DVD Review: Mask of the Ninja (2008)

Kicking Ninjas & Taking Names
On DVD 4/14/09

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Upon his insistence that a man should ask his permission before dating his daughter, shortly into Emmy award-winning cinematographer turned director Bradford May's Mask of the Ninja, Miko (Kristy Wu of What’s Cooking? and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) -- informs her overbearing father that they aren’t living in feudal Japan anymore.

And although the setting of this made for cable television movie is indeed contemporary Los Angeles-- images of feudal Japan fill our heads in one of the movie’s earliest attacks. This is namely when the spirited, free-thinking and beautiful Miko moves from young heroine to damsel in distress quickly after a group of nefarious ninja assassins burst onto her family’s property, take out two security guards and Miko’s father using throwing stars, mini-crossbows and some seriously lethal martial arts.

Not quite the traditional home invasion one sees on the news and the idea of ninja assassins garners a curious (and in some cases slightly amused and disbelieving) reaction from the local law-enforcement, headed up by the heroic and workaholic overachieving Detective Jack Barrett (Starship Troopers star Casper Van Dien).

Having been the first to arrive on the scene while the crime was still in progress—following a slightly ridiculous introduction to the lead in undercover cop mode wailing on a guitar in a seedy bar as they dangle Miko’s boyfriend as bait in a drug sting-- Barrett is determined to figure out just who the masked ninjas were and what exactly went on in what we quickly perceive is a far more complex operation.

Of course, when dealing with ninjas, Van Dien trades his amplifier and guitar pic for punches and high kicks which makes the admittedly B-movie far more entertaining than it probably would have been had Barrett just been a guitarist who gets caught up in—as the RHI Entertainment and Genius Product release reveals—taking down “the deadliest order of assassins the world has ever known.”

Although the cable works produced by RHI Entertainment have been inconsistent at best-- ranging from the horrifically awful Kung Fu Killer and downright appalling Street Warrior to the cheesy but still darn entertaining Depth Charge and surprisingly addictive Swamp Devil--having watched Mask of the Ninja just one day after I mistakenly viewed Street Warrior (getting the release dates mixed up) improved the experience considerably.

While overall Casper Van Dien seems to come from the Fast and the Furious star Paul Walker-like school of minimalist emoting, Wu gets the chance to show a few different sides in what is sadly one of her best roles since appearing as part of the ensemble in 2000’s Gurinder Chadha Los Angeles ethnic mosaic What’s Cooking?

However, Mask begins to lose even more credibility as it speeds along, building up a dubious plot involving a biological weapon and warring Japanese clans that makes the film a bit too self-consciously much like a Inspector Gadget meets Austin Powers’ villain Dr. Evil like combination with one twist of predictable betrayal involving someone close to Miko that you can see coming during the opening 5 minutes of the 90 minute feature (hint: if you grew up on Walt Disney movies you'll know who I'm talking about).

Still, overall Mask of the Ninja is a mindlessly diverting, instantly forgettable, yet deftly made action flick bolstered by cool fight scenes and some intriguing cinematographic effects that toy with perspective and rate of frames per second in a way that shows off the director’s background as a director of photography with his earliest assignment having come from lensing TV’s revolutionary Hawaii Five-O.