Sunday, May 23, 2010

Herman Yau's Lethal Ninja (2006)

The ninja. In terms of Western culture, there was an era when the legendary stealthy assassins were quite popular. This era being the 1980s during the Ronald Regan empire. Especially popular with young boys of whom I was one, the concept of the ninja borne dangerous gear, such as ninja outfits, throwing stars, nunchucks, and swords (substituting for toys); magazines on newsstands which catered to this niche culture; a short-lived television show entitled "The Master" (1984), starring Lee Van Cleef and Timothy Van Patten; and of course, movies starring super-cool Sho Kosugi, such as Enter the Ninja (1981), Revenge of the Ninja (1983), and Ninja III: The Domination (1984), for example. (Apparently Kosugi also makes an appearance in the recent Ninja Assassin (2009). Who knows if the ninja will rise again in popular culture?) As the 80s ended, so did the ninja trend in cinema--not really ending but returning appropriately to the shadows to resurface from time to time. To make a ninja film in this era is fairly bold, and to modify the term ninja with the adjective "lethal" in the film's title potentially sparks wonder, nostalgia, and enthusiasm. Lethal Ninja (2006) from one of Hong Kong's best directors, Herman Yau, is promising.
Dr. Kikuchi is in the back of his car and is being chased by ninjas. He holds a crimson box which he is guarding with his life. These ninjas are led by Tora Daisuke (Masato) under the employ of evil Brian (Waise Lee). Kikuchi is killed, and Daisuke delivers the box to Brian. Unfortunately, the box cannot be opened. Only one person holds the key (and not a literal one). This dude is named Copy (Chi Wah Wong) and he is a subway musician. His axe is a flute. He doesn't make a dime with his tunes with the passersby and has no friends. Copy prefers to be alone, anyway: he's a drunk who doesn't think that anyone understands his music. Here come the ninjas.

Conceptually, Lethal Ninja has a lot to offer: a hidden village populated by ninjas who wish to be free of the violence of warring factions; a super-cute ninja donning red in black spandex named Hibiki (Hisako Shirata); the wonderful Eddy Ko as the wise master Basho; fantastic Waise Lee as the evil villain (who gives a performance which always looks as if he is about to cry); and a confrontational finale where ninjas go full force with many a frisson delivered as they fight on the side of a high-rise building.

In execution, Lethal Ninja is not that great. The biggest problem being the keystone character, Copy (rimshot). Immediate sympathy is drawn to him for being reluctantly drawn into the drama. However, as his character begins to interact with others, it is hard to watch him. Like most drunks, Copy is self-absorbed and obnoxious. The proverbial hole into which he has crawled , most would prefer to leave him there. If his character were somewhat witty or engaging, then some fun could be had. Copy prefers to whine; and despite the fact that the other super-cute ninja, Xiao Ling (Eva Huang) is assigned to protect him and is growing quite fond of him, Copy just wants to hit the bottle and wallow in self-pity. Loosening this character up just a little would have cast a whole other complexion over the film.
Beyond the weak main character, Lethal Ninja is extremely mechanical and categorized. Hibiki and Daisuke are from rival clans and share a forbidden secret. The secret ninja village is like something sweet which should be filled with hobbits and elves, as Xiao Ling jumps from limb to limb of trees collecting leaves for Master Basho's potions. Waise Lee's Brian has a hideout equal to all super-villains, surrounded by machine-gun-toting henchman and ninjas, high-tech gear, and mad-scientist lab equipment. A little romance, intrigue, light humor, adventure, and action. These ingredients might provide a successful film; however with Lethal Ninja, it is not it. Yau's films are always the best when less thought goes into structure and more energy goes into execution. His visual style becomes the film's creative highlight while the themes move seamlessly in and out. Yau also has a flair for darker material and intensity. When these are absent, the films, like Lethal Ninja, are average and mediocre.To the film's credit, the ninja action in the final act is nostalgic. The ninjas execute ninja magic, super stealth moves, and bring a lot of fun weapons along. Herman Yau has action-scene directing embedded in his DNA, so even average sequences, as most are in Lethal Ninja, are exciting. Lethal Ninja is ultimately too formal to be successful. Like a ninja, there is a great film hidden somewhere underneath it all.


Erich Kuersten said...

That's too bad. I felt the same way seeing the poster in the subway, "Where was this movie in those early 1980s you mention, when ninjas were cool?" I was pretty down with the whole thing until the horrible "The Last Ninja" starring Michael Beck appeared and horrified us all.

Hans A. said...

Thnx Erich for stopping by and leaving your thoughts. Normally I have no compelling desire to see any ninja flix, but since this was a Yau flick, my interest was piqued. Beyond the 80s here in the good ol' U.S., the best flix involving the shadow warriors were the 60s and 70s from Japan (of course) and China. Then again, what do I know? I must have watched the "American Ninja" series until my VCR bled when I was a kid. Thnx again, Erich.