R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Ninjapalooza, Part 1

I had planned on following up this week with some more Van Damme awesomeness, but then something unexpectedly bad ass happened, and suddenly it seemed that more Muscles from Brussels coverage could perhaps wait another week. The reason for the postponement happened this past Saturday, when a friendly excursion into some ninja-related entertainment turned into a full-blown bloody assault. By the end of the day, we had staved off all of them to come out victorious. I’m of course referring to an all day ninja flick marathon which could have been a time wasting trip into mediocrity, but instead ended up the most fun I’ve had watching movies in some time.

As some of you may recall, Ninja Assassin was one of my most anticipated films of last year. The promise of a martial arts filled gore-fest had me hoping for the second coming of movies like Duel to the Death and Story of Ricky. What I got in its place was a poorly shot exercise in frustration. Instead of the visceral masterpiece the likes of Blade II or Shoot ‘em Up, Ninja Assassin is a mess of a movie, not sure if it prefers to focus on badly shot action or CGI blood.

This became more apparent recently when I actually delved into better (or at least more fun) examples in this same genre. Even if Ninja Assassin was able to beat these movies in budget and production values, it sure wasn’t able to beat them for lunacy and just general bad-assery. Not that all these movies are necessarily what you would call “good”, but I can say without a doubt that on a very basic level they’re way more successful at the type of movie they’re trying to get across and at least they seem to understand what their audience wants.

So with that,

R0BTRAIN’s Bad Ass Cinema Presents…

Ninjapalooza!

The Hunted, Directed by J.F. Lawton. Starring Christopher Lambert, Joan Chen, John Lone, Yôko Shimada, and Yoshio Harada.

Not to be confused with the Tommy Lee Jones/Benicio Del Toro pseudo-First Blood picture of the same name, The Hunted is about an American businessman named Paul Racine (Christopher Lambert) who has been contracted to do some work in Japan, and one night after a hard day’s work he picks up a woman at his hotel bar (Joan Chen). The two of them have a romantic evening, watching a Taiko demonstration (big Japanese drums) and bathing together and whatnot, but as the evening is about to end, the woman is cold to Racine’s request to see her again. Dejected but content with the terrific evening he’s just had, Racine decides to call it a night, but inadvertently grabs the wrong keys, and when he goes back to retrieve his own from the lady’s room, he finds it full of ninjas about to assassinate her.

While I’m describing this setup for the movie, it may sound pretty silly, but in actuality the whole thing is carried off pretty seriously and as a result is really successful. Walking in on the situation, Racine then becomes the target of the ninja clan and must go on the run, eventually getting help from Takeda (Yoshio Harada), a warrior whose clan has an ancient grudge with the ninja. Declaring war on the assassins, Takeda uses Paul as bait to lure out the killers and end up creating one violent encounter after another, eventually leading to an apocalyptic showdown.

I unabashedly loved this movie. While this film could have ended up as some sort of farce, Director J.F. Lawton constructs the movie with style and a lot of action. The fights are very reminiscent of classic Samurai cinema and never go over the top or get silly in any way. Unlike so many of the 80’s ninja films we’re used to, the ninja in this picture are not supernatural or ghost-like. They’re just amazing killers and they’re to be feared as such.

The strongest sequence in the movie is an absolute show-stopper. As the ninja close in on Racine, he takes refuge on a speeding train, with Takeda and the master’s wife in tow, but within minutes of leaving the station all hell breaks loose. Ninja have killed the conductor almost immediately and then start executing passengers on their way to try and find Racine. Of course unbeknownst to the assassins, Takeda is lying in wait. With sword in hand, then he cuts down ninja after ninja, with his wife doing some amazing work with bow and arrow as well. For the time period, the amount of blood and collateral damage to the passengers is pretty shocking, making for an especially visceral experience.

Going a long way is the work of Yoshio Harada, a veteran of Japanese cinema from bloody Mikogami Trilogy to an awesome appearance in Ryûhei Kitamura’s nonstop action epic Azumi. There’s so much strength and vigor in this performance that he nearly steals the entire movie, which is saying something. Supporting performances from Yôko Shimada as Takeda’s wife and John Lone (The Last Emperor) as Kinjo, the movie’s main villain are both absolutely terrific, and the three of them act as if they could have starred in their own movie and the result would have been just as strong.

Thing is though, I can’t seem to find any fault with the performance from Christopher Lambert here. I’ve never really been a fan of Lambert and generally find him about as charming as a 2X4, but The Hunted features what is probably his finest hour acting-wise. Playing the everyman thrown into this incredible situation, Lambert finds sure footing as Racine and never looks back. I actually found it shocking just how likeable he is in this role, which never seems to take a misstep. In all honesty, I wish it was this movie, and not Highlander that Lambert were known for, because frankly he gives a much better performance here.

