Straight-to-video offerings – or straight-to-DVD as we think about them now – have always been regarded as not very good. I think that’s changed a lot these days, with Video On Demand being such a big force and many films getting limited releases before showing up on one streaming service or another, but most people will still shake their heads whenever a non-theatrical movie is mentioned. That seems particularly true for action movies, which are, by their simplistic nature, bigger, dumber and cheesier than standard movies anyway, even without the stigma of missing a theatrical release. However, according to a good portion of internet writers in the know, the real joke is on us, because these straight-to-DVD action movies are apparently really good.
I was entranced when my former roommate sent me this article: http://www.avclub.com/article/todays-best-action-directors-arent-working-in-holl-104394 where the venerable Onion AV Club declares that the best action movies in terms of direction, fight choreography and intensity were being released as direct-to-DVD flicks starring lesser known action heroes like Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins and directed by old cinematic hands like Isaac Florentine, as well as often being sequels that have little to do with their predecessors. These low-budget, skillfully created beat ’em ups seemed like the perfect antidote to the current messy tide of action flicks – which usually feature confusing sequences with too many cuts, copious CGI, overly complex stories, and actors who are clearly in it only for the paycheck. This seemed very promising. But, as the article pointed out, it’s a little difficult to actually be aware and get a hold of these straight-to-DVD gems, so I vowed to keep my eyes open and bide my time.
So when the charmingly titled Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear showed up on Netflix, I figured this was my chance. I read a review of it earlier by the great Evan Saathof (http://badassdigest.com/2013/09/22/fantastic-fest-review-ninja-shadow-of-a-tear-is-the-new-b-action-champ/) where he declared it one of the greatest action flicks in recent memory. I read the review, watched the movie, and I have to say that, while I didn’t enjoy it as much as he did, I still think that it’s the highest order of a kind of non-pretentious film that knows what the audience wants and goes about supplying it.
Ninja II (I never saw Ninja I and didn’t really have to) is a simple story of revenge. Broad-shouldered tank of a man Scott Adkins is an average joe American living in Japan where he works as a martial arts instructor and has a beautiful new wife. But before you can say ‘Frank Castle,’ she’s murdered – by a ninja — and he starts putting his high-kicking abilities to use in tracking down her killers, who happen to be a massive criminal organization hiding out in the jungles of the infamous Golden Triangle in Myanmar. He goes from Japan to Thailand to Myanmar, mercilessly beating the crap out of everyone who gets into his way. I mentioned Frank Castle earlier and that’s what this story reminded me of. The villains are nasty, our hero is unambiguously good, and he destroys them without mercy. But instead of the Punisher’s assault rifles and military training, Scott Adkins relies on ninja equipment and his acrobatic and impressive high kicks. The action is well-filmed, the story has a lot of cool, somewhat ridiculous, and nice turns (Adkins takes on a cobra with a ninja sword, for instance) and it did exactly what it promised. Adkins perfectly conveyed his character’s hateful, violent rage and Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm even makes a brief appearance as a corrupt police commander and has the same, stone-faced grandeur that be brought to Only God Forgives.
But bringing up Only God Forgives reminded me that Ninja II is, above all, a film with definite and minor ambitions. Only God Forgives, for all its flaws, has something to say. I think Ninja II could have worked a little of that in – maybe something about the problems of living only for revenge or some commentary about a white guy running around in a ninja outfit – but those kinds of issues aren’t even on Ninja II’s radar. That’s not the movie’s fault, though. Maybe it’s mine for expecting too much, but I also remembered how the great Punisher MAX series by Garth Ennis was able to balance insane action and deliver something deeper at the same time.
I also remembered another very good recent action flick – 2011’s The Raid. The great Roger Ebert trashed The Raid as having nothing of substance beside the action. I happened to have a different opinion, seeing The Raid as an exercise in delivering a single thrilling, violent action set-piece as the whole movie that has to be enjoyed on a visceral, jaws-agape level – almost like a horror movie — but I understand where Ebert’s coming from. And The Raid and Ninja II are still miles above the sort of dreck you usually see in a modern action movie. Hopefully, a movie will come along that will marry the brilliant simplicity of Ninja II and The Raid with some deeper, more profound themes. Maybe it will be The Raid 2: Berendal. Have you seen those trailers? It looks amazing.