Ninja Assassin

Movie review: "Ninja Assassin"

By Dan Kois
Friday, November 27, 2009

Near the end of "Ninja Assassin," European law-enforcement agencies 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 Western might -- in this case, Andy and Larry Wachowski, the directors of the "Matrix" trilogy and producers of this film -- attacking an Eastern tradition (the ninja movie) with advanced technology and gobs of money.

"Ninja Assassin" posits that there are nine clans of deadly, uh, ninja assassins, each made up of warriors trained since childhood. One of the deadly killers, Raizo (played by South Korean pop star Rain) has fled his clan and is hiding in Berlin, no longer comfortable with killing gangsters and politicians.

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 a flashback, we witness how orphaned Raizo was raised by Ozunu and trained to become a heartless killing machine. That Ozunu is played by the legendary Sho Kosugi -- the star of such early-'80s spectaculars as "Enter the Ninja" and "Revenge of the Ninja" -- indicates that director James McTeigue and the Wackowski brothers view "Ninja Assassin" as a serious attempt to update those movies for contemporary audiences.

And they have, although not necessarily for the better. 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 bloody battles will have blended in your memory. 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. When one defeats the other, Mika can't tell whether the victor was the ninja protecting her or the ninja trying to attack her. 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.

* 1/2 R. At area theaters. Contains strong bloody, stylized violence throughout, and language. 99 minutes.

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