James McTeigue’s Ninja Assassin, featuring Rain as Raizo and Naomi Harris as Mika, is a 2009 film about…get ready for this…ninjas. If you went ahead and took a wild guess that these ninjas kill people, you’d be right. Have a cookie. But don’t assume Ninja Assassin is a remake of those 80s ninja flicks. It isn’t.
It isn’t any better, either. The plot is more substantive than the action. Instead of having ninjas in attention-getting suits moving around in broad daylight as done in the infamously cheesy-but-still-cool-for-its-time American Ninja series, the story is accurate in identifying what ninjas were—they existed in history as elite assassins that lived in isolated clans. They were infiltrators, fighters who worked under cover of darkness.
In the film, the work of nine ninja clans is uncovered by investigator Mika Coretti (Naomi Harris), an international Europol agent. This secretive society of assassins does not take kindly to snooping around. Mika’s snooping leads her to cross paths with the wife of a KGB official who was a victim of these cloaked killers, and it won’t be long before Mika will be the target herself. The situation connects her with Raizo (Rain), a young and formerly devoted ninja-in-training, who has forsaken his former clan, the Ozunu clan.
Ninja Assassin is less likable than Chuck Norris’ The Octagon (1980) or David Carradine’s Kung Fu series (1972-1975), but it gives us almost what those did, including noodles eaten with chopsticks and young warriors trained where bamboo and wooden huts are in the background. You see fight maneuvers and dance-like martial arts sequences that bring grace and seriousness to the cheap, 80s-tattered cliché of what the ninja icon has become. There were so many ninja flicks and shows in the 1980s that the video games made in their image were an improvement (think of Lee Van Cleef’s The Master (1984) and compare it to Bad Street Brawler and then tell me I’m wrong).
The paranoids shouldn’t see this, or they’ll think what the creator of the film wanted them to think—that ninjas are hiding behind everything, waiting to attack. The mark of someone hiding from ninjas is that they start being deathly afraid of shadows. They try to get rid of the shadows, but that’s a silly thing to do because ninjas are practically their own shadows.
These ninja clans have an almost demonic ability to kill, as well as to recover after fights. For the vast assortment of Saw-style, severing weapons used, if the ninja victim doesn’t die, they recover very quickly from deep lacerations and are ready to fight again with just a few hours rest. It’s like getting to the next level in Double Dragon; you enter a cave and when you come out the other side, your bars of energy are refueled and you’re as good as new.
Eerie music is used to successfully build suspense. The story consists of many Kung Fu-style reflections back to Laizo’s days of training and fighting off opponents, sometimes blindfolded, to give us the feeling of coolness that we haven’t had since the ninja movies of that great decade before the last. TV back then depended on our seeing those cool ninjas (if sprinkled with gross historical inaccuracies).
You see flashbacks to beds of rigorously disciplined boys sleeping next to each other on uncomfortably small cots with little space between them. Awake and asleep, you see them getting older. Watching that, my mind runs to what every sensibly honest middle-ager’s mind runs to: How the frick do these guys ever get the chance to nail the Chun-Li-looking Asian babes across the way, or else whip their skippys thinking about them without having some privacy???
Back to the cool ninja stuff…
It’s hard to explain why any secret societies, like these clans of ninjas, are not adapting to use more effective (and discreet) modern weaponry. They used the best weaponry from their own time a thousand years prior. Why not now? But I suppose a little use of the imagination to help things along isn’t a crime.
And it remains to be understood why roomfuls of task force soldiers armed to the teeth can’t bunker down in their own base to fight off a group of Asians in pajamas with thousand-year-old weapons. Entire standoffs happen with opposing factions keeping each other at bay by pinning their opponents down with gunfire, but these international task force soldiers can’t do it with the advantage of having gun-less opponents. They can’t even duck down behind shit to save their own lives! Hmm.
Not a one of the characters ever stands out because none are given distinction with the exceptions of the head ninja villain Ozunu (Shô Kosugi) and one young girl, Kiriko (Kylie Goldstein), Raizo’s would-be love, who found it in her heart to leave the clan. The rest you care nothing for. Rain has not even the emoting screen presence of a good background prop.
The battle scenes are bloody and swiftly constructed, but the flighty camerawork is such that it isn’t always easy to appreciate. There was very little hand-to-hand combat or showing-off of acrobatic skill, but there was the up-to-now-unknown ninja ability to run across rooms as a human blur so that you can dodge or hide or rush someone when they are in the same room as you. That skill comes in handy. It is also hokey as hell to watch.
The ninjas hunt partly by scent and can experience thoughts and glimpses from others. Sounds pretty cool, but it doesn’t equal an entertaining movie. The fighting is too specialized to have any comparable value to what audiences expected to see more of (like ordinary, Seagal-style ass-kicking). This is in exclusion of one very bloody bathroom brawl between Takeshi (Rick Yune), Raizo’s dead-even competition, and Kingpin (Stephen Marcus).
The plot tries to be touching with its subplot of the sanctity of the listened-to heart. Despite the attempt, you watch while being totally disconnected from it. Sadly, the nice choreography and seriousness with which it sets out to entertain is a near-total loss. It could be classed as a step behind some of the 80s ninja flicks of years past. Some of them did what they were set out to do. It doesn’t look like that be said of this one.
Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Director: James McTeigue
Summary: A young ninja turns his back on the orphanage that raised him, leading to a confrontation with a fellow ninja from the clan.
Starring: Ben Miles “Maslow,” Naomie Harris “Mika,” Rain “Raizo,” Stephen Marcus “Kingpin,” Linh Dan Pham “Pretty Ninja,” Shô Kosugi “Ozunu,” Kylie Goldstein “Young Kiriko,” Rick Yune “Takeshi”
Genre: Action / Crime / Drama / Thriller