Directed by: James McTeigue
Starring: Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Sho Kosugi
Rated: R for strong bloody stylized violence throughout, and language.
“Ninja Assassin” gets off to a promising start — a cocky young Yakuza gangster is receiving a tattoo from a wise old man when he receives an envelope full of black sand. The wise old man warns him that it’s from a legendary ninja clan and the young man and his posse laugh… until the lights go out and the ninja arrive to kill them all. We then meet the heroine of the story, a forensic researcher by the name of Mika (Naomie Harris), who has found evidence that the legendary ninja clans might actually be real. We also meet our hero, a rogue ninja named Raizo (Rain) and see flashbacks to his training as a child. He and Mika team up and we find out he’s on a quest to destroy Ozunu (Sho Kosugi), the head of the clan he grew up in. Some cheesy dialog, a hint of plot, and lots of fighting. So far, so good.
But then everything goes off the rails. There’s a long section in the middle where we learn all about a girl ninja in training who was sweet and gentle and fell in love with Raizo and blah blah blah. Lots of talking about hearts and meaningful looks and no action! One of the friends I went with actually started yawning at this point. By the time the story gets around to including some fighting again, it’s got a lot of revving up to do to get the audience’s blood pumping once more.
It’s a pity, really. The action sequences are pretty amazing in spots, though they are a bit heavy on up-close and hand-held cinematography. It’s hard to appreciate the fight choreography when only the hero’s head and chest fit in the shot. But when the camera pulls back and lets us see what’s going on, the fights are engrossing (though they’re graphic enough that the faint of heart should stay away). There are a wide variety of weapons, and lots of leaping and slashing and general awesomeness.
Another thing the movie has going for it is Mika. She starts off a bit weak, but once she’s scared and on the run from the ninjas she gets more interesting. She also has the ability, so rare in movie noncombatants, to follow the instructions of the folks trying to save her life! She gets told to stay put, she stays. She gets told to run, she runs. It’s rather refreshing. Harris doesn’t have a lot to work with, but she does a good job. The other actors are in the same boat — the film sounds like its dialog was generated by tossing a bunch of other ninja movies in a blender, pulling out slips of dialog, and fitting them in where they seemed to go. The ninja clan leader talks a lot about strength and weakness and putting the clan first, Raizo talks about how dangerous and mysterious the ninja are, and so on.
The ninja themselves are pretty cool, though they have a tendency to come out of the shadows to face their enemies in a rising tide of whispers. This might have been intended to be a part of the soundtrack, not something the ninja were actually doing, but it resulted in a lot of muttered “aren’t ninja supposed to be quiet?” commentary in my audience.
So did Raizo’s lack of ninja abilities. For a supposedly amazing and deadly ninja, he takes a long time to kill people (his first assignment fresh out of training is a middle-aged obese guy in a bathroom, and they both wind up covered in blood and howling like mad before the end of the fight), is incredibly noisy, and pretty much never hides his face. As my yawning friend put it, “worst. Ninja. Ever.”
“Ninja Assassin” seems to want to be an update on the classic cheesy ninja movie, but it isn’t nearly that good. It might be worth watching if you like cheesy martial arts flicks, but only if you can fast-forward through the boring bits.