A high percentage of the films synonymous with ninjas emerged during the Ninja Boom of the 1980s. While the history of onscreen ninjing dates back almost as far as cinema itself, the tropes and iconography we ninjologists know and love were created in that glorious decade of neon skylines, rippling muscles and excessive force. However, as regular readers of this blog will know already, the quality of the Ninja Boom’s output varied wildly. Breathtaking cover art could hide substandard movies and it took time and dedication to sift through the river of shiny ninja fool’s gold to find the real thing. But that real thing, when it emerged… nothing could outshine it. Sadly nowadays, if western ninja films are produced, they tend to be made with a wink to the audience, focusing on the bad or silly aspects of the 80s and sending them up, not realising that the reason so many of us love those films is not because we like to laugh at the flaws, but instead because we’re willing to overlook them and see through to the intended spirit beneath. Isaac Florentine’s bluntly titled Ninja (2009) ‘gets’ this completely. It’s like he looked at all the best, most exhilarating ninja box art from the 80s and said “What if we made a film that actually DELIVERED all this?”
Ninja borrows heavily from the classic “occidental master” stories defined in Eric Van Lustbader’s Ninja and Menahem Golan’s Enter The Ninja, casting Scott Adkins as Casey Bowman, our fish-out-of-water American training in Japan. Casey’s an orphan, abandoned at the Dojo, and his determination to prove himself worthy has enabled him to rise high within the student ranks. Only the mysterious “tiger” Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara) outranks him but Masazuka is jealous of Casey, feeling that the Sensei (Togo Igawa) and – more importantly – his beautiful daughter Namiko (Mika Hijii) favour him and maybe even love him, respectively. During a heated sparring match, Masazuka tries to kill Casey but fails and is expelled from the Dojo for his troubles.
Three years pass as Masazuka goes rogue and becomes a ninja for hire, working with a shady Illuminati-style organisation known as The Ring and assassinating their enemies with merciless ease. Having reached the pinnacle of his skills, he returns to the Dojo to claim he is the rightful heir to both the position of Sensei and to the Yoroi Bitsu, a box of sacred ninja artefacts from a thousand years ago, but Sensei sends him packing. However, realising that Masazuka will be back, Sensei tells Casey and Namiko to flee to a secret location in New York, taking the Yoroi Bitsu with them and setting in motion a frenetic international chase scene that lasts pretty much the whole film. Masazuka will stop at nothing to get his hands on the box and Casey is determined to guard it with all he’s got. Duffing up occurs… and lots of it.
The main reason why Ninja works so well is that it plays things straight. There’s barely even a one-liner joke in here, let alone any kind of ironic references or gags about the 80s. That said, while it applies a modern sensibility, it doesn’t go for the po-faced “dark and gritty” approach either, like so many newer films do. There’s no existential soul searching or moralizing. It keeps its focus on wicked thrills; brutality delivered at a lightning pace, but with a level of respect for the action genre that borders on reverence. Writer Boaz Davidson said he wanted to create a story where the hero was in constant peril and, amazingly, he achieves that. As soon as the chase is on, barely a moment lets up where Casey and Namiko aren’t having to run or fight their way out of another tricky situation.
There’s enough character development to make the fights mean something and the cast all handle their roles well. Todd Jensen is a grizzled highlight as the NYPD detective with a heart of gold trying to work out why his city’s being destroyed by a pair of feuding super-ninjas, and Adkins himself is the absolute perfect lead for a film like this. He juggles an incredible physical presence and martial arts skills with an ability to emote and convincingly play a character; all too rare in genre cinema. It’s strange for me to think about Scott Adkins, born in Sutton Coldfield, very near to where I’m from in Birmingham. We grew up at the same time in the same city, presumably watching the same martial arts movies and while I never quite graduated from doing that, he went out and learned how to fight for real, and in 2009 became an even more convincing American Ninja than Dudikoff himself. A pretty incredible achievement for a kid from the Midlands. It’s what the rest of us only dreamed about.
Through the love and enthusiasm poured into it, Ninja channels the spirit of those 80s movies perfectly without ever becoming a tired nostalgia trip. You’ve got all the aesthetic touch points of the best ninja box art coming vividly to life for real. It’s not so much a tribute to what ninja films were in the 80s as it is to what ninja films aspired to be in the 80s. The skyline fight in this is breathtaking, the subway train brawl an absolute blast (especially to anyone who ever played the Renegade game on the Spectrum, which it gleefully evokes), the stunts and shootouts are all elaborate, OTT and faultlessly shot. With the level of set construction, vehicle destruction and special effects involved, this would’ve been an A picture by 80s standards (and, even now, is on the upper end of B) but Ninja uses its mid-range budget cleverly. Although the whole film was shot in Bulgaria, it creates the illusion of exotic international locales through imaginative and slick production design.
As for the ninjing, it’s all impeccably done too thanks to fight choreography from Akihiro Noguchi, who brings his best moves to the table. Scott Adkins – trained in Tae Kwon Do – spent weeks unlearning his Chinese style to relearn how to fight more Japanese and the effort pays off. His combination of cold, vicious violence and graceful acrobatics looks fantastic in every fight scene and it’s augmented by a ton of splattery Lone Wolf & Cub-inspired arterial spray. The scene where Casey infiltrates a meeting of The Ring and duffs up about twenty dudes in a fit of tightly controlled ultra-rage even brings to mind the classic school fight in Fist Of Fury and that’s high praise indeed.
The ninja outfit designs are interesting too. On one hand, the fact that both Akihiro Noguchi and director Isaac Florentine have a background in the Power Rangers TV show is evident yet, somehow, the stylized armored suits make sense in the context of what a modern shinobi would wear. Masazuka’s has Kevlar pads to guard against bullets and wraparound night-vision goggles that enable him to move around in the dark where no-one can see him. This may initially seem like novelty but, in an age of ever-improving technology, no ninja worth their belt would be running around in just flimsy black pyjamas…
I simple can’t imagine any serious ninjologist not acknowledging this as one of the best ninja films ever made. It may be way outside the canon, chronologically, but in all other respects it’s right up there with the best and most authentic. A slightly lesser (but still great) sequel, Ninja : Shadow Of A Tear, followed in 2013, continuing Casey’s story but that’s another post for another day. I live in hope that we’re nearly a due a third film (which, if it follows the pattern of the Cannon trilogy, may even pitch Casey against ghosts and/or aerobics?) because, honestly, these films are a modern ninja treat of the sweetest kind and I just want to binge on them as often as possible.