Ninjas exist! They live in the mountains and are paid 100 pounds in gold by world governments to kill without mercy! Look at one of them the wrong way, or make any attempt to expose their ninja conspiracy and you will be sure to receive an envelope of black sand and forty shuriken through your heart. Fortunately plucky Europol (read: Interpol) librarian Mika (Naomie Harris) and ex-ninja, now ninja assassin Raizo (Rain) are on the case. You may ask, as I did, why Ninjas are so problematic in contemporary society, since it is made clear that the ninjas are tools of world governments and have no personal stakes in the assassination of Korean gangsters and corrupt government officials? Do they really deserve to be hunted down and massacred by para-military units? I mean aren't the governments hiring them the real root of the problem? And why does everyone, including ninjas, speak English in Germany, the site of all these ninja disturbances? Alas, narrative contrivances such as these mean nothing so long as one gets an hour and half of unbridled ninja action, right?
Well even writing off the script, drafted in 53 hours by J. Michael Strazynski (and it shows), James McTeigue's Ninja Assassin, produced by the usually reliable* Wachowski siblings, still manages to disappoint.
If I can say one positive thing about the film, it is that it at least presented the possibility of taking an interesting spin on the ninja genre. Rather then simply fetishize the acrobatic grace, stealthy efficiency and brooding demeanor of the archetypal ninja (which it does throughout, mostly during long-winded expositional flashbacks), McTeigue also positions the ninja as a monster figure, worthy of the horror genre. The film's opening set-piece that features a gang of ninjas-disbelievers getting dispatched is unrelentingly graphic to the point of genuine horror. These ninjas won't just kill you quick, they tear you apart, appendage by appendage, and they make sure you feel it.
Later on as a character races to her car, frantically searching for the right key while swinging a flashlight this way and that to illuminate a path through the darkness, it becomes clear that the film is partially operating as a slasher, if not an outright horror film. The ninjas are billed as an ancient secret repressed to the fringes of social visibility; they seem to come out only at night and are spoken of in hushed whispers as supernatural demons. "Stay in the light" the characters are warned, "avoid the shadows". It all adds up to a palpable atmosphere that in the right hands could have effaced the contemporary camp image of the ninja and produced something quite terrifying, but unfortunately none of this actually works in the film.
The sticking point is that after the first few minutes the ninjas never feel intimidating or threatening. Raizo dispatches many of them quite easily once the fights start going, their martial feats are masked with CGI gimmickry and these ninjas also have a habit of spouting taunting whispers to their victims, which I suppose was intended to be creepy, but are instead downright laughable - the ninja equivalent of the schoolyard "Nyah-nyah-nyah". More problematic is that all the horror derived from the gruesome acts these ninjas manage to dish out is consistently undercut by the digital fakery of it all.
Though the bodily fluids spilt left and right are sometimes tangible (there's a particularly awesome blink and you'll miss it head explosion during the climax), the blood and guts are mostly beautiful, but distractingly "floaty" blooms of pixels. They rarely ever seem to connect with the bodies they spill from, and feel aesthetically at odds with the rest of the films rather drab and conventional visuals. Had McTeigue pursued a visual palette akin to the Japanese anime it aspires to invoke, some fusion of Speed Racer's poptimistic artifice with 300's lyrical violence, then maybe the stylized geysers of red would instill a more palpable affect. Tarantino and Kitano are also both guilty for cinematic splurges of corn syrup, but there is a playfulness to their proceedings that McTeigue is unable to provide here.
Most irritatingly the bursts of blood are all one can make out as as for the most part the physical choreography is rendered illegible. I get McTeigue's motivation to stage fights across blotches of darkness, capitalizing on the well-known relationship between ninjas and the shadows they jump from, but any semblance of tension sought from such a strategy is negated by the film's penchant for shaky close-ups and rapid cutting. GI JOE might have been a similar exercise in CGI excess, but at least one could appreciate the fluid ludicrousness of the Paris car-chase thanks to Stephen Sommers' recognition of spatial geography. McTiegue stages a similar car/foot chase and the result is startling in its obscurity - it all becomes noise.
It's a repeat of Christopher Nolan's failings as an action director in the Batman films**, despite the occasional action sequence that benefits from visual incoherence insofar as it effectively captures the visceral confusion of a real fight, eventually you need to give the audience something to look at instead of a bevy of whip pans. It is remarkable that the Wachowskis, directors who have proven themselves to be adept when it comes to action direction, would permit one of their productions to be so sloppy and obtuse in its action coverage. They should of given direction duties to the folks who shot that fantastic stunt-reel from a few months back - any comments I could be making on the films admittedly great choreography and Rain's impressive physically prowess would derive entirely from that Youtube clip, rather then the film itself.
Now I'll admit there are a few things in Ninja Assassin that work - the occasional artful composition, the few seconds of legible action, a stoic and charismatic Sho Kosugi as the leader of the Ninja clan and the aforementioned inspired, though problematic foray into the tropes of the American slasher film - but as far as entertainment goes you far better off staying at home for a night of Lone Wolf and Cub to quell that desire for comic book gore and ninjutsu acrobatics. A double bill of Blade 2 and Duel to the Death will also suffice.
*I am one of the few that loved, loved Speed Racer.
**I'm not hating on Nolan at all, he choreographs a wicked car chase, but close-quarter combat is clearly not his forte.