If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that the primary purpose of a ninja is to flip out and kill people. This lesson was not lost on the Wachowski Brothers when they put together their latest production “Ninja Assassin”. Helmed by long-time Wachowski collaborator James McTeigue and written by J. Michael Straczynski, “Ninja Assassin” is possibly the most over-the-top, wall-to-wall gorefest made within the mainstream Hollywood system since the last Rambo movie. Limbs are lopped off, blood spurts and no shuriken are spared as these ninjas make with the assassinating.
Korean pop star Rain plays Raizo, an orphan who was taken into the Ozunu Clan and trained by the hardass Lord Ozunu (played by 80s ninja movie legend Sho Kosugi) to become a world class ninja assassin. He finds a secret reprieve from the constant beatings and training in the form of a female apprentice ninja named Kiriki. A wedge is driven between Raizo and the Ozunu Clan when Kiriki tries to escape and is captured and put to death.
When Raizo is asked to execute another runaway, he refuses and escapes the clan. From then on he dedicates himself to destroying the Ozunu Clan by foiling their assassination missions. On one such attempt he rescues Mika, a Europol agent who has found a link between some recent political assassinations and the ninja clan. Working together, Mika and Raizo try to bring down the powerful and secretive ninja assassin network.
The plot is strictly by-the-numbers and is identical to any number of martial arts movies from the 70s and 80s. What “Ninja Assassin” does, and does very well, is update the classic ninja B-movie formula that drove thousands of VHS rentals 20 years ago with higher production values, stylized post-“Matrix” camera work and buckets and buckets of CG blood and gore. The end product is a million times slicker than anything Michael Dudikoff ever starred in but is every bit as fun, disreputable and excessive.
One cool trick the movie pulls is treating the ninjas almost more like monsters than people. The more skilled ninjas do have a few supernatural techniques like teleportation, inhuman speed and a healing factor that would make Wolverine jealous. The scenes of assassination targets in a darkened room looking to the rafters for ninjas they can’t see but know are there are oddly reminiscent of the “Alien” franchise in the way the moments of quiet anticipation suddenly give way to violent evisceration.
McTiegue’s pedigree as a Wachowski protégé is apparent in the overwhelming triumph of style over substance. There’s a lot more sizzle than steak here, but fans of the sizzle won’t be complaining. Thankfully, the stylization leans more on absurd levels of gore than bullet-time slow motion. The ninja blades are apparently so sharp that they can cut through flesh and bone with the ease of a ginzu knife through an overripe tomato, with twice as much splatter. Most of the blood is CG, a technique that kills any attempt at realism in a movie but realism isn’t much of a concern in a hyper-caffeinated video game come to life like this. This movie was almost certainly made with an international audience in mind and the excessive CG splatter work would feel right at home alongside the recent wave of cartoonish Japanese gorefests coming out on labels like Tokyo Shock.
It’s when the film tries to focus on substance over style that it starts to falter. Much of the backstory is told through numerous clunky flashbacks that stall the breakneck pace of the film for the sake of giving us character development for characters who, let’s be honest, we don’t really care about. Most people don’t watch a movie called “Ninja Assassin” for insight into the hidden desires and motivations of a ninja. What they do want to see is some ninja jumping out of the shadows and severing some guy’s arm with one of those knife things on the end of a chain. While there’s plenty of that, it does come spaced out by the cinematic speed bumps of the ninja version of Oliver Twist.
“Ninja Assassin” is a prime example of a movie that does exactly what it says on the box. Your reaction to the title is a pretty good gauge as to how much enjoyment you will get out of the film. If watching a violent, bloody live action version of a ninja video game sounds like a fun way to spend 100 minutes then by all means check this flick out. If you’re expecting anything deeper than chop chop, splatter splatter, though, “Ninja Assassin” is not the movie for you.