By all accounts Ninjas vs. Vampires (the second Ninjas vs... release from writer/director Justin Timpane) should be yet another bit of lower tier B-movie forgettable junk, some micro-budgeted amateur doodling that could never possibly fulfill its minimum daily requirements of what passes for reasonable entertainment. But somewhere along the way Timpane has handily allowed himself to leapfrog over the production/budget/visual effects shortcomings and occasional wonky bit of acting to put together a fun film that winks knowingly at its own Whedon-esque dialogue while playing itself straight.
Or at least as straight as you can with a storyline concerning good-guy ninjas battling bad-guy vampires.
There's no mistaking that this was shot on a relative shoestring, but when the characters start spouting Timpane's dialogue all is temporarily forgotten (even if some of the reads are just plain awful) and the low-rent visual effects suddenly don't seem as distracting. Timpane's characters are cut from traditional comic book stock, each broadly festooned with quirky personalities and one-liners meant to instantly define their personas. The plot - centering on an outsider forced to team up with a ragtag band of ninjas to rescue his wannabe girlfriend from the clutches of the vampires - is simplistic at best, a mere vehicle for some unexpectedly wonderful bursts of dialogue. There are the titular battles, all building to the battle royale, but for a film on a budget those sequences are revealed as something less than the sum of their parts. It's the back-and-forth of the characters that shines here.
It's tough to dump on Timpane when he's working with what he had to work with budgetarily, and once you are able to see through that then the groovy hipness of what's he assembled comes through. It's not necessarily a game changer in the world of cinema, but it is a snappy comic-book-gone-celluloid concept that certainly deserves better. Daniel Ross - playing the cocky wise ass ninja Kyle - gets Timpane's best lines, providing the right dose of geeky fanboy comic relief as the film progresses along a fairly expected path, periodically detoured by poor fight scene payoffs that unfortunately cannot deliver what the moment demands. The rest of the casting is hit or miss, lead on the positive by the good guys of Team Ninja (including Cory Okouchi, Jay Saunders and Devon Berkshire) each of whom downplay the overdramatics often seen on the Team Vampire side of things. The film may not be completely even, but it is able to balance itself out more often than not. And let's not forget the coquettish charm of Liz Christmas, playing perhaps the sexiest vampire of recent memory.
I'll be upfront that I fully expected Ninjas vs Vampires to be half-baked trash and instead was pleasantly surprised to discover a filmmaker that seems to really get "it" (whatever "it" is), melding clever dialogue, fun characters and the sort of high-concept storytelling that should please anyone with a love for comics. Give writer/director Justin Timpane a bigger budget and a film like this could really have found a larger audience. And with the obligatory sequel setup found here, I hope he'll get the chance.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is - given the film's modest budget - a fairly respectable offering. While fleshtones and colors don't pop like a big studio release they do consistently hold their own for the duration, while black levels noticeably pull up short during the night/dark interior sequences. No nicks, dirt or debris to be found.
Nothing flashy in the audio department, but it works. The 2.0 stereo mix is perhaps a bit flat, yet it delivers clear dialogue well enough. Timpane's use of rock tunes during the opening and closing credits plays much better, and it's here that the track seems larger than it is.
There's an abundance of extras to be found, almost too much, actually. To begin with, there are three separate commentaries (Director, Actors, Producers) that sometimes overlap content, which shouldn't be much of a surprise considering that two of the tracks feature nearly the identical lineup. So on one hand I applaud the volume of content, but truth be told I would have been just as pleased with a single track.
The Director track features writer/director Justin Timpane and producer Kelly Timpane, the crowded Actors yak features Timpane along with cast members Cory Okouchi, Karla Okouchi, Devon Berkshire, Jay Saunders, P.J. Megaw, Daniel Ross, Daniel Mascarello while under the Producers banner it is Timpane, Mascarello, Megaw, Ross, (Cory) Okouchi and Brian Anderson. The Directors commentary is probably suitable for those looking for a quick overview, but for those under time constraints I would recommend the Producer track, as it more broadly covers the background of the film and the technical work from a number of viewpoints, and is much easy to absorb than the giggly, overstuffed Actors track. And where the hell was Liz Christmas??
The rest of the supplements feature an alternate Ending (03m:01s) with optional Timpane commentary, a block of deleted/extended scenes (09m:06s) with optional Timpane commentary, a blooper reel (02m:59s), footage from the theatrical premiere (02m:25s), a pair of music videos from Ashes (02m:59s) and SolarIce (04m:48s), a brief look at the origin of the material in Ninjas vs Comics (05m:01s), a done-from-the-character-of-Cole's-perspective From Zombies to Vampires (03m:32s) and a big set of trailers.
The material may work better and more efficiently as a comic book than as a film made on the cheap, but one has to give writer/director Justin Timpane a high-five for the attempt here. While the caliber of the performances really ran the gamut the concept, characters and attitude were a hell of a lot of fun.
Worth a rental for those appreciative of filmmakers operating on small budgets and big ideas.