Movie Review: ‘Ninja Assassin’ masters the art of gore

25 Nov

November 25th, 2009–

American Ninja, where art though? Pray for Death, you have gone…never to return. Even Ninja III: Domination moved away and forgot to write. The over-the-top kill happy martial-arts fantasies of the mid 1980s have all abandoned us, and nothing ever came to take their place. With the exception of a occassional, errant nugget like 1995’s The Hunted (yea, it sucked…surprise) a genre I so loved as a child has all dried up.

Yes, I’m talking about the ninja film. Sure, Japan produced a few half-hearted attempts over the years, including the recent Shinobi:Heart Under Blade, but it had a decidedly wuxia feel to its ninjary (TM), and it played like a feverish video game. Then, hope briefly surfaced in the form of an announcement; the brothers Wachowski were making a big budget ninja film with their acolyte James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) behind the camera and Korean pop star Rain in front of it. Now that it’s here, Ninja Assassin turns out to be one more glittering chunk of fool’s gold. Outside of a killer opening sequence and a rather lively final battle, this one proves a tedious disappointment.

When Ninja Assassin opens we follow a low-level Yakuza thug opening an envelope filled with black sand. This is, we assume, the acknowledgement that someone has put a hit on him. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose and what happens next is the movie’s best scene. Darkness plays across the room with occasional bursts of light and arcane weaponry darts forth from the shadows to sever and tear away at body parts. After seeing this gory little lead-in, the inclusion of the Dark Castle Pictures logo at the start made more sense.

Once the thug is done in, the film introduces Interpol agent Mika, played by Naomie Harris, who most will recognize from 28 Days Later or the Pirates of the Caribbean movies where she played Tia Dalma. Mika is close to blowing the lid off the whereabouts of the mysterious Ozu clan when she herself receives one of those pesky envelopes of black sand. Before she can be sliced and diced into wriggling human sushi, another ninja, Raizo swoops in and saves her, leaving human carnage in his wake. Raizo was trained by the Ozu clan, but the group’s villanous leader, played by the great Sho Kosugi (the quintessential 80’s ninja), killed the woman he loved and now he’s bent on bringing them down.

At first, everything is going swimmingly. I never expect strong narrative cohesion with my ninja pictures, but the script by Matthew Sand and  J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, The Changeling) couches the idea of a modern-day ninja clan existing within the world’s political and social structures with enough real world veneer that it feels convincing. Where the writing fails, however, is in giving us characters we would remotely care about or providing the average revenge story with any distinctive knots or flourishes. It also doesn’t a help a bit that the script has no definitive understanding of what a ninja is. Early in the movie, they are portrayed as shadowy bogeyman, and then later as supernatural warriors (one can even pull a Temple of Doom heart grab on you without puncturing skin) and when the scripts needs them to be, they are easily defeated and no match for modern firepower. Nothing McTiegue does as a director alleviates these problems, and in truth, he has such a dodgy handle on the action scenes that they don’t even save the movie.

People get hacked into so many different configurations in Ninja Assassin that the primary interest of watching the movie is simply discerning exactly how many different ways the fx guys find for separating a limb from its torso. Were the film visually bright enough to actually see the battle sequences, the film would no doubt have a far harder time securing an R rating. All of that CGI blood doesn’t count for much though, when the actual warfare between the ninjas is as badly staged as it is here. The Wachowskis are producing this movie, but from a stylistic standpoint it carries most of the same baggage that the Matrix sequels have.

The action scenes are structured to the point that they fail to have a connection point. Slowed down, speeded up, lens flared out the wazoo or strobed like a rave, they lack a fundamental component; they aren’t fun or engaging. The B-pictures that Assassin is trying to improve upon had a certain kind of goofy energy and they were often playful about their business. Everything in NA is so grim that I felt like I needed a break from my popcorn movie. When it isn’t in the business of slaughter, it’s just plain boring.

