When this 2008 made for cable TV action movie starts out, an undercover cop named Jack Barrett (Casper Van Diem) is wailing away on his guitar, rocking the crowd at a Los Angeles night club while his fellow detectives wait outside. One of their own is impersonating a drug dealer while wearing a wire and they're waiting for the right time to strike. When he's found out, Barrett jumps off the stage and saves the day thought shortly after the guy with the wire on gets a phone call. For some reason, Barrett takes the call - it's the dude's girlfriend, a hot Japanese chick named Miko (Kristy Wu) and she's in trouble.
Jack ditches everybody and hightails it up to the house Mike shares with her father and her stepfather. When he gets there, a ninja attacks him and then takes off - Barrett has arrived too late, Mike's father and two security guards are dead. The cops go about investigating the murder scene and try to figure out what the motive for the murder could have been. They ask Miko for her help, but she claims to know nothing, deferring all questions to her father's assistant, Hirohito (Anthony Brandon Wong). It turns out that Miko's dad was the head of Takeo Technologies, a company that provides surveillance and spy equipment to a roster of international clients and people like that always have enemies. As Barrett and the cops get more involved in the investigation, more and more bodies begin to pile up as Jack finds himself in the middle of a feud between warring Japanese clans that has existed for centuries.
Make no mistake about it, this movie is poorly written and the acting is pretty lame across the board but as far as schlocky b-movies go, it is at least entertaining enough, particularly if you're a fan of dopey action films like the American Ninja series. Casper Van Diem doesn't quite have the screen presence of Michael Dudikoff and there's no sidekick anywhere to be seen here to rival the coolness of the late, great Steve James but a lot of guys do run around Los Angeles in ninja suits and kick people, so the picture has that going for it. The decision to use some 'slow down then speed stuff up really quickly and throw it out of focus' bits to serve as transitions and to place emphasis on certain details is pretty annoying and it gets old fast but what can you do.
As far as the performances go, well, Van Diem is Van Diem meaning that he doesn't emote a whole lot or show much range but he does run around beating people up and looking handsome. This role doesn't allow him to really break any new ground but he's perfectly fine in the part and he does quite well in the fight scenes. Anthony Brandon Wong (not to be confused with the Cat III superstar) is pretty wooden here but his character is supposed to be a stickler for tradition and so it sort of makes sense that he'd act this way. Kelly Wu actually does show some legitimate range here, delivering some convincing scenes allowing her to stand out from the rest of the cast.
In order to enjoy a picture like this, it's important to keep your expectations in check and know what you're getting into ahead of time. This is a made for TV ninja movie with Casper Van Diem in the lead role - it's not going to blow you away with brilliant writing, earnest performances or anything remotely resembling food for thought but it will provide some bloody shoot outs, a couple of cool ninja attack scenes, gratuitous topless nudity and a decapitation. There are some pretty obvious plot holes (what happened to Miko's boyfriend/Jack's fellow cop from the opening scene?) and you don't have to suspend your disbelief here as you have to completely eliminate it, but if enjoy turning off your brain once in a while, this is a good way to kill ninety minutes. The violence level should satisfy most action buffs and it's nice to see a movie that doesn't rely too heavily on CGI to up the bloodshed quota, even if the movie definitely could have used more arterial spray.
Mask Of The Ninja looks fine in this 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Detail is sharp, color reproduction is pretty realistic, and black levels stay strong throughout the film. There are some scenes that, for whatever reason, look grainier than others which gives the movie a slightly inconsistent quality but aside from that, there's not a whole lot to complain about. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or noticeable edge enhancement and skin tones look lifelike and natural.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix on this disc is actually surprisingly good. Channel separations is strong and distinct, especially during the action and shoot out scenes, while dialogue stays clean and clear throughout. Bass response is also pretty good, you'll definitely feel it when the gunshots go off. The scenes that are spoken in Japanese include forced subtitles. There are no alternate language dubs or subtitles provided, nor are there any closed captions included on the DVD.
Aside from a few trailers for unrelated Dimension/Weinstein products that play before you get to the main menu, this release is completely barebones. The cover is pretty cool though.
Fans of eighties era Cannon films like American Ninja will appreciate this one, warts and all, even if there isn't nearly enough arterial spray. It's not even close to a good movie in the literal sense, but it is a fun time killer. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.