Sunday, April 5, 2009

MASK OF THE NINJA (2008) d. Bradford May

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When preparing a classic meal that you hope will go over well with your guests, one way to insure its success is to spice up the old favorite and add in some exotic flair. For example, macaroni & cheese may not seem so “hum-drum” if you add delectable meats like lamb or dapple the serving with a variety of colored and scrumptious peppers. What was once “run of the mill” is now a very unique and flavorful take on an old favorite. Films can be a lot like this example, especially crime dramas. By adding in some action elements, the tired old story of rival gangs can be made a little fresher and by making the gangs of the Asian variety, another brand of spice has been introduced. However, even this zesty combination has been used before so another dose of zing needs to be sprinkled over the surface and that pertains to what the adversaries are fighting for. At this point, one might worry that too many elements have been blended into the original recipe, but that is not the case. Like the time-honored mac & cheese, the bones of the bake are still the same, it is just the fringes and frills that have been altered. The problem lies in the final presentation. If you sprinkle green and blue food coloring over the top of your casserole to give it that much more jazz, it will probably look rather bizarre and be thoroughly unappealing even if it tastes terrific. Such is the case with MASK OF THE NINJA. It is has a completely unoriginal plot concept but enough interesting additions are grafted onto the general premise that it might have worked if it wasn’t for the fact that specific components look terrible.

MASK OF THE NINJA is the story of Jack Barrett (played by Caspar Van Dien), an LA detective who happens to stumble into an ancient feud between rival Japanese families. On a night of bloody vengeance, Jack arrives at the Takeo family’s mansion in time to save the daughter Miko (played by Kristy Wu) from a cadre of assassins, but is not able to save Miko’s father from being executed in the classic Ninja fashion of a blade thrust to the heart. As Jack digs deeper into the Takeo case, he incurs the ire of the Kokushibyu family, who is trying to locate a vital microchip that would provide for them the power and influence necessary to redress injuries done to them in the past. Jack must find a way to keep Miko alive, dodge the viper-fast blows of Ninjas rallying to the assault and take down The “Black Death” family before he becomes just another dead body.

On the surface, it would seem like MASK OF THE NINJA has a lot going for it, which is actually the case. Stories about warring Japanese families battling over some lengthy grievance rarely get old and to make this tale a little more fun, the issue is control over technology, not some mystical sword or the ashes of a sorcerous samurai ancestor. The narrative is well-paced and is a surprisingly heady blend of action, violence, sex and some reasonably good character melodrama. The story moves along briskly and we are treated to some very attractive female actresses, a little bit of nudity, some very bloody battle scenes, a mix of gunplay and sword work, as well as some gangland torture and execution. The roots of the plot are grounded in some wonderful human frailties of loyalties divided, betrayal, revenge and murder. While the acting isn’t always up to snuff, the cast is carefully selected to look the part. There is a nice mix of Asian and Caucasian actors, older and younger performers, handsome and less appealing countenances and they are thoughtfully costumed in trendy and fashionably elegant styles that fit the West Coast scene. In addition, the scenes are well lit, whether they are during the day or at night and there are some occasional splashes of color or dynamic backgrounds, especially when it comes to exterior sets. However there are even a few interior sets that catch the eye too. There is some striking architecture, a few panoramic California vistas and even a lovely Japanese garden. How can a motion picture have all of these positive qualities and still be lacking you might ask? Let us remember the eclectically colored macaroni and cheese and the answer is plain to see.

An action film has to have action sequences that look really good and just as importantly, the dramatic sequences need to look equally as impressive. MASK OF THE NINJA suffers from some very uneven camera work but even worse it is badly hampered by “creative” use of photographic effects and “inventive” editing. When it is an establishing shot of the background or supporting scenery, the imagery looks great. There are even some reasonably good character shots, although a few too many close-ups that are too close do occur. When it comes to the fight scenes the slippery slope is so steep as to be stupidly unsafe. Obnoxious hand-held camera techniques are employed causing a shakiness of the images that is irritating to say the least. Add to that some very rapid editing work and shots that are too tight and you’ve got a mess on your hands. It gets worse. All kinds of “special effects” are laid over the initial bad camera work like multiple images, superimposed images, shakiness sped up, blurring, overexposure and all manner of other misery so that I looked forward to the end of the actions scenes in hopes that we could get back to what seemed to be “calmer” dramatic moments. Even that was stolen from me. Any scene where “ingenuity” could be splashed into the visual sequences over the last two-thirds of the film experienced this blight in spades. There were times that MASK OF THE NINJA looked attractive but they became scarcer as the movie progressed and in the end, the camera-work ruined what was a potentially entertaining flick.

It also didn’t help to have Caspar Van Dien in the starring role. Mr. Van Dien is one of those true Hollywood paradoxes for it is evident why he is cast in the roles he gets. With that rugged chin and granite countenance, blazing eyes and the look of a handsome tough guy, he is a visually appealing commodity. Like a cigar store Indian that looks imposing and compelling but isn’t much in the way of company, Mr. Van Dien is a tad wooden and his performance is one-dimensional at best, not that the rest of the cast of MASK OF THE NINJA is much better. The performances are workman-like at best and most are flat and undeveloped as a rule. At least the writers and the rest of the directing crew had the foresight to make Caspar’s character a likable punching bag for the Ninjas. Instead of making Jack Barrett the all-knowing and unstoppable whitey, he gets his ass kicked consistently in MASK OF THE NINJA and while he gets a few licks in here and there, Jack Barrett is totally outmatched by trained fighters, has his gun kicked out of his hands repeatedly, gets stabbed and slashed fairly often and lands on his back out cold a couple of times. For that I am thankful. Such was the tragedy of MASK OF THE NINJA, it had a fairly believable story. If I could have seen what was going on and enjoyed the action sequences, I might have really praised this film highly.

When I watched KILLER MOVIE, one of the aspects of the Bonus Features I enjoyed the most was that the interview segment with the lovely and shapely Adriana Demeo was done with her sitting in a micro mini-skirt. MASK OF THE NINJA needed to have something like that in ANY kind of Extras Menu, but there was NOTHING. Hello RHI-TV! You’ve got a cast of very attractive Asian women and you can’t sit them down for a quick talk, preferably wearing some kind of revealing outfit that provides for the viewer the sense that they are getting their money’s worth. After an experience that leaves me with that bitter taste of disappointment, just a little tidbit in some kind of set of supplements would have been a good idea, but of course there was nothing. I don’t like feeling cheated and that is exactly how I felt after the feature film was over and there was nothing to cleanse the palette.

It was sad to see that MASK OF THE NINJA was not typical of the many RHI-TV movies I have viewed. Normally, their fare is a wonderful mix of old-style writing and filming techniques that hearken back to a vanished time. Certainly one can’t stand pat forever and while the writing efforts were a pleasant mix of old-school and new ideas, the camera work and special effects were that bane of modern cinema that I absolutely loathe. I hope that other viewers have the same reaction that I did for it is only by voicing our displeasure that such dreadful techniques will be abandoned and real film making and cinematography will return to its rightful place.

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