Director: Mark Joffe
Writer: Michael McGennan
Cast: Tom Jennings, Nicole Kidman, Vince Martin, Joanne Samuel, Craig Pearce, Doug Parkinson, Laurence Clifford, Jeremy Shadlow, Alex Broun
PLOT THICKENERAs the competition for university admissions grows more fierce, the high school students of today must be more well-rounded and active than ever before. In addition to being a star athlete and successful academic, a student also needs to play a musical instrument, write for the student newspaper, and volunteer time outside of school if they hope to attend a top institution. The students in Mark Joffe’s 1987 film, Nightmaster, have a similar dearth of leisure time. Playing ninja dress-up and staying after school for kendo practice might not be pre-requisites for getting into elite colleges, but they provide discipline, improve cardiovascular conditioning, and teach you techniques for beating up drug dealers (if needed). These are life skills, people!
Every high school has their stereotypical cliques: the jocks, the nerds, the burnouts, the art kids, etc. Somewhere in that mix are kids who practice martial arts together. As students in Mr. Beck’s (Martin) before-school martial arts course, Amy (Kidman), Robby (Jennings), Simon (Shadlow), Brian (Clifford), and Henry (Broun) are one such crew. After then sleepwalking through a day of classes, they sharpen their skills at night by participating in an elaborate game of capture-the-flag at an abandoned factory. Gamers are cloaked in black hoods and garb and supplied with maps and various paintball-slinging devices; be the first one reach the “sanctuary” (a bell) without any paint on you, and you win. Losers who get marked with paint during the game are forced to wear it to school the next day as a badge of incompetence. Aside from all the mental exercise, physical exertion, and lack of sleep, it sounds like a good time.
The reigning champion in this game is Robby, and his advanced skills are the result of grueling, one-on-one instruction with Beck, a former military man and the only surviving member of his platoon. Lately, however, the intensity of the training has made Robby negligent in his schooling and his primary instructor, Ms. Spane (Samuel), believes that the influence of Beck (her former love interest) is having a negative effect on the the gang of martial arts misfits, Robby especially. Amy grows jealous over Spane’s concern for Robby, because she harbors romantic feelings for him. The school’s sleazy drug dealer, Duncan (Pearce), has his eyes on Amy and enjoys antagonizing Robby, but he also hangs around the martial arts practices for unknown reasons. Is Beck such a bad guy? Will Amy confess her true feelings to Robby? Are any of these people even ninjas?
Nightmaster is not a prototypical ninja film, and it may not qualify under most circumstances. The word “ninja” isn’t uttered by anyone during the film’s 87-minute run-time. The martial arts class curiously focuses more on gymnastics, and the only identifiable martial arts style depicted in the film (save for some kickboxing) is a kendo sparring match between Beck and Robby. Outside the night games, no one really dresses like a ninja or employs common ninja tactics or weapons (e.g., smoke, grappling hooks, shurikens). To put it in a modern context, these high school kids are cosplaying as ninjas, and Joffe is appropriating the ninja archetype to use it in a very specific way: masks and black garb make it easier for the gamers to slink around a dark factory at night. He’s evoking what viewers know about ninjas (cinematically speaking) but any connection to ninjutsu or ninjas is flimsy, at best. So, if it’s not much of an action film and not really a ninja film, what are we left with? A teen drama! ... *shudder* ...
When games of paintball and gymnastics routines are more frequent than fight scenes in an action movie, you’re gonna have a bad time. The personnel is more than capable -- Mad Max: Fury Road stunt players Rocky McDonald and Guy Norris are among the stunt performers here -- but the film fails to carve out enough space for any interesting action scenes for the stunt team to execute. The ninja games have some visual flourish with the misty factory and the neon colors of the paintballs, but the scenes aren’t edited in a way that builds any tension. The kickboxing scenes are a messy blur, and the kendo fight and a rooftop battle in the climax are the only fight scenes worth writing home about. To blame screenwriter Michael McGennan’s story or Mark Joffe’s direction would be speculative; there are a lot of reasons for why films handle action poorly. Regardless of the factors, the net effect of this failure of imagination is a dull pace that nearly sinks the film.
Perhaps the only reason anyone would know about this film in the first place is that Nicole Kidman is in it. She’s cool here -- likable with a good amount of screen presence despite being stuck in the “secretly fawning friend of Robby” role. She doesn’t get much screen-time in terms of the action scenes, though the epilogue references a development that puts her on equal competitive footing with her crush. Watching her early-career films like this one offers few clues about her future success, or the fact that she would one day urinate on Zac Efron. Sometimes you get hints of that glimmer in a star’s early performances, but this is not one of those cases. The rest of the cast is serviceable. Tom Jennings, of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome fame, is decent as a lead; his character ranges from arrogant to pissy and eventually humble, and he’s up for playing all of those tones. The real revelation, if there’s one at all, is Vince Martin channeling his inner Martin Kove to do his best John Kreese impression. He strikes the right balance between taskmaster and chummy and charismatic teacher, while letting some internal conflict bubble up at the appropriate times. I found myself engaged with his arc above the others despite some pretty ham-handed foreshadowing in the beginning of the film. Taken in total, the dramatic performances are the best part about the movie.