Thursday, 25 September 2014

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas!: Ninja Academy (Nico Mastorakis, 1989)

Ninjas may have been big in the 80’s, but hilarious academy-based movies were even bigger and it was only a matter of time before a genius put those two ideas together. A bunch of loveable losers enrol in a Los Angles based Ninja Academy and all sorts of hijinks ensue. Unfortunately, jokes do not.

The movie relies on the audience buying into two conceits. Firstly, that Beverly Hills has not one but two Ninja training facilities that are open to the public, and secondly that the collection of dicks enrolled could be considered relatable, loveable or engaging. The selection of bums and dropouts range from the clich├ęd, (the spoilt rich kid, the clumsy nerd, the Tackleberry-esque survival nut) to the utterly absurd (the mime, the lame Bond rip-off name agent 00711) and all fail to raise laughs or emit charm.

The film abandons plot in favour of a series of training montages set to punishingly dreadful pop songs and the occasional off-colour set piece. The academy is located next to a nudist camp allowing for the requisite ‘spying on the naked girls’ scene, there is a camp ninja who complains about a broken nail and who wiggles his hips as he flails his nunchukas and there is a slightly uncomfortable ‘accidental cunnilingus’ gag in the middle of the climatic fight.

A thin contrivance regarding a rival school leads to a surprisingly brutal climatic fight, but it’s not as brutal as the total lack of laughs.

Ninja Abilities – Vanishing

Ninja Kit – Shuriken, smoke bombs, nunchaku, staff

Ninja Colours – White, black

Notable Ninja Kills – None (though someone gets a throwing star in the balls)

Ninja Activity – (last 20 mins) Low

Ninja Mythology: Ninja training consists of running through the woods, shouting at your enemy and pretty much fuck all else.

Overall rating: 1

Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Icons of the Overlooked #11: Scott Adkins

Martial arts action stars don't recieve the same attention they used to. Van Damme, Seagal and Norris  have reached well beyond the confines of their genres entering public awareness irrespective of their abilities or the quality of their movies. Modern day martial arts heroes who arguably display more dazzling skills and a more natural approach to performance struggle to find the same status. When will  Michael Jai White or Marko Zaror get mainstream recognition? Will Tony Jaa ever become recognised enough that he'll send himself up in beer commercials, or will Iko Uwais become a meme?  Hardly aspirational ends to a career but they do show a penetration into mass culture. So why is it unlikely these modern fighters will get the same attention?

It might partly be due to the fact that six weeks in a marital arts boot camp and a good stunt double will allow any A-lister to get into fighting shape, leaving studios less willing to front a movie with someone with more raw ability but with less box-office pull. The proliferation of marital arts across the web may have normalised martial arts to the point that modern audiences are less impressed by it all. Why pay over £10 to see someone do a flip-kick when you can check out this guy on YouTube doing the same for free? Furthermore each generation has grown up not only normalised to martial arts but willing to study or mimic it. We as an audience are more aware then ever that out there are hundreds of skilled martial artists who could easily impress in front of a camera. So with competition from both amateurs and professionals, and an audience demanding more to impress them, standing out is a lot harder for the modern martial arts action star. Those mentioned above are the best examples of screen fighters who should be better known but there is one more I've yet to bring up.

British born Scott Adkins should be a far bigger name than he is. For starters he's a good-looking guy, I mean hollywood leading man good-looking. He has a kind of Affleck-ness to him to the point that I thought he'd make a great fight double in the new Superman/Batman movie. Then I though he'd make a pretty good Batman full stop. Well, maybe. You see Adkins is a rare action star that is better at playing actual characters than stone-cold hard men. When asked to glare menacingly or look earnestly into the eye of his wife (the one that'll be murdered so he has a reason to go on a revenge spree) he often comes off as wooden. When he is given a little meat, however, he generally rises to the challenge. His most popular role is that of Boyka the antagonist in Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing (Issac Florentine, 2006). Given a Russian accent and a bad attitude to chew on Adkins excels to a degree that you end up liking him even though he's the villain. So likeable was he that he became the lead in Undisputed 3: Redemption (Issac Florentine, 2010).

