Published Nov 24, 2009With an opening sequence of eye-bursting ultra-violence that immediately seizes the audience by the adrenal glands, how could Ninja Assassin play out so blandly?
A jovial, winking tone is established within the first few minutes with a pack of cocky, modern Korean gangsters making fun of an old, traditional tattoo artist's tales of a deadly ninja clan that send an envelope of black sand to their target prior to a stealthy slaughter.
Of course, their mocking scepticism is swiftly converted into brutal bloodshed. Heads are chopped in half, limbs are severed and shuriken flung from the shadows tear spurting geysers of blood from flailing bodies. Rather than simply revel in the glorious carnage and put on a showcase of martial arts that pushes the limits of human ability, McTeigue attempts to make a proper film of it all.
The first problem is the script, or lack thereof. Despite major rewrites of rookie Matthew Sand's original story by veteran screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), the plot and dialogue lack any sort of purpose or edge. We've seen this story before as the first act of Batman Begins blended with the first act of Braveheart.
A promising young ninja, Raizo (played by Rain, single name only), in training turns against his clan when his forbidden love is killed for trying to escape the ninja life. Throw in a couple of secret service agents trying to get to the bottom of some deadly information they uncover proving the existence of this ancient and powerful clan of assassins for hire and you've got a by-the-numbers plot that relies on coincidence and contrivance to further itself simply for the sake of framing a series of supremely stylized, gore-showering fight scenes.
The pacing is sluggish and story structure is weakly conceived. Far too much time is split between Raizo's childhood training with the clan and the agents digging into the conspiracy that cloaks the clan's existence. Rain has plenty of charm and is up to the task of becoming a serious action star, but terrible writing prevents any personality developing from his depiction of Raizo.
McTeigue's flashy talents as a visual filmmaker likewise mask Rain's ability as a martial artist. It's difficult to get a sense of what he can do with so much obviously staged, CGI-enhanced, hyper-cut action. The necessity of shadows and insistence on shaky cam further blur the impact of the combat.
What does work in spades, however, is every creatively executed, ridiculously over-the-top money shot of flinch-worthy uber-death. Brain-spilling decapitation has never looked so pretty, but the audience might feel like theirs are leaking out as well by the time the credits role. (Warner)