).
- Raw behind-the-scenes footage (5:30, HD).
- Trailers for other Millennium releases.
Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear is a strange counterpoint to Nicolas Winding Refn’s largely reviled Only God Forgives. Both films share similar plot elements and take place in similar areas, but where Refn’s film revels in nightmarish style and psychological themes, Isaac Florentine cuts any thematic resonance to make way for more fast-paced martial arts action. I found myself wowed by the fisticuffs, but, sadly, I missed the extra added value of amusing/interesting characters, narrative surprises, or even Refn’s excessive violence tends to add to movies like these, though. But, hey, the action scenes are really quite stellar. This Blu-ray looks about as sharp as a STV ninja film can look and sounds great, despite some obvious budgetary shortcomings, but is practically naked in terms of extra features.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 31st December 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English/Japanese
Extras: EPK, Behind-the-Scenes Footage, Cast & Crew Interviews, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Isaac Florentine
Cast: Scott Adkins, Kane Kosugi, Mika Hijii, Shun Sugata
Length: 95 minutes
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