Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Review: "Ninja Assassin"

With a title like "Ninja Assassin," what more really needs to be said?

Actually, I love that name. It seems purposefully designed to sound like badly-translated Japanese. The phrase is redundant and silly, like "Bandit Robbers!" or "Dr. Science."

The effect is to disguise the fact that this is not an authentic Far East martial arts flick, but an American/German production backed by the likes of schlockmeister Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers of "Matrix" fame.

At least credit the Hollywood suits for believing in truth in advertising. This movie is exactly what you'd expect from its title and promotional campaign: A slickly-made, viscerally stimulating action film with a grim hero battling faceless foes with enough resulting gore to make the computer-assisted bloodletting in "300" seem restrained.

Director James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") and his screenwriters Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski positively revel in the spurting, splashing and splatter of blood.

The film opens with a scene where invisible ninja take out some Japanese yakuza criminals, with the first guy getting his skull sliced in half horizontally, so there's just a bleeding stump with a tongue sticking up, veritably waving at the audience.

Talk about a red flag.

Rain, a Korean singer, plays Raizo, the greatest student of the ultra-secret ninja clans. For 1,000 years they've been assassins serving anyone willing to pony up 100 pounds of gold. They can blur into shadows and kill without being seen. The stern old master (Shô Kosugi) can even heal wounds with a little grunting meditation that sounds suspiciously like he needs to visit the latrine.

But Raizo refuses to play by the hard-hearted rules. When a girl ninja he was sweet on (Anna Sawai) is killed for desertion, he rebels and becomes a rogue ninja. Or maybe the proper term is ronin ... but then, I think that only applies to samurai. Whatever.

Rain may be talented at singing and dancing, and he certainly looks impressive wielding a ninja sword, not to mention a neat weapon that's like a knife on a chain that he whirls about, slicing his foes to bits. Of course, it's hard to tell where his martial arts skills end and the computer-generated mayhem begins.

But Rain is charmless as a movie hero. Granted, as written Raizo is supposed to be the typical brooding man of action who lets his lethal skills do the talking. Still, he has little screen presence beyond some carved abs and steely gaze.

The plot is driven by a young European law enforcement bureaucrat (Naomie Harris) stumbling across the secret of the ninja, which invariably heralds the arrival of some of them to silence her. Raizo shows up to foil their plans, because ... well, it's really unclear exactly why he protects her, other than she reminds him of dead ninja girl.

(By the way, I'm trademarking Dead Ninja Girl for the name of a forthcoming punk/ska band.)

I suppose the action scenes are well-staged, in addition to being extremely wet. But really, all you need to know about this movie is encapsulated in the fact that two different characters have a "special heart" -- i.e., on the right side of the chest, so when they're stabbed through the left breast, they survive.

Even dumb, cynical action movies should know the heart is actually pretty much dead center. But if "Ninja Assassin" can't put its hearts in the right place, what can you expect of the brains?

1.5 stars

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