El Gringo (Eduardo Rodriquez, 2012) isn't a full-on martial arts flick and falls into a lot of the trappings of most movies that attempt to embrace the obnoxious faux grind-house aesthetic. Unlike most of these movies, however, this film gets the violence right with some nicely shot action and the use of some lovely wet squibs rather than digital blood spurts. More importantly the movie has a healthy sense of fun. Removed of self-importance Adkins is free to exude some vulnerability, humour and charisma.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (John Hyams 2012) gives the audience a little identity crisis for both Adkins and the audience to wrestle with. It's an unconventional action movie, one that borders on horror at times, yet Adkins manages to tune his performance (physical and emotional) to fit and manages to convince as a guy whose loss of identity and fractured memory slowly comes together over the course of the movie. It's still a tough guy performance, but he actually has something to do here other than strike a pose and frown.

It seems all Adkins needs is a little shade in the writing to come alive. Given an interesting role and a director willing to push him Adkins could well become a more mainstream action lead, one that also happens to be able to kick ass. 

This brings us to the final ingredient: martial arts ability. Adkins is a considerabley gifted fighter. So gifted, in fact, that he has been noticed by Hollywood and given roles in some big releases. Alas, like Ray Park before him it is in the thankless role of the mostly mute henchman. Adkins has played this role in The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007) and appeared uncredited in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, 2009). Even his slightly more expanded role in The Expendables 2 (Simon West, 2012) was basically the same part.

These movies are never going to make him well known as they only allow him a little room to play. If you pick up pretty much any of the movies he leads in, however, you're in for some amazing stuff. Both Ninja and Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear (Issac Florentine, 2009 and 2013 respectively) provide frequent and exciting displays of his skill but it is Undisputed 3 that really shows him off at his best. I'm not claiming Adkins is as versatile in his acting as he is in his fighting but he is capable of being more engaging and convincing than a lot of marital arts stars who are more famous than he is. Undisputed 3 is a movie that clearly shows he should be better known than he is for both his ability to create a reasonably interesting character and one that can display exhilarating on screen pugilistic skill.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! Lethal Ninja (Yossi Wein, 1992)

The wife of a good ninja (Mrs Ninja I think she was called) is kidnapped in Africa as part of a Nazi poising scheme and he must track her down. The movie opens with a ninja attack on Mrs Ninja’s research camp resulting in the rather bloodless slaughter of a number of scientists. Good ninja teams up with his friend to wander round a series of industrial locations, fending off the occasional ninja ambush and attempting unsuccessfully to generate some buddy-movie chemistry. The Neo-Nazi that leads the ninjas (you read that correctly) is a cross between Richard Briers and Colonel Saunders and offers one of the least intimidating threats ever committed to film: “Take them to the see-saw!” The action is frequent, set in really evocative locations and the violence is punctuated with some nice crunchy sound effects. Despite this the action never quite manages to satisfy, even the scene with the roller-skating ninjas. The quantity is there, but the quality is lacking.

Ninja Abilities – Roller-skating.

Ninja Kit – Sword, Bow, Sai, Garrotte, Ninja skates (roller skates with flick out blades), Nunchaku/Kusari Fundo, Crossbow, Machine guns

Ninja Colours – Black, Light brown/camouflage.

Notable Ninja Kills – Neck snaps.

Ninja Activity? –Medium to good (frequent appearances)

Ninja Mythology: Ninjas enjoy skating but ruin it for everyone else.

Overall rating: 6/10

Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! Pray For Death (Gordon Hessler, 1985)

Sho Kosugi’s family falls foul of criminals, so he digs out his old (but badass) ninja outfit and goes to town on the bastards. Despite some ill-deployed eighties power ballads the movie manages to stay badass throughout. The movie has a nice opening ninja fight, Kosugi playing chicken with a pick-up truck, children fighting and a kinetic and brutal final battle that involves chainsaws, rotary blades and mannequins. If Kosugi wore his awesome outfit throughout, or if there were more ninjas in the movie it might be the perfect ninja movie.

