Just finished watching a kung-fu B-movie called "Duel to the death." It was full of much ninja goodness. Ohhhhhh yes, ninja goodness. In fact, the film did ninjas in a way I've never seen any kung-fu movie do ninjas: When they run out of clever tricks, they distract their opponent and flee only to come back with another surprise attack later on. They're ruthlessly organized, they pull surprises out of their sleeves left and right, and in most encounters with the heroes they don't take a single casualty. Imagine that!
Surprisingly deep plot. Heaps of sword-fu with creative surprises throughout, such as when two of the protagonists confront a group of ninjas who pull out firework pistols and fire a barrage at them. Impressive, continual displays of acrobatics. Many memorable and thrilling moments that pass by in a blur of awesome and demand an immediate rewind. Masterfully over-the-top at times (a severed head speaks and then explodes; a cockatiel named Dragon argues with his owner; the hero leaps backward 30 feet and crashes through a wall ass-first in order to join an ongoing fight). And the most competent ninjas I've ever seen -- which by itself singlehandedly redeems any possible faults of this film.
On the other hand, there's an occasional "WTF?" and/or "There's the wire!" feel to the stunts (but what do you expect from a B-movie?) -- and several moments where your ability to follow the action depends directly on your knowledge of cheesy martial arts flick convention. ("Oh, he's throwing his sword onto the water as a stepping stone!") The final scenes are anticlimactic, mostly due to lack of the ninjas that make the film so brilliant. The over-the-top feel doesn't always work: Several shots, while great takes on Filmjutsu and memorable in retrospect, fail the giggle test. (A ninja is cut in half and another ninja springs out from inside him; levitating palanquin-toting ninjas zip through the forest like they're a mag-lev train; and an utterly gratuitous but equally brilliant full-frontal nudity shot.)
The giggle moments notwithstanding, it's obvious that a lot of work and care went into this film. It shines through in the details and the creativity of its design in a way that very few movies manage to do these days. I'm used to martial arts B-movies being fun but forgettable, and this one nailed the first while amazingly dodging the latter.
Overall verdict: Okay, granted, it doesn't have the thematic integrity and quiet beauty of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." But it is a well-paced, continually enjoyable film that largely lives up to its vision and pleasantly surprised me with its polish. I'm a film curmudgeon and I still give it four and a half stars out of five. And only $5.50 at Wal-Mart!
To close, here's the obligatory in-joke for BayCon friends. My four-word film review of the second half of the movie:
Rocks fall. Everybody dies.
*waves to cadhla* :)