The acting, for such a large production, is actually near unforgivable. I don’t expect much from Rain per say, but the filmmakers don’t give him anything else to do besides being a honed weapon of vengeance. Physically, he’s put some real work into the role and some of the stunts look punishing, but Raizo is barely a character and the dialogue gets stuck the moment he starts to speak it. No matter, I don’t think he is the problem anyway. Naomie Harris actually fares the worst. If I hadn’t seen her in other, better movies I would assume she is a novice at best. Everything about her line delivery and approach to the character is so dramatically off, that she might as well be in a different movie for some scenes. Sho Kosugi, a veteran of this stuff, is the only member of the cast who is having any fun and actually improving the movie with his presence. He adds enough spark to the films’ final moments that I could sit back and forget the fact that up until that point, the movie was largely a wet rag.

I think it’s time for the Wachowskis and McTeigue to take a step back and start examining what they want to accomplish within the action genre, if indeed that’s where they want to stay. Every time they attempt to be edgy, they usually come off as distant and turgid. Despite the beating that Speed Racer took, I thought it was their best work since the original Matrix. Underneath its spastic imagery and cotton candy veneer, there were actual characters and a beating heart. By the time anyone comes to Ninja Assassin, that heart has been ripped out and smashed all over the wall.

10 Responses to “Movie Review: ‘Ninja Assassin’ masters the art of gore”

  1. Xiphos November 26, 2009 at 2:29 am #

    American Ninja while a very solid ninja flick (Michael Dudikoff bitches!) it pales in comparison to the holy grail of ninja flicks Enter the Ninja with Shô Kosugi FTW.

    On topic this doesn’t sound very good but it’s well written review again, like you write any other kind.

    Happy Thanksgiving Bartleby.

  2. lord bronco November 26, 2009 at 9:57 am #

    CGI Blood-In an R-Rated flick?!? Why?!??! You take Karo syrup. you put coffee grounds in it, and red dye. It makes a very convincing fake blood, and it’s cheap!!!

    To explode, you make a latex head, and place said caro solution into multiple condoms which are placed inside the fake head. Film sequence where actor stands in place. Press stop. Replace actor with fake dummyhead. Apply force to the trigger of shotgun while filming a B-roll.

    voila. exploding head.

    Is this so hard, or do the unions own the rights to Karo syrup?

  3. Jarv November 27, 2009 at 11:45 am #

    Funnily enough, I’ve got American Ninja at home to watch. I will be reviewing it for the Vault.

    PS- the best, and arguably only genuinely good thing, the Wachowski’s have done is Bound.

  4. lord bronco November 27, 2009 at 4:43 pm #

    i think the wackowskis and kevin smith ought to form a support group for people who have just plain lost their creative visions.

  5. Cello November 30, 2009 at 6:47 pm #

    American Ninja, oh man, i forgot all about that film haha. As far as this film is concerned and your review, great minds think alike, what more can I say? Oh, Bound sucks, and Kevin Smith still rocks ^^

  6. Yudha syahputra January 4, 2010 at 4:56 am #

    wedew keren banget u g mana cara nya tuh ajarin w biar iso kaya u

    from: Yudha Syahputra

  7. Deeze January 13, 2010 at 5:15 pm #

    Anyone know where I can GET A COPY of ,
    as shown in the NINJA ASSASSIN MOVIE, 2009?
    3 friends of mine are Ninja fanatics,
    I wanted to get just the OUTSIDE DESIGN of the “THE BLACK SAND NINJA DEATH LETTER”.
    I can take care of the black sand and folding.

  8. Sandeep Kavadia March 16, 2010 at 6:09 am #

    Awesome movie….. If you wanna see some action…. some chop of bodies…. some chopped heads thn a must watch movie………. Simpy awesome.

  9. Chelby Caton March 30, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    This movie is one of my favorite movies ever. I love action packed, and bloody movies. This movie is worth an hour and a half of your time. BEST MOVIE EVER.


  1. Movie Review: 'Ninja Assassin' masters the art of bore … Reviews Robot - November 26, 2009

    […] the original post:  Movie Review: 'Ninja Assassin' masters the art of bore … By admin | category: art review | tags: art review, assassin, death, displaying-modern, […]

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