Contributor; Toronto
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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.


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James McTeigueMatthew SandJ. Michael StraczynskiRainJoon LeeJonathan Chan-PensleyIll-Young KimActionCrimeThriller

More about Ninja Assassin

Ard VijnNovember 24, 2009 6:50 AM

I happen to agree with both * and ** !

Rhythm-XNovember 24, 2009 11:37 AM

Yes, I too can certainly get behind points * and ** with no qualms whatsoever.

Bonus points for throwing some props in the general direction of DUEL TO THE DEATH. That film's drastically underrated.

I'll go see NINJA ASSASSIN (it is a ninja movie after all) but my expectations are pretty much in the cellar. If it's as bad as it seems to be, based on the trailer and the reviews I've read, I can't blame WB for delays, half-hearted marketing etc. and so on. Perhaps Rain requested that his identifying features be cropped off the poster.

Todd BrownNovember 24, 2009 12:01 PM

Saw it last night. It's horrrrrrrrrible.

ApplecartNovember 24, 2009 3:36 PM

you recommended Blade 2.

Todd BrownNovember 24, 2009 6:05 PM

I like Blade 2. And next to Ninja Assassin, Blade 2 is freaking Citizen Kane.

ChevalierAguilaNovember 24, 2009 9:13 PM

Is anyone really surprised about this sucking?

Peter K.November 24, 2009 9:24 PM

I wasn't expecting greatness, but there were enough ingredients for it to at least to be a fun time.

xinoNovember 25, 2009 12:35 AM

damn man, so basically in the review, you weren't really pleased with the movie?
I love the trailer man, kept watching it all the time, memorised nearly all the words in it.
"Do not fight yourself, do not fight your family"
"You've made me proud my son" sick music starts and stop
"Now's the time for you to prove" awesome music begins

Well if this movie fails, you guys should try NINJA the Movie.

I'm sure I won't be disappointed with Ninja Assassin. And if I do get, I'll come back here and bash this movie!

To bad those damn distributors moved UK date to Jan 2010 for Fark Sake!

Greg ChristieNovember 25, 2009 1:35 AM

Ugh. I still regret standing in line for over an hour and a half to see this piece of shit at Fantastic Fest. I liked both Blade 2 and Speed Racer. Hell, I loved Speed Racer. And I fell in love with the trailer for Ninja Assasin, hence waiting in line for so damn long to see the turd.

This truly is one of the dumbest movies I've ever seen. I'm still trying to figure out what film Capone at AICN saw and praised. But at least it is laughably bad. Hell, I might even see it again with friends under the influence of the right substances. I was rolling on the floor when the hummers, tanks, and bazooka armed marines show up in Japan in a matter of hours to blow the shit out of everything. And the entire audience was snickering at the last scene. God is it dumb. What's even odder is James McTiegue was in attendance and discussed his lifelong obsession with Ninja mythology and Japanese culture & history but wouldn't go into any further detail or cite any references because he was obviously talking out his ass. The opening sequence is so poorly acted and directed it's almost offensive. A bunch of Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese yakuza speaking American urban slang with almost every other word being motha fucka, it was like the opening to Way of the Gun minus everything that made it awesome. There was a shit load of press at the screening hoping to write up early/ exclusive reviews based solely on Capone's hype and were then told at the screening that there was a press embargo, and for good reason, everyone hated it. The Q & A was awkward as hell. I wish I knew James was sitting behind me the whole time cause I was drinking heavily and laughing through out the whole thing. I almost thought it was intentionally bad, but in the Q & A it became clear it certainly wasn't.

Rhythm-XNovember 25, 2009 3:08 AM

This was inexcusably bad. Not even enjoyably inexcusably bad, this was just bash-your-own-head-in-with-a-brick-to-make-it-stop terrible.

Andrew MackNovember 25, 2009 7:05 AM

I cannot recall leaving a screening with as bad a headache as I did after seeing this in Austin. I kept wanting to turn to the woman beside me who was oohing and aahing and ask, 'really? really!?!'

Peter K.November 25, 2009 10:15 AM

I can't fathom Mr. Beaks at AICN liking this either, but apparently scoring an interview with the director will do that to you.

At the screening I was at, there were cheers when Naomie Harris bit it - but it was cut short when my friend yelled "SPECIAL HEART!" in advance of the reveal.

Ard VijnNovember 25, 2009 11:25 AM

That was actually indiemaker0583...
... just kidding!

Rhythm-XNovember 25, 2009 2:46 PM

PS: This was goddamn awful.

Hunter RoseNovember 25, 2009 4:47 PM

I didn't hate it. But then I went in with low expectations.
It seems like a lot of the criticisms of the film are basically the same basic flaws in just about any action film.

Are people putting undue expectations because its a NINJA film tied to the Wachowskis? (indirectly I realize)

I really enjoyed the first scene, the Bathroom fight, The rooftop fight, even the street and the Apt/flashlight battles were fun (even though I kinda wished it was a little clearer).

I also happen to be a (Bi)Rain fan, and I think he's done some decent acting work, I just hope he gets to work with a real performance director in his next project. (also as his english improves - he should become more emotive).

fuddufNovember 27, 2009 8:07 AM

i thought blade 2 was pretty good, and duel to the death is vastly underrated/unknown. i'll skip this one.

Rhythm-XNovember 30, 2009 11:13 AM

For a dose of WTF, check out the reaction over at Kung Fu Cinema. It's like they're talking about some other movie entirely. I'd have expected that crew's bullshit detectors to have been thoroughly triggered by this rubbish, more so than the people reading and writing other movie-related websites - those guys know what goes into making a good martial arts film. Instead there's a lot of BEST NINJA MOVIE EVAR!!11! going on in the comments and comparisons to the awful fight scenes in BATMAN BEGINS being thrown around as some sort of compliment. I simply don't get it. I wanted to see a good ninja movie. I wanted to see a kick-ass martial arts movie that would find the box office success that has eluded the genre in the US lately (in large part thanks to bad marketing and distribution). This simply was not that film, and I take zero pleasure in saying that.