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Twenty years after their heyday, ninja movies are all the rage again in Hollywood. As someone who grew up with movies pitting ninjas fighting Caucasian gangsters in broad daylight, I couldn’t be happier. Don’t get me wrong: James McTeigue’s “Ninja Assassin” is definitely not a throwback to the ‘80s, back when Sho Kosugi ruled the ninja roost with honor. Despite the presence of fan favorite Kosugi in “Assassin” – surely a nod to the man’s many accomplishments and contributions to the genre – “Ninja Assassin” couldn’t have existed in the ‘80s. This is very much a 2009 ninja movie, the kind that relies almost as much on CGI blood as it does the amazingly acrobatic skills of its leading man and his enemies.
“Ninja Assassin” opens with a ninja from the Ozunu clan taking out a room full of Japanese gangsters (fronted by the always amusing Sung Kang, here playing the epitome of a 2009 Yakuza). Immediately, the film establishes itself as a hardcore, brutal ninja movie, and you can forget about daytime action. The ninjas are a wily bunch, able to blend into and emerge out of pools of shadows like bogeyman in some horror movie. They even have supernatural healing powers, though that doesn’t really come in all that handy when limbs are chopped, heads are decapitated, and body parts are cleaved in halves whenever the ninjas do battle. That is “Ninja Assassin” – a movie that, when it lands on DVD, probably won’t be advertising an “Unrated” version. How could it? The film, Rated R, is already a geyser of CGI blood and flopping limbs. Yes, folks, this is NOT a movie for the kiddies, and God bless it for being so bloody.
South Korean pop singer Rain (last seen in the epic fail that was the Wachowski Brothers’ “Speed Racer”) fronts “Ninja Assassin” as Raizo, an orphan “adopted” into the Ozunu clan and raise to be a heartless killer. Though he quickly adopts the skills taught mercilessly by Ozunu himself (Sho Kosugi), Raizo hasn’t completely lost his humanity, thanks to fellow assassin-in-training Kiriko (Kylie Goldstein), who longs for more, a goal that can only be reached by scaling the walls of the Ozunu Clan’s hidden mountain lair. When we first meet the adult Raizo, he has already broken free of the Ozunu Clan’s chains, and is now a fugitive from his brothers — including the brutal Takeshi (Rick Yune) — and “father”.
Through flashbacks, we come to learn why Raizo is currently on a quest to destroy Ozunu once and for all. Our hero gets assistance from Interpol researcher Mika (Naomie Harris, “28 Days Later”), who has found evidence of the Ozunu Clan’s existence. She enlists the aid of her superior Maslow (Ben Miles), and as their investigation deepens, they find themselves becoming targets by their own agency, as well as shadowy ninjas. Eventually, Raizo and Mika form an alliance, even as the Ozunu Clan closes in. Much blood-letting, awesome ninja battles, and slicing and dicing ensue.
It needs to be repeated that “Ninja Assassin” is not a movie for kids. That should become instantly clear when the first ninja victim’s head is cleaved in half from forehead to chin. James McTeigue, coming off his debut in “V for Vendetta” (produced by the Wachowskis, who also produces “Ninja Assassin”), has brought out the fake blood by the buckets to play, and oh my does he ever play. Much of the film takes place in darkness, since ninjas do not come out in daylight. The action is brutal, constant, and orchestrated for maximum coolness. This is not a movie that’s going to appeal to the New York Times set, and let’s face it, who cares, it wasn’t made for them anyway. If you didn’t snicker when you first heard the title of the movie, the film will live up to your expectations and, in my case, exceeded it. If he hasn’t become already, James McTeigue is most definitely an action movie director to keep watching.
As his first real introduction to an American/International audience, “Ninja Assassin” is the perfect launching pad for Rain. Raizo is a physical, deadly presence, and the pop singer-turned-actor easily embodies the character, thanks to months of martial arts and weapons training. Being the silent, deadly type, Raizo is a man of action, with a lot of his exposition kept to flashbacks with younger actors in the role. Rain will no doubt be able to parlay the film into more action roles in Hollywood films if he’s so inclined. I can’t say if he’s a good enough actor to stray from the genre at this point, since his Raizo lives and dies by his physical abilities, so how well he can handle himself in a movie without swords is still an open question. Then again, questionable acting chops have never kept Keanu Reeves from a superstar career.
“Ninja Assassin” is a pretty straight-forward action movie, albeit a very slick and stylish entry. What passes for story is mostly buried by the film’s abundant action, though the script does get brownie points for not relying on character clichés that usually burden such movies. For instance, Ben Miles is not your typical bone-headed bureaucrat, though at first he may seem like one. Likewise, the spunky Mika doesn’t become an Angelina Jolie-type action heroine overnight; she’s capable and smart, and knows her way around a gun, but there’s real fear as she quickly realizes what she’s up against. There are also some noticeable gaps in the plot, much of it involving Raizo’s life post-Ozunu Clan. We never really get a firm idea of what Raizo has been up to, or any explanations as to how he learns about the Ozunu Clan’s assassination targets before they attack.
In a lot of ways, the ninjas of “Ninja Assassin” are more like creatures in a horror movie than men in black pajamas stalking a martial arts film. Though the object is to present a gritty, possible real-world take on the ninja mythos, the film does indulge in some very fantastical elements. When the ninjas attack, their shuriken throwing stars are like bullets, their swords like invisible lasers. They can track victims from miles away by scent, and their healing abilities border on the supernatural. In that respect, the film does seem to want it both ways – real and gritty, but at the same time pure fantasy. Of course, that shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance to enjoying the film, which is, remember, about ninjas running around in the 21st century.
If you saw the previews and thought, “Wow, that looks like a good movie,” then you will be a pig in sloth. “Ninja Assassin” easily lived up to my expectations, and then some. Rain makes for a formidable action hero of the future, and it’s a real treat to see the great Sho Kosugi back in the saddle once again, in the genre that he single-handedly popularized in the first place. Plot-wise, “Ninja Assassin” isn’t going to blow you away, but then I’m sure you never expected it to, so that’s alright. The fact that it does make some sort of sense – in a “this is a movie with ninjas” sort of logic – means the script isn’t a complete throwaway. “Ninja Assassin” is probably the most fun I’ve had at the theaters in a while. It’s cartoonishly brutal in spots, and after a while the blood geysers get ridiculous, but the end result is that you probably won’t see a more badass ninja movie for a while.
James McTeigue (director) / Matthew Sand, J. Michael Straczynski (screenplay)
CAST: Rain … Raizo
Shô Kosugi … Ozunu
Rick Yune … Takeshi
Sung Kang … Hollywood
Ben Miles … Maslow
Naomie Harris … Mika
Kylie Goldstein … Kiriko