Director : James McTeigue
Screenplay : Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski (story by Matthew Sand)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Rain (Raizo), Naomie Harris (Mika), Ben Miles (Maslow), Shô Kosugi (Ozunu), Joon Lee (Teenage Raizo), Yoon Sungwoong (Young Raizo), Anna Sawai (Teenage Kiriko), Rick Yune (Takeshi)
Reunited for the first time since V for Vendetta (2005), director James McTeigue and producers Joel Silver and Andy and Larry Wachowski have brought their flair for slick, highly choreographed action, computer effects, and dark cinematography to Ninja Assassin, a moody and extremely bloody slice of martial arts pulp. The redundant title (a ninja is an assassin by definition) is clearly meant as a throwback to the dozens of low-budget, Golan-Globus-produced ninja movies that glutted video shelves and late-night cable television schedules in the 1980s, as is the presence of Shô Kosugi, who became a cult movie star by headlining many such films, including Revenge of the Ninja (1983), Nine Deaths of the Ninja (1985), and Black Eagle (1988).
Nevertheless, Kosugi, who plays the heavy in Ninja Assassin, has to step aside for the younger generation, which is here embodied in the rock-hard abs and rock-star locks of Rain, a Korean pop star who was previously cast in a small role in the Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer (2008). Rain stars as Raizo, an orphan who is raised in a secret ninja clan lorded over by Kosugi’s malevolent father figure Ozunu, who steals children and trains them to be heartless killers. Raizo manages to keep enough of his humanity to realize that being a heartless killer is wrong, which is why he decides to go rogue and help a pretty Interpol researcher named Mika (Naomie Harris), who is trying to convince her superior (Ben Miles) that secret ninja clans still exist and are responsible for numerous international assassinations.
The plot, concocted by first-time screenwriter Matthew Sand and television veteran J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Jeremiah) is a pretty thin hook, but it’s enough to hold the film together in-between fight sequences, which are the real bread and butter. Back in the day, ninja movies were reliant almost entirely on the actual physical abilities of their stars, with some clever editing used to enhance what was already there. In the world of post-Matrix digital effects, anyone can be made to look like he or she can do anything, which makes Ninja Assassin more action fantasy than action thriller. The ninjas don’t just move with great speed; they literally disappear into shadowy blurs of motion, and when they send throwing stars your way, they look (and sound) like they were shot out of a canon. When the ninjas go to battle with swords and chains, the choreography is fast and furious, but also accentuated with sudden moments of slow motion that allow the digital artists to show us the exact positions of various flashing blades with stylized precision.
And then there’s the blood. Oh, man, there’s the blood. Ninja Assassin saves its niftiest digital effects for spurting arteries and the kind of explicit bodily maiming that is generally more at home in horror films like My Bloody Valentine and The Final Destination (I’m surprised someone didn’t think to make it in 3-D). While exaggerated geysers of gore have a long and storied history in samurai and kung-fu cinema, the kind of intricately designed blood splattering we get here is more in line with the stylized theatrics of 300 (2007). While some of it was done practically (Rain’s gore streaked body through the second half of the film is testament to this), most of the maiming is produced digitally, which allows the filmmakers to make the violence gorier than ever, but also less visceral because it has the weightlessness of a video game. That, of course, may very well be the point, as Ninja Assassin revels in the unrealistic absurdity of both its plot and its action sequences, plying the audience with its splatterfest silliness but always keep a straight face just in case.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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