American movies are messy, always shot so that you can’t actually see what is going on. I’m paraphrasing Ninja: Shadow of a Tear director Isaac Florentine, whose introduction to the premiere of his new movie at Fantastic Fest came packaged with a mission statement about what martial arts movies should be. In a refreshing and long-winded moment of honesty, the Israeli-born director who has studied martial arts for 40+ years in places like Sweden, spoke about the way the Japanese and Chinese shoot their fight scenes and how that has become a driving force in his visual style. A style on full display as he once again throws British ass-kicker Scott Adkins into the role of an American expatriate ninja warrior whose circumstances force him to seek revenge upon a drug lord in Burma. “The man who seeks revenge should dig two graves,” he’s told.
“They’re going to need a lot more than that,” he responds.
To Florentine’s credit, his words are not just the posturing of a director whose work primarily releases on formats that come wrapped in plastic. He’s not your average B-movie director, just out there having fun and making movies that turn small profits for small companies. He takes the craft of directing action very seriously. The result is a collection of scenes that are incredibly well-framed, brutally executed and choreographed in such a way that they don’t look like an elegant dance, they look like an actual fight. When the ever-impressive Adkins winds up for one of his mid-air summersault vertical roundhouse kicks, the audience feels the full thump of foot to shoulder. We also get to see the entire spectacle in full-view, something many a viewer has complained about with other, larger action movies. Think Michael Bay shooting the close-up hip-angle of Transformers battling in the streets or Robert Rodriguez shooting a mish-mash of CGI blood-soaked anarchy in his Machete series. It’s one thing to have fun, badass characters. Another to have well choreographed battle sequences. But if you shoot them poorly, as Florentine understands better than many of his contemporaries, you ruin it.
The action in Ninja: Shadow of a Tear — of which there is a lot – is akin to the work that Luc Besson and his cabal of French directors did in the early 2000s on The Transporter and District 13 franchises. The fights may be set in one room, but they feel sprawling and monumental. And while Adkins isn’t quite as charismatic as Jason Statham, he is getting there. Shadow of a Tear puts the character of Casey through a number of emotional moments, all of which put Adkins’ developing range as an actor on display. Then again, lets not lie to ourselves. The real reason anyone should be watching a Scott Adkins movie isn’t to see him cry. It’s to see him put on an impressive show of mixed martial arts beat downs. And he does, often and with extreme prejudice.
The story is kept simple — it’s plain ole’ revenge with a few twists — something Florentine did intentionally after what he seems to have felt was a muddled mess in the first Ninja movie. The rogues gallery brings the fight, including Tim Man, the film’s fight choreographer and former Ong Bak stuntman who shows up in the third act and gives Adkins his most heated battle. It all lays out quite predictably and with its share of wooden dialogue, but in the end it’s still one hell of an old school fight film. An authentic Japanese revenge thriller from an Israeli director, his British lead an his Swedish fight choreographer. It’s a worldly affair that absolutely kicks ass.
The Upside: With no disrespect to the Undisputed series, this is perhaps the best collaboration between Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine yet.
The Downside: You’ve seen this story before, plenty of times.
On the Side: When asked which martial arts actor he’d still love to fight during the film’s Q&A, Adkins said “Donnie Yen.” Now that’s something I’d love to see happen, and soon.