Warner Bros. // 2009 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // March 16th, 2010
Weakness compels strength, betrayal demands blood.
James McTeigue made his bones in the movie industry as an assistant director on pictures like Dark City, The Matrix trilogy, and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones before being shepherded into the director's chair by Andy and Larry Wachowski for V for Vendetta, the siblings' big screen adaptation of Alan Moore's subversive graphic novel. In his first outing as a director, McTeigue showed technical aptitude but was hampered by a screenplay that was at once too controversial for mainstream artists and a tepid watering down of Moore's comic book. His second feature, Ninja Assassin -- a Hollywood take on Hong Kong martial arts flicks, also produced by the Wachowskis -- is a similar mix of well-choreographed action and limp storytelling.
Europol agent Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris, Miami Vice) is on the trail of shadowy clans of international assassins that have been carrying out political killings for hire for centuries. When Mika comes too close to the truth, she finds herself a target of ninjas. To her rescue comes Raizo (Rain, Speed Racer), a rogue member of one of the nine ninja clans that, for one-hundred pounds of gold, will kill anyone anywhere in the world. Taken under the wing of Lord Ozunu (Sho Kosugi, Blind Fury) as a child, Raizo was trained in the ways of the ninja. Betrayed by his own clan, he broke away and became a fugitive, pursued by Ozunu's other star pupil, Takeshi (Rick Yune, Die Another Day). Raizo and Mika are forced to race across Berlin, evading ninjas who want to kill them and Europol agents who want to bring Mika in and arrest Raizo.
Ninja Assassin is essentially a remake of Batman Begins, only its ninja doesn't dress up like a bat, drive a tank-car, or have any compunction about killing enemies in as bloody a fashion as possible. The screenplay by first timer Matthew Sand and veteran television writer J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) fractures time, jumping back and forth between Raizo and Mika's flight from both Europol and the Ozunu clan, and Raizo's formative years as a child and then teenager learning how to control body, mind, and spirit in order to become a frighteningly efficient killing machine. The story's beats are as predictable as its anti-hero's slowly revealed motivations for fleeing his clan and becoming a rogue assassin out for revenge. The story weaknesses aren't as big a problem here as they were in V for Vendetta because Ninja Assassin has zero in the way of political or philosophical pretension; it contents itself with adhering closely to the dictates of the martial arts genre as defined by Hong Kong filmmakers over the past half century. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, but anyone expecting a smart reinvention of chopsockies will be gravely disappointed.
Using a combination of traditional fight choreography and CG, the movie's action is badass. McTeigue stages his set pieces in inventive ways and unique settings -- most notably an extended foot chase/throw down between Raizo and a seemingly endless procession of ninjas running into oncoming traffic during rush hour. The camera is occasionally placed too close to the action to fully appreciate the graceful athleticism of the choreography (as when the ninjas run effortless across the tops of moving cars), but the fights are mostly shot with a maximum of visual coherence. The combat is especially stunning when Raizo makes use of a koyetsu shoge, a blade attached to a long chain that is swung with wild precision to eviscerate everything in its paths. McTeigue uses speed ramping and CG enhancements to add a sizzling beauty to the weapon's arcing movements. Gallons of spraying and splattering CG blood (can pixels be measured in gallons?) earned the movie an R rating, but the gore is so stylized that it's too cartoonish to be offensive. In fact, most of it is so visually unconvincing it would have been better left out -- particularly since it's probably intended to shock and fails utterly to do so.
While Korean popstar Rain plays the movie's requisite steely-eyed anti-hero, Naomie Harris' Mika is its true protagonist. Harris is sympathetic and human enough to carry the story (such as it is). She's easy on the eyes, too. Rain, meanwhile, acquits himself well in the action sequences but doesn't have anywhere near the charisma required to create an indelible screen anti-hero. He handles the drama competently, but delivers small moments of humor with a flat affect that lacks anything even remotely resembling charm. Worst of all, he has little genuine chemistry with Harris. Her performance suffers a bit because of it, but she otherwise succeeds in playing Mika's fear and confusion without coming off as a weak damsel in distress. Her fine work isn't enough to carry a picture that has little to recommend it besides a handful of creative action sequences, but it does make one wish she'd land a leading role in a much better high-profile movie.
Ninja Assassin was a flop in North America, failing to earn enough to cover its production costs. As such, Warner Bros. dropped it hastily and inexpensively to DVD with a minimum of fuss. The only supplement is a fairly limp reel of deleted scenes. There isn't an electronic press kit or trailer to be found, let alone any proper featurettes (the Blu-ray release does have more to offer). Despite the studio's understandable apathy, the disc's transfer is impressive. Colors are bold and rich; detail is superb. The image suffers a tad from black crush during some of the dark, interior sequences, but that's the only notable flaw in the transfer. The Dolby 5.1 audio track doesn't compare in raw power to more expensive blockbusters like the Transformers flicks, but it still has plenty of oomph. The bombastic audio mix makes liberal use of the entire soundstage, yet dialogue is consistently clean and discernible.
Ninja Assassin is a collection of truly inventine action sequences wrapped in a heaping helping of cliché. I wouldn't waste your money adding it to your collection, but the spectacle is definitely worth a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes