Ninja Assassin

Director    James McTeigue
Starring    Rain, Sho Kusugi, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Rick Yune
Release    25 NOV (US) 22 JAN (UK)    Certificate 18
3 stars


21st January 2010

There are three irrefutable things in life; death, taxes and the fact that ninjas are cool. Ninjas speeding around Europe on a one-man vendetta to take down all other ninjas armed only with a knife and Hollyoaks hair? Ice cold, friends, ice cold. That's the premise of the latest martial arts action-a-thon from James McTeigue and The Brothers Wachowski.

When Raizo (Korean pop star Rain) was but a jug-eared orphan child, he was spirited away by the Ozunu clan and imprisoned in a bootcamp, where he and his new-found brothers and sisters received years of 'disciplined training' - apparently just endless beatings and tiptoeing classes - to emerge as the eponymous Ninja Assassins. Hitmen for hire, for the princely sum of 100 lbs of gold.

Between lacerations and spinning classes, Raizo falls in love with his sister-from-another-mother Kiriko, a beautiful pacifist ninja who defies her clansmen and attempts to escape from their remote, on top of a mountain, hideaway. She's easily caught, because she's running away from ninjas, and sentenced to death. Raizo's heart is broken, but he remains at ninja HQ and completes his training before going rogue in a fairly spectacular, rain-drenched rooftop battle.

This is all told through flashbacks; our present day Raizo spends his time doing press-ups on a bed of nails and attempting to protect people from his erstwhile family of smoky bandits, who lurk in the shadows, appearing and disappearing like purple vapour.

The plot is preposterous - for the majority of the runtime, we don't know why these people are targets for ninjas, who's picking up the tab and, most confusingly, who is telling this maverick ninja who can't be tracked down by his clan where and when there are people to be protected. Obviously the flashbacks didn't take in the ESP classes.

[gallery]The latest would-be victim is Mika (Naomie Harris, underused), a forensic researcher for Interpol-alike Europol, who has stumbled across the fact that mythical ninja clans are very much real, and responsible for high-end political assassinations. She and her boss Maslow (seriously, no-one in this movie has two names. It's a world populated by Chers and Seals), played by Coupling's Ben Miles, plan to ... do something... about tracking them down.

It's not very clear, another of the baffling story points. It's fair to say that several of these oversights in adequate storytelling can be put down to the last minute re-write of the screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski, who has been quoted as saying not only did he write it in 53 hours, but that Warner Bros. loved it and returned it with no notes.

I'm sorry, Straczynski, that cannot be true. There are two reasons there were no notes on the screenplay - a) you were sleep-deprived and didn't actually send it, or 2) a ninja stole the notes.

The gossamer thin plot is soaked, nay, saturated with blood from the very beginning. Rain's weapon of choice is a kusarigama, essentially a knife necklace. A very long, very lethal, not fey at all, necklace and he can do some serious damage with it. His ninja brethren are incredibly vicious; there's no mistaking these assassinations for heart attacks in their sleep.

Fights break out every ten minutes or so; two or three of them stand out in the memory for gore and style alone. One audience member actually shouted "Oh Dude!" at one particularly gruesome decimation, but the majority are shot so peculiarly as to render them pointless. One sequence uses so much handicam and flash-cutting that you actually lose track of who you are watching beat the crap out of whom. Others are too dark to make out the martial artistry, but they sure sound painful. Here's one note for Mr. Straczynski - if you're going to write a fight scene featuring super-fast ninjas, don't set it at night. In the rain. At night.

With James McTeigue and The Wachowski's in charge, Ninja Assassin could have and should have been so much better. There are touches of greatness, and not a weak link in any of the performances (Sho Kosugi stands out in particular as the heartless Lord Ozunu), but as a whole the movie is incredibly underwhelming and utterly generic.

The CGI blood is terrible, to the point where perhaps it's supposed to be so obviously computer generated, and the opening to the third act is just... oh ... it's just infuriatingly hideous. Don't let that put you off too much. Ninja Assassin is fun, it's nasty, and if nothing else - it's not very long.

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