Episode 2 of the Karma Kula series - “The Frog in the Well” - continues the adventures of a ninja badass who travels the countryside on foot, looking for enemies to slice and dice. The time period is indistinct, the story is just an excuse for some seriously cool karate-chopping, and the series is a spectacle of almost unimaginable physical beauty, thanks to location shooting in New Zealand and some very fine special effects work.
Some of the visuals have the surreal, scorched-out look of Zach Snyder’s 300. Criticize Snyder all you want (personally, I think the last 15 minutes of Watchmen are disastrous), but he’s an astute and rigorously respectful genre filmmaker. The same could be said for the makers of Karma Kula.
In this episode, the hero helps a peasant woman fetch water from a well. Actually, she’s not a peasant woman - she’s a skilled ninja assassin in disguise. I like how the most amazing things can happen in samurai movies and the characters always remain unfazed. The assassin could start hurling lightning bolts at him and the hero wouldn’t even blink.
We get to know the hero a little better. Unlike the first episode, where he might as well have been a deaf-mute à la Jean Claude Van-Damme in Cyborg, he gets to deliver more lines. No matter how intense things get, he always speaks in a laconic, zombie whisper. I’m not sure where his accent hails from - it seems tailor-made to deliver mystical-sounding mumbo-jumbo. His one liners - “Careful, you might end up bald!” - are unintentional laugh riots (and that’s not a bad thing).
Of course, all anyone wants to know is if “The Frog in the Well” gives good karate, and I’m happy to report that it does! The fight is staged like a climactic shoot-out in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, with multiple shots of the actors’ faces and suspenseful, circling camera moves. The choreography, sound design and positively EPIC music really sell it. Did I mention how cool the costumes are, or how amazing the second-to-last shot is? I can’t get enough of this series! I’m guessing each episode will be like the next level in a video game, with progressively harder-to-beat opponents. This should tide us all over until the Wachowski Brothers’ Ninja Assassin arrives in November.