With the home video release of Undisputed II, two action careers were launched, and remain tied together almost a decade later: those of actor Scott Adkins, who played the villainous convict Boyka, and director Isaac Florentine, who took a cheap cash-in sequel to a theatrical feature and made a minor action gem. By the time Undisputed III rolled around, film fans had caught up with them, and that film became a cult hit. The pair's other major venture, the 2009 feature Ninja, was not as well-regarded, even by Adkins and Florentine themselves. Now, while Undisputed IV percolates, the pair have set about trying to right the Ninja ship with a sequel that doubles down on action.
Although the film actually doesn't make any direct reference to the events of the first Ninja, allowing newcomers to view it as its own beast, Adkins again plays Casey, an American who traveled to Japan to learn Ninjutsu, but ended up tied up in an assassination plot, and on the run with Namiko (Mika Hiji), the daughter of the man he hoped to meet. Although they survived their last predicament, Namiko isn't so lucky, killed at home while Casey is out picking up a late-night snack to satisfy her pregnant hunger pains. Wracked with guilt and sorrow, Casey goes to stay with his friend Nakabara (Kane Kosugi) at his dojo, only to pick up the trail of Namiko's murderers.
Viewers' expectations are probably pretty low, but as a movie, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear falls pretty short. Many of the performances (including Adkins) drift between "unconvincing" to "genuinely awful", most of the characters are completely underdeveloped or not interesting, and the story is all over the map. Early reviews out of "cool" film festivals have been almost reverent in their praise, but there's a sense that a supercharged audience might simply drown out any dead air. Now, before anyone writes me an angry email about how the sequel to Ninja "isn't meant to be Oscar-caliber", believe me, this isn't about unrealistic expectations. There are simply sections of Shadow of a Tear that are straight-up boring. Anything between major fight scenes (and there's more than one would expect) is likely to leave the average viewer checking their watch. These things only need a clothesline plot, but this is so thin that one of the bad guys isn't even up to anything, other than doodling in a sketchbook and playing chess with his assistant.
That said, there's absolutely no question that Shadow of a Tear improves on the original in the action category. Although I'm personally a fan of longer sparring sequences and more cleverness, ala Jackie Chan (something like, say, one of Adkins' feet being chained to the floor, or an unconventional item as a weapon -- something to make the fight unique), Florentine's straightforward combat sequences are fast and brutal. He and Adkins pack in almost 10 major fight sequences in under 100 minutes, with highlights including a friendly sparring match where emotions get the best of the opponents, a surprisingly brutal drunken brawl in a bar, a showdown with one of the bad guy's right-hand men with Adkins in full ninja garb, and the film's finale, matching Adkins with an opponent worthy of his time. In all of the fights, Florentine shoots the action with as much clarity and steadiness as he can muster, and Adkins moves so fast that one wonders if Florentine sped up the film.
The intended pleasures of a film like this are simple, but that doesn't mean the movie automatically earns a pass. Obviously, I know that this is a modern B-movie, from the cheesy title to the implausible ending. Still, when I say that Tear could use a more compelling story or better acting, it's a complaint in the spirit of the film Florentine and Adkins want to make, not misplaced expectations. The film's positives and negatives split the movie right down the middle: there's plenty of really phenomenal martial arts action that fans of the genre ought to see, yet also a ton of weaknesses that can't just be chalked up to the fact that most movies in the same genre or style are mediocre at best. The action may be more than worthy of your Redbox dollar, but labels like "greatest DTV action film of all time" will have to wait for a moment when Florentine and Adkins' storytelling and performances land a little closer to the mark.
Although Shadow of a Tear is being released by Millennium Films instead of First Look, the artwork for the film is designed to mimic the original, with a shot of the ninja in question, standing in darkness, lit from above. Millennium has also taken the step of adding a "II" to the title in giant red roman numerals, in case the emphasis on the film being a sequel (not directly references in the film, despite return casting, and not mentioned in the actual on-screen title) sells a few more copies. The disc comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Anyone getting a new home theater system may want to pick up Ninja: Shadow of a Tear just as a simple demo disc. Although this is decidedly low-budget spectacle, lacking in grandeur, the PQ is jaw-droppingly colorful and vivid, offering the maximum amount of detail from the RED footage that can be packed into this 1.78:1 1080p AVC transfer. When Adkins glances at a knife he's picked off a thug near the beginning, it's easy to see the whorl of his fingerprint, and pick out individual dots of stubble on his face. I scrutinized scenes in dark rooms, shadowy alleys, and even a sweaty bar doused in neon lights, and could not pick out any artifacting or banding whatsoever. It's matched, beat for beatdown, by a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that exists to serve the action. Each fist that hits face and each foot smacking chest is thunderous. Sometimes, the "clean" sound of direct-to-video features feels like a shortcoming, but the sparseness works on Shadow of a Tear, going hand-in-hand with the sparse, almost three-dimensional imagery. Some people would never consider a film without Hollywood production values as a test for their new TV, but Shadow of a Tear is top-notch. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included, along with a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack.
Three short video pieces make up the extras here, all of which are presented in HD. First, a featurette (7:15) is a standard EPK-style look at the production, with some standard talking heads summing up the story and the characters. The other two are basically extensions of the first piece, with interviews (12:36) providing longer chats with the cast and crew, and behind-the-scenes (5:23) consisting of B-roll footage from the set, with no interviews or commentary. All are worth a single look, although all three probably could've been trumped by an audio commentary with Florentine and Adkins.
Trailers for Parkland, As I Lay Dying, Charlie Countryman, and Hell Baby play before the main menu. An original trailer for Ninja: Shadow of a Tear is also included (not in the special features, but under the "Previews" menu).
If Ninja: Shadow of a Tear were a highlight reel, it'd be a pretty great one. As a movie, it's merely pretty good, if mindless beatdowns are what you're in the mood for. The disc also boasts exemplary A/V, making this a strong rental..
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