'Ninja Assassin' drowns in really bad blood
By Dan Kois
Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009
Near the end of "Ninja Assassin," a brutally violent swordplay saga, European law-enforcement officers attack an ancient mountaintop ninja compound. Humvees rip through rice-paper walls, and black-clad swordsmen face off against commandos wielding rocket launchers. The mayhem that ensues is not unlike "Ninja Assassin" itself: an example of artless, pointless Western might -- in this case, the Wachowski brothers, the directors of the "Matrix" trilogy and producers of this film -- attacking an Eastern tradition -- the ninja movie -- with advanced technology and a whole lot of money. Needless to say, little survives the assault.
"Ninja Assassin," directed by James McTeigue, posits that there are nine clans of deadly, uh, ninja assassins, each made up of warriors trained since childhood in the ancient art of slicing dudes in half with swords. One of the deadly killers, Raizo, has fled his clan and is hiding in Berlin, no longer comfortable with killing gangsters and politicians in exchange for a hundred pounds of gold.
Raizo may no longer be a member of the Clan of the Black Sand, but he retains his super ninja powers -- and his devastating cheekbones. Since Raizo is played by the South Korean pop star Rain, the audience is treated to lovingly photographed training sequences in which a glistening, shirtless Rain performs, for example, handstand push-ups on a bed of screwdrivers. With his long hair and matinee-idol looks, he cuts quite a profile in "Ninja Assassin." "He looks like he belongs in a boy band," grouses one Europol higher-up when he oh-so-briefly detains Raizo in between bloodbaths.
With the help of Mika, a credulous Europol agent (played by a game Naomie Harris), Raizo attempts to bring down his former clan and its cruel master Ozunu. In flashback, we witness how orphaned Raizo was raised by Ozunu and trained to become a heartless killing machine. ("Hate weakness in others," Ozunu growls. "Hate it in yourself!") That Ozunu is played by the legendary Sh Kosugi -- the star of early-'80s pajama-clad spectaculars like "Enter the Ninja" and "Revenge of the Ninja" -- indicates that McTeigue and the Wachowskis view "Ninja Assassin" as a serious attempt to update those movies for contemporary audiences.
And they have, although not necessarily for the better. So the fight sequences in "Ninja Assassin" feature buckets of blood and a slew of slow-motion acrobatics. McTeigue (a Wachowski protege, and the director of "V for Vendetta") substitutes gore and slick camera moves for the verve and style of his predecessors.
Ten minutes after you leave the movie, all the battles will have blended in your memory into a ceaseless muddle of sliced-off appendages, jets of blood splashing artfully on walls, gurgling screams and flashing swords. The only exception is a quick, dramatic mano a mano between Raizo and another ninja in Mika's darkened apartment, the two frightening creatures illuminated only by the agent's shaking flashlight. It's a rare moment of visual wit in a movie that provides plenty of jolts but precious little pleasure.
Kois is a freelance reviewer.
Ninja Assassin (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong, bloody violence and language.