Ninja Abilities – Sword making

Ninja Kit – Ninja bicycle (smoke, spoke-blow-darts), bullet proof body armour, bow, sword, smoke bombs, garrotte, bladed throwing weapon (like a metal shuttlecock), knives, shuriken, horned devil ninja mask, kabuki mask, spear and a bizarre weapon that looks like a sharpened TV aerial.

Ninja Colours – Black, Red, Grey.

Notable Ninja Kills – Arrow in throat, pinned to door with blade through neck, thrown onto buzz saw

Ninja Activity? – Medium (first 15 minutes, last 25, none in middle)

Ninja Mythology: Some ninja’s just want to be left alone to get on with their lives.

Overall rating: 7/10

Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! An Introduction

The Ninja is the most feared assassin of all. Melting out of the shadows and striking with balance and efficiency these phantoms appear otherworldly and omnipresent. Their grace and lethality are mirrored in their weapons; an exquisitely forged armoury of bladed murder tools that cut silently through air before slicing wetly into flesh. Draped in ominous black and lurking in the corner of your eye, they can attack at any moment. There might be one in the room with you right now. So ever-present and stealthy are they it is rumoured you swallow several of them in your sleep every night. Actually that might be spiders. Yeah that's spiders.

As a kid Ninjas both excited and terrified me. I would often see Ninjas adorning the covers of exciting looking video covers dressed in their awesome outfits and pulling the coolest poses my tiny eyes had ever seen outside of a comic. Unfortunately for me they were almost always accompanied by a round red sticker identifying the movie as being for people of eighteen years or older. The thought of the horrors these black-clad baddies might perpetrate made my wimpy ten-tear-old self anxious but intensified their mystique. Therefore as much as the mental images of decapitations, broken limbs and heart removal that the covers evoked repelled me the weird allure of the Ninja baited me into mentally storing those covers ready to return to them at an age when I could handle the bloodshed.

I am now of age and I am now ready to discover what those nightmarish shadow-dwellers could do that would earn them that little red sticker.

Turns out I had mostly nothing to worry about. Most of these movies were rated eighteen because the BBFC didn’t like the look of the weapons they held irrespective of whether they used them or not. Despite their tameness I have not been deterred from delving into as many as I possibly can, recording what I find. This information will take the form of a short synopsis and the following statistics:

Ninja Abilities – It is assumed all Ninjas have the ability to move stealthily, perform martial arts and have some acrobatic skills. Some movies, however, show that Ninjas can develop an incredibly diverse skill-set over time. So any unexpected, unusual or downright supernatural abilities will be noted.

Ninja Kit – Bladed weapons are the meat and potatoes of the Ninja trade, yet many also use specialist equipment to carry out their tasks. So if you want to assemble your own comprehensive Ninja arsenal, take note of this section.

Ninja Colours – Ninjas come in all colours and sizes, this section will list the different outfits that appear in the associated movie.

Notable Ninja Kills – Stabbing and slicing is expected but this section is reserved for any particularly interesting kills, whether it be creative, gory or overly used.

Ninja Activity – Don’t tell me someone is a Ninja unless they’re in costume. This section judges how much full-costumed Ninja action is in the movie.

Ninja Mythology – I’m going to assume that all movies featuring a Ninja are canonical (I think it’s safe to assume that Three Ninjas Knuckle Up is in the same series of movies as You Only Live Twice right?) and as such each movie will add something new to the Ninja mythology.

Overall rating: Nothing to do with the quality of the movie (some lousy movies will get high ratings, some good will get low) but rather a judgement on the overall quality of Ninja action. Are there enough Ninjas? Are they awesome? Are they deadly? Did they earn that red sticker? That kind of thing.

When my work is complete we might be able to pit these movies in a battle to the death to determine which is the ultimate Ninja movie.