The last time martial arts king Scott Adkins and action filmmaker extraordinaire Isaac Florentine worked together, their output was fantastic. Undisputed III: Redemption was one of the best fight flicks ever made and remains the high standard for other karate movies to strive for. In the three years since, Adkins has continued to make a name for himself both inside and out of movie theaters, while Florentine hit a bit of a low point with his Christian Slater vehicle, but fans have unanimously wondered what sort of film the two of them would deliver if paired together again. Would it top the previous "Undisputed"? Well, now that ol' Scott and Isaac have finally produced their fifth collaboration, I can answer that question...somewhat sadly, in the negative. No, in my opinion, "Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear" is not the equal of "U3." It is, however, a vast improvement over its flawed prequel and is without a doubt the best pure martial arts movie of 2013.
The story: upon the murder of his beloved Namiko (Mika Hiji), the returning Casey (Adkins) attempts to track down her killer - a quest which leads him into the dangerous urban sprawl and deadly jungles of Myanmar.
I think this is the kind of movie Florentine was trying to make the first time around, when he made Ninja. Improvements on the production values and the general presentation of the ninja (no more ridiculously impossible physical feats) are superficial plusses to a generally more down-to-earth movie: the villains and rivalries feel more personal this time, and the shifting environmental settings make for a more interesting aesthetic presentation. With that said, the major flaws plaguing the movie are still production-related and creative ones. The automatic subtitles are slightly off, unnecessarily announcing "Myanmar (formerly Burma)" twice and in at least one situation unnecessarily announcing what a character is saying even though it's in English. Additionally, for a movie with the word "ninja" in its title, there is disappointingly little ninja-ing: Scott's the only real representative of the shadow warriors this time around, and doesn't suit up until the final 25 minutes. Subjectively, I also question the cultural sensitivity behind casting Indian actor Mukesh Bhatt (Rocket Singh): I love his performance, but laughing at him playing a goofy, subservient taxi driver in an American movie is kind of uncomfortable.
The fight content so ample that it's a genuine surprise whenever Adkins' character *doesn't* resolve a situation by fighting. It's also, for the most part, top-notch. While I don't think it's the blow-for-blow equal of "U3," a friend of mine might comment that the filmmakers definitely took notes while watching The Raid: Redemption. There's so much going on here that I like. Virtually every fight features satisfyingly long shots, filled with lengthier technical exchanges than in a Shaw Bros. movie. While the one-against-many brawls are unanimously one-sided, none of the one-on-one encounters - comprising about half of the total fight scenes - are squash matches. There's a cool variety of fighters, too: Guinness record-setting kicker Ron Smoorenburg, karate-parkour star Jawel el Berni, Raging Phoenix-veteran Patrick Tang, and that second generation ninja himself, Kane Kosugi (Blood Heat). Choreographer and onscreen fighter Tim Man (Kill Em All) exercises his craft fully by accurately portraying kickboxing, defensive karate, kobudo- and kali-style weapons fighting, some grappling, and a smattering of Adkins' signature tricking. Viewers who particularly love Scott's backflips and flying moves may be disappointed that they're a bit toned down here, but personally, I can't get enough of the grounded hand-to-hand stuff, particularly the five-star final match. Florentine's record for this kind of action remains unblemished.
Dramatically, the movie is on the upper end of average for the DTV sphere. Adkins remains more than serviceable throughout, though his reaction to finding Mika Hiji's character dead was a bit weak. Kane Kosugi is solid, though he cycles between how strong his accent should be. The surprise standout performance comes from aging villain Shun Sugata (Ichi the Killer), whose only fault is that he doesn't have more scenes to show off his theatrical talent (seriously, I think he only has about three). Writer David White, one of Florentine's regulars, doesn't deliver any particularly memorable dialogue but deserves credit for a surprising twist at the end of the story. The movie ends on an uncharacteristically bitter note for Florentine, though I get the impression that this was done potentially so the protagonist may yet find closure in a potential third film.
Should an additional instalment of the franchise be on its way, I'd line up now to see it. In setting the standard so ridiculously high, both the star and the filmmaker may struggle to live up to their previous masterwork, but it's reassuring that Adkins and Florentine give the impression that they're all for making a great effort towards it. I can't think of any reason not to recommend buying this movie, so go for it.