'Ninja Assassin' should have stayed in the shadows

Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2009

'Ninja Assassin'

Ap Photo/Warner Bros., Juliana Malucelli
Ap Photo/Warner Bros., Juliana Malucelli
In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros., Rain stars as Raizo in a scene from the film "Ninja Assassin."

Warner Bros. Picutres

1 hour, 39 minutes

The best part of "Ninja Assassin," this week's fairly tired entry into the extreme martial arts genre, occurs in the first five minutes of the story. A bunch of punk thug Yakuza (Japanese street gangs) are busily getting high, drunk, and tattooed in an exclusive bar somewhere in Tokyo.

When a messenger arrives with an envelope filled with black sand, the old man behind the bar goes white as a sheet. To the sound of the young gangstas' howls of derision, he relates a tale of horrible violence perpetrated by (dum dum duuum!) a ninja. Even people steeped in violence know how ridiculous this sounds, and they laugh and laugh, right up until the heads start coming off.

This opening scene is campy, silly, action packed, and, aside from the excessive and fake-looking gore, a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the movie goes downhill from there.

The plot centers around Raizo, a conflicted young man who happens to have the ability to slip in and out of the shadows like a wraith and dismember a roomful of attackers without even breaking a sweat. He's a ninja, albeit a reluctant one -- one of the Black Sand Clan, an ancient order of assassins for hire.

There are nine clans, apparently, but if you were hoping for a series of ninja movies highlighting the other eight, you're going to be sorely disappointed, I'm afraid. "Ninja Assassin" is rapidly tanking at the box office and, after watching it, it's not hard to tell why. It's not a terrible movie by any means, but it's not a very good one either. If director James McTeigue, who brought us "V for Vendetta," hoped to revitalize such a dated and silly su

bgenre of kung fu flicks as the ninja movie, he would have had to have given the audience something spectacular. Instead, he gives us something ho hum and then soaks the screen in fake blood in an effort to mask the mediocrity.

Our story picks up Raizo the ninja, played by the Korean pop sensation Rain, on the prowl in Berlin. It seems that Mika, a mid-level researcher in an international law enforcement agency, has tumbled to the fact that ninjas are assassinating world leaders with aplomb, and she means to blow the whole thing wide open. Naturally this means she's marked for death.

Luckily for her, however, when the bad ninjas attack, Raizo appears to save her life. Turns out our hero is actually on the run from his clan for a betrayal outlined in a long series of flashbacks. Raizo, an orphan, was taken into the clan as a small boy and brutally trained for years, along with a whole "class" of other children. There was a girl and whole lot of disillusionment, and eventually the star ninja in the group turned on his master and, much like Sarah Palin, went rogue. Now he's out to bring the whole clan down. He teams up with Mika and, as you might imagine, much destruction follows.

Structured as it is in a series of flashbacks, "Ninja Assassin" essentially tells two stories. The first story, that of the history of the Black Sand Clan, including the life and times of Raizo the young ninja, is actually pretty interesting. I liked the characters and, some silly dialogue aside, was pretty engaged.

The second story, and the longer of the two, wherein Raizo and the military battle the whole bad group of ninjas, however is pretty dumb. The writing is atrocious and the story seriously lags, leaving the fight scenes as the only element to hold on to. They're fine, but not enough to support a whole movie. By the time the final climactic moments arrive, you'll have long since quit caring about the characters, as had the screenwriters.

At the beginning of "Ninja Assassin," I was really reminded of "Desperado," Robert Rodriguez and Antonio Banderas' campy violent Mexican shoot 'em up from 1995. That's really what this movie should have been, but director McTeigue is no Robert Rodriguez, nor does Rain have half the talent of Banderas.

"Ninja" quickly loses any of the wit from the opening scene and drowns in its own seriousness. As the love interest Mika, Naomie Harris is at a complete loss. She has shown some talent in previous films, but here she is outclassed by even the mediocre acting offered up by her co-stars.

Had James McTeigue offered a wildly inventive, self-aware film about ancient assassins run amok in modern day society, "Ninja" might well have worked.

Instead, he gives us a fairly tired, been-there-done-that version of the story, with the only creative element being the amount of blood the writers imagine a person can lose and keep on flipping.

For those who want to simply see an action movie, and who couldn't care less about the finer points of storytelling or filmmaking, sure, "Ninja Assassin" will be a pleasant two-hour diversion. But it fails to offer anything even minutely memorable and will, like it's sneaky protagonists, soon disappear into the shadows.

Grade: C-

"Ninja Assassin" is rated R for language, violence, and gore.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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