James McTeigue's Ninja Assassin opens with its most successful sequence. In a non-descript hideout in Japan, a group of Yakuza gangsters laugh aloud in the manner of mad scientists as an old-timer warns them to be careful of—he cannot bring himself to utter the word out loud—ninjas! Suddenly, the men are attacked from the shadows by an invisible accurate force, swords and sharp-edged metal stars sever body parts left and right. The action is rapid-fire and plenty-cartoonish—it favors gouts of CGI blood over the more traditional exploding squibs—but it's successful because at its essence it is suitable to its genre.
Unfortunately, the opening scene is the only comfort food served up in Ninja Assassin, a film that might well be as confused as it is confusing.
Thrust into a series of flashbacks, we gather that a boy named Raizo was taken at a young age and trained as an assassin in a secret training castle high in the mountains. Breaking up the flashbacks, in the present day we meet a pair of Europol agents who think they've discovered a pattern to every high-profile assassination in the past hundred years: the very same ancient clan of ninjas. IMDb trivia tells me that writer J. Michael Straczynski was hired to rework a less-than-satisfactory script, pulling off a rewrite in 53 hours, and without doubt it shows. The dueling timelines feel like a storytelling crutch. Perhaps if the story were told in a more straightforward manner, it would hold more impact.
Still, I can suffer any number of contrivances and silly character decision-making if an action film delivers the thrills. I'll be the first to trumpet a successful visceral experience. Too bad the action scenes onscreen are up-close and in the dark—that's right, ninjas hide in the shadows—and much of the time it's difficult to decipher who's fighting who. Where I could make out the stunts, the ninja acrobatics of Korean pop-star Rain were impressive enough, and didn't appear to rely too heavily on wire work.
On the subject of Rain, his transformation from singer to actor seems to be a subject of contention in some circles. Although Rain isn't an especially emotive actor, his performance in Speed Racer held a certain amount of charisma, though I confess I found none of that charm exhibited here. However, if perpetual shirtlessness can be a skill, he is skilled indeed.
Maybe I like my ninjas old-fashioned, but I didn't care much for the clash of genres that takes place in Ninja Assassin. Pairing a traditional tale of revenge and redemption with a contemporary government conspiracy thriller was a conflicting choice, and I hope we can all agree from now on that guns have no place in ninja movies. If McTeigue's film marks the beginning of a ninja comeback, then I'm all for Ninja Assassin as a means to an end, paving the way towards exposing the genre to a new generation of audiences, but let's hope better and brighter entries lie ahead.
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