It would be nice if we didn't enter into films with judgment. But some folks look at anything low budget or indie and brace. Some foolishly avoid the subtitled or black and white. Me, I see the words "afro" and "ninja" and think, "good" and "better." Then I see the cover blurb, "Inspired by the wildly popular Afro Ninja YouTube video" and my expectations are instantly lowered. Lets face it, as great as YouTube is, one doesn't exactly equate it with producing anything beyond bite-sized entertainment. A full length feature film based on a YouTube clip- really? Oh well, I'll bite, after all it has afros and ninjas and anything with a Jim Kelly cameo becomes a must watch for this kung fu nerd.
The viral clip that spawned this project is a mere eighteen seconds. Mark Hicks is a Hollywood stuntman with a pretty good imdb resume. Back in the earlier days of YouTube, a clip of Hicks doing a failed backflip, hitting his head on the floor, and then stumbling on his feet at a Nike commercial audition made the rounds and resulted in Hicks becoming a mocked interweb star. All due credit to him, Hicks took the eighteen second embarrassment and made his own full length microbudget movie in an attempt to redeem himself and stretch that eighteen seconds of fame to eighty-eight minutes.
Reggie Washington (Mark Hicks) is a dumpy, unambitious postal employee. When he opens and old, unclaimed package containing a pair of magic nunchucks, they imbue him with a set of abs and killer pecks, some heavy duty martial ability, and a healthy fro. Actually this is the first of some shaky fantasy logic. You see, he opens the package during a hold up, but he doesn't kick the attackers ass. Instead this opens the door for the YouTube clip, even though the camera angle is all wrong for it to be security cam footage, but, whatever... It is later explained, via wise master ghost, that he can only use his powers for good, agaisnt evil, and never for selfish reasons. Then how come they let him kick at his jerky but hardly evil boss? Again, doesn't have to make sense, just has to be fun.
Now that Reggie has the afro, Body by Jake, and spin kicking mojo, he starts to grab the eye of co-worker Sandra (Natascha Hopkins). He also is able to help out his Aunt Mary (Marla Gibbs), who is under pressure from a local bad guy, Black Lighting (James Black). In the typical action film scenario, Black Lighting is a bigwig bullying, buying up land, and pushing out merchants for his own nefarious greed.
Usually, the main crime of ultra low budget film is sloppy execution. There isn't much to technically marvel at within Afro Ninja. The sets are cheap, the fx is crummy, and there are some uninspired compositions. That said, these things are expected and are part of low budget charms. The overall impression is that it is pretty competent, or competent enough. The real missive here comes down to the script. Its a comedy without many jokes. Its an action film without much action.
You would think a film with magical nunchucks turning a weenie into a martial hero taking on a stock bad guy would be open to goofiness and parody but strangely, despite the fantasy elements, Afro Ninja is really rote with its humor. For instance, it doesn't make any winks or nods about its cliched villain. Black Lightning is simply a cliched villain, posturing, angrily yelling at his henchmen, no gags at the superficially silly, cut and paste role. Hicks does a yelp or two and there is the Jim Kelly cameo, but really it doesn't take the opportunity to play off the martial films and blaxsploitaiton films that, one would imagine, served as Hicks inspiration to be a stuntman/actor. Instead the height of the films humor is a mugger saying, "I know this might sound cliche, but your money or your life," then Reggie counters with, "I know this might sound cliche, but your ass is grass." Or, when he quits his job at the post office, he smashes the time clock and says, "I'm punching out for good." All the jokes are simple fizzlers, bad one liner here, goofy expression there. In addition, the jokes aren't paced very well, coming few and far between. So, yeah, best said that Hicks is not exactly Mel Brooks.
The action misses on a similar note. Hicks real chance at redemption, it would seem, would be to really show his stuff in the action department. It is a good thirty-five minutes before any action pops up, and even then it is just a couple of kicks and punches, but mainly a lot of swagger. Things pick up during the final stretch to the finale but it is a bit too little too late. By then you've suffered through so much underwhelming comedy and routine story/character beats, it doesn't mean much and Hicks, perhaps because of budget/time, sticks to some pretty standard stuff that isn't acrobatic or stunt crazy. You'll find more complex action in a typical episode of Walker Texas Ranger. Still, one can see that there is some talent in Hicks, he seems at ease, has a good physical presence, and he reminds me a bit of the 80's black action star and ultimate sidekick, the late, underappreciatted Steve James.
The DVD: Image.
Picture: The wonderful throwback hairdo is presented in anamorphic widescreen. Well, people shouldn't be expecting much. I'll forgive the actual quirks with the low budget production woes like spots of bad lighting and so forth. Technically, aside from the weakness of the source, one will find some bad artifacts, motion blur, noise, and edge enhancement. Its a weak production hampered by a weak transfer.
Sound: A sole, flat 2.0 Stereo mix doesn't really do the film any favors. Again, forgivable due to he low budget nature, but no one is going to be aurally amazed by the fx, atmospherics, or dialogue.
Extras: The extras are basically broken down into three categories, Behind the Scenes Featurettes, Interviews, and Deleted Scenes. There are eight featurettes, ranging from seventeen to four minutes in length, eight interviews ranging from eleven to two minutes, and three deleted scenes each about one and a half minutes. The extras were probably more entertaining than the film and show the genial charms of a ragtag, independent, action film.
Conclusion: Mark Hicks is an amiable actor with a good physique and some action skills. He is definitely capable of being more than a background actor or a stunt double. He certainly shouldn't have his claim to fame be an embarrassing YouTube clip. That said, his film Afro Ninja: Destiny is well-intentioned and not a total blunder but it just isn't strong enough in the story, joke, or action departments to merit a recommendation. The DVD is okay, rough presentation and passable extras, but this one is best reserved as a casual rental at most.