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Overall Rating

Awesome: 4.76%
Worth A Look: 19.05%
Average: 14.29%
Pretty Bad61.9%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 9 user ratings

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Ninja Assassin
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by Erik Childress

"You sir, are no Lucinda Dickey."
2 stars

Bemoaning the advent of CGI technology is a fool's game. It's here to stay. We can't do anything about it except pray that filmmakers use these gifts wisely and use them in service of a good story rather than subscribing to the Emmerich method. Precisely what does this have to do with another martial arts film? Because there are two areas of genre filmmaking where special effects have all but ruined the classic experience. One of them is the werewolf film where we've regressed from the magic of Rick Baker into magical, graceful transformations into actual wolves. Blame Wolfen for that last part if you want, but the rest is the fault of the computer. The other area is the martial arts film. Not the Jackie Chan/Crouching Tiger kind, but anything that involves a sword. Something that slices and dices. Piercing a blood pack and chopping off a limb. That's old school. If there's one thing that looks more fake than the bright, opaque red stuff from the '70s, it's the splatter created by a computer program. Is that the biggest problem with Ninja Assassin? No, but it's as good a place to start as any.

Raizo (pop singer Rain) is a ninja assassin. Is there any other kind? Raised as the "son" of a martial arts master, Ozunu (Sho Kosugi), Raizo is part of a clan prepped to be warriors. Trained until they bleed, there's never any apparent endgame to their experience. Raizo develops some feeling for the clan's solo female participant, Kiriko (Anna Sawai), who tended to his wounds. She tries to get Raizo to escape with her, but without a viable emotion visible on his face, who can tell if he knew what she was even talking about. Things don't turn out so well for her though as she's caught and tied up Braveheart-style for a public execution, carried out by Raizo's "brother", Takeshi (Rick Yune).

After his graduation with a particularly sloppy hit in a restroom and is asked to kill yet another disobedient female, Raizo has finally had enough. Slicing his master's face and battling off about a dozen of his fellow ninjas, Raizo escapes into the rain and lives on the lam. If doing your laundry in a well-lighted Laundromat is considered the lam. But wait, the law is now getting involved, trying to link together some high-profile assassinations with the help of Interpol agent, Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris). She believes ninjas are behind them. Her boss (Ben Miles) believes she's chasing ghosts. Those ghosts who live in the shadows try to take her out though, only to be saved by Raizo, who teams up with this film's Roxanne Hart or Rae Dawn Chong to enact revenge.

Were you expecting something more? Surely to be the argument in favor of a film called Ninja Assassin is "it's called Ninja Assassin, what did you expect?" Well, not boredom for one. After a fun opening sequence - that has next-to-nothing to do with the rest of the film and feels like a reshoot if we didn't know any better - the film is none-too-quick to get to the next skirmish. Sure, there's a Laundromat ambush about ten minutes later, but that scene would rather cut to the shop owner than show us the entire battle, and only opens up the door to more questions the screenplay by Matthew Sand (and rewrites by J. Michael Straczynski of Clint Eastwood's Changeling) never gets around to answering. Again you can hear the easily distracted wondering what questions can possibly be asked of a film called Ninja Assassin. Mind you they are not of the logic variety - or maybe they are - but rather necessary queries that could help qualify the jumbled pace of the film.

For example, shouldn't we learn a bit more about the Ozunu clan to understand our hero's past? The suggestion that these children have been kidnapped (a la Conan the Barbarian) to carry out the monetary gain of their master is barely touched upon in the prologue, which contains a big monologue about the history of ninjas. Are we dealing in reality or some ancient mysticism about these warriors. We know they are fast. We know they can be stealthy, even if Raizo takes off his mask in full view of cameras and people more often than Michael Keaton's Batman. But can they really heal deep wounds instantly? It's one thing to see Mr. Miyagi rub his hands together and fix a sprain, but altogether another to will a mental stitching by the sharpest blades imaginable. By the end, it's doubtful anyone can recall what the cops are really doing. More likely you will be thinking back on how little action there was to see. Let me stress the keyword of that sentence. "SEE."

Director James McTeague (in a major downswing from V For Vendetta) does ratchet up the action in the final 40 minutes, but every set piece is done under a cover of darkness or limited lighting, so any potential appreciation for the maneuvers themselves is lost on sight. One fight is done under whatever a flashlight can pick up. Others are done at night, with black on black, leaving only the color red to make an impression as the squishy sound effects do their best to convince us that someone has been cut open. What worked in 300 simply doesn't here because Zack Snyder was staying true to the look of Frank Miller's comic and the fake blood melded into it. Ninja Assassin can't decide if it's a comic book or a video game and it's not relentless enough to warrant consideration for either labeling.

Delayed for over a year from its original release in 2008, Ninja Assassin should have at least received a boost from such a cartoony year for martial arts spectaculars. We're looking right at you Chun Li and Dragonball. The film is certainly one of the bloodier affairs to hit theaters since Kill Bill Vol. 1, but it doesn't have the same modicum of respect for the history of the shinobi other than facing a more difficult daily practice than the Cleveland Browns and softly playing up the supernatural myths of their existence. Instead you get an often frustrating narrative with different actors playing the lead (when the young-faced Rain with his limited expressions would have sufficed as a teenager) and '80s ninja cult figure Sho Kosugi winning this year's Armin Mueller-Stahl award for slowing down a film with mumbled exposition - over Mueller-Stahl himself for performances in The International and Angels and Demons. Maybe all one needs is a hero to take a more savage beating than Jesus Christ at the hands of Mel Gibson, but if I want to spend 90 minutes with better lighting on the ninja's body than the fighting, give me Lucinda Dickey in Ninja III: The Domination any day of the week.

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originally posted: 11/25/09 16:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2009 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2009 series, click here.

User Comments

4/08/16 sxdbyc USA 3 stars
9/29/10 Robert Smith must know the end result...entertaining in a way I remember when I was 10! 3 stars
3/21/10 action movie fan style over substance-weak plot video game action=kill bill was far better 2 stars
1/16/10 mr.mike Damn good martial arts action 5 stars
12/31/09 randy todger very average shit CGI blood effects 3 stars
12/02/09 Bob Dog Eric reveals critical error in second line of review. 4 stars
12/01/09 KingNeutron I liked it. Yah the CGI blood was a bit much but it was worth it for the fight scenes. 4 stars
11/29/09 MC Great movie, keeps you at the edge of your sit with bloody heartbeating action 4 stars
11/26/09 Ming I love this movie..all those and blood and head chop movie of the year 4 stars
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  25-Nov-2009 (R)
  DVD: 16-Mar-2010


  DVD: 16-Mar-2010

Directed by
  James McTeigue

Written by
  Matthew Sand
  J. Michael Straczynski

  Naomie Harris
  Randall Duk Kim
  Sung Kang
  Rick Yune
  Ben Miles
  Sho Kosugi

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