With terrific fights, especially the incredible train sequence, Lambert’s best performance and buckets of blood, The Hunted is a forgotten gem ready to be rediscovered. Fans looking for a serious take on ninjas could do a heck of a lot worse, and even though the period in Western cinema when this movie was produced wasn’t exactly known for great choreography, this throwback to classic samurai fight scenes gets the job done. This is well worth seeking out. Now onto some big time camp!

Mortal Kombat Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Starring Christopher Lambert, Robin Shou, Linden Ashby, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

So I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, “But Rob, Mortal Kombat is a pretty terrible movie and Director Paul W.S. Anderson is a blight upon humanity that must be stamped out.” Now both of those statements are pretty true. While Paul W.S. Anderson isn’t the worst director working today, he certainly is in the running for the lamest. He’s not really Uwe Boll-level awful, and his movies don’t make you want to gouge your eyes out like Joel Schumacher’s worst atrocities, but he’s certainly somewhere around Rob Cohen-level mediocre. It’s as if he wants to be a Michael Bay-style director, but doesn’t have the talent or style to be able to pull off Bay’s level of evil.

Thing is though, not having seen Mortal Kombat since its release in theaters, I was pleasantly surprised by its earnest attempt at capturing the video game on film. It’s not saying much to say that this film is in the upper echelon of video game movies, but to be honest its right there. The fighting is actually not that bad for the most part, and the movie goes at a pretty decent pace. Could this have been much, much more? Absolutely, but on a certain level it still kind of works.

While most of the performers here are pretty much on auto-pilot, I will say there are a couple of standouts. First and foremost, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa seems to be having a lot of fun as Shang Tsung, the movie’s scenery-chewing, soul stealing heavy. Sure, the role doesn’t really require the man to do much more than play for the cheap seats, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun watching him chew all the scenery around him.

Even more fun is Linden Ashby as Johnny Cage. Ashby isn’t doing much more than riffing on John Saxon’s Roper in Enter the Dragon, but his bewilderment throughout the movie is hilarious, and he’s able to hold his own in the fight scenes. Over and over again he seems to get the best lines and the best fights in this movie, and that’s exactly what you’d want from a portrayal of this character anyway.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is extremely lackluster. I know I just praised Christopher Lambert in the previous movie, but Mortal Kombat has him back to his usual level of awfulness. Same goes for Bridgette Wilson as Sonya Blade, who’s pretty forgettable throughout, and makes you wish the film makers had watched a few Cynthia Rothrock Hong Kong movies and cast her instead. Last of all, Robin Shou doesn’t really establish any presence as Liu Kang. While he gets to ape Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon character arc, Shou doesn’t have any of Lee’s charisma. His fight skills seem to be passable, but he seems to be sleepwalking through most of this movie. It doesn’t help that even though he’s fighting in an interdimensional martial arts tournament, he still spends most of the movie in khaki pants, like he’s got a business casual lunch scheduled after the next ass kicking.

As far as ninjas go, “Director” Anderson fills the movie with tons of generic villains in ninja garb, but the real thrill comes from seeing the awesome ninja characters from the video game in all their glory. Getting to see Scorpion and Johnny Cage go at it is especially amazing, as they fight in several different stages, ending in some sort of underworld where they battle to the death. The Sub-Zero/Liu Kang scuffle isn’t quite as engaging, but just getting to see the blue ninja do all of his moves definitely has its moments. Less successful is the portrayal of Reptile, which goes from terrible CGI character to mediocre ninja. Finally, there’s Goro which is at the same time awesomely accurate and awful in how fake he looks. Still, the attempt is nice.

Still, with all its flaws (and there are many), I still had fun with this movie. Of course it could have been WAYYY better, but for what it is, it still stands as one of the best of its genre, and at least makes an attempt to give you what you want in the movie, as opposed to film adaptations of every single other fighting game. Thankfully, there was still much awesomeness left to come, and many more ninjas left to fight.

Lastly, this week…

Bad Ass of the Month for March 2010


Remy, played by Jude Law –Repo Men

There was actually quite a bit of competition for this distinction this month. Matt Damon continues to establish himself as a terrific action star, and Green Zone is just another example of him doing excellent work. He’s tenacious as Roy Miller, the soldier trying to get to the bottom of some troubling questions having to do with the Iraq War, but he also gets roughed up quite a bit in the movie. I also loved Scott Adkins in the DTV Ninja, which I’ll talk about next week, but when it came down to it, Jude Law’s Remy just edged him out.

Let’s face it, Remy is a man who takes organs out of other human beings for a living, and he’s really amazing at it. When he’s doing his job, we get to see amazingly graphic details about his profession, as he has to take down runaways in gun fights and knife fights and then he literally rips peoples’ hearts out when he’s done. When things go wrong, he’s a man on the run, but not one that is easily dealt with, shown using his same skill set to take down the captors and repo men out to get him. The final knife fight in this picture is one of the best action scenes I’ve witnessed this year, a battle that would make Jason Bourne or Oh Daesu from Old Boy proud.

Alright, that’s it for now kiddies. See you next time for more ninja awesomeness.

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