Well, at least I can say Ninja Assassin does something I’ve never seen before: It makes ninja boring. It’s to 2009 what The Hunted was to 1995, without the saving graces of Yoko Shimada or Yoshio Harada. When it’s not boring it’s annoying, and when it’s not annoying it’s downright incurious — which makes it boring all over again.
The ninja assassin of the title is, I assume, Raizo (Korean pop star Rain), one of a secret network of assassins that has existed for centuries Their master, Ozunu (Eighties martial-arts star Shō Kosugi) recruits orphans into the family, trains them into soulless killers, then hires them out for the fixed cost of 100 pounds of gold per kill. The training is what you’d expect: a brutal master teaching his students in total seclusion, hardships galore, one trial by fire after another (sometimes literally), heartbreak, and finally Raizo striking out on his own. When Europol agent Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) discovers the network, she becomes their next target. Raizo, the apostate, steps in to protect her from his own former clan brothers, and the digital blood spews.
The director was James McTeigue (of V for Vendetta), and while he doesn’t do anything directorially that sinks the movie, he doesn’t do anything that helps it much either. The biggest problems are with the script — with contributions by (of all people) J. Michael Straczynski, and with him having rewritten it in something like two days. It shows. Every step of the story is telegraphed so far in advance they might as well have sent smoke signals. There’s no flavor to the material, no wit or comic invention, no sense of how to make it more than just a high-tech update of stuff done better on smaller budgets. No imagination. The only part that has any real resonance is the quasi-love story that develops between Raizo and Kiriko, a fellow ninja student. Those scenes work, but despite the rest of the movie and not because of it, which has little curiosity about its own ideas and uses them mostly as plot pillars. I had my ideas about things you could touch on with this material — e.g., a comparison between Ozunu’s clans and North Korea (isolation, “self-reliance”, absolute obedience to authority, xenophobia, relentless militarizing) — but I wasn’t even asking for that much. And even then, the movie’s cleverness peters out somewhere around “How many heads can you slice off in a row with a sickle and chain?”.
Most people, I suspect, will go in wanting gore ‘n guts, and to a degree the movie delivers that. But it’s sterile, processed thrills; like most modern action films the fights are cut together so frenetically and filmed with such little regard for physical possibility there’s no sense this could be happening to actual human beings. That and they’re happening to people we don’t care a lot about in the first place, which makes them about as engrossing as watching the drop targets fall in a pinball machine. It’s a cartoon that doesn’t know it’s a cartoon, and that would be okay if only the movie copped to it. Compare that to something like Ong Bak 2, where the sense of danger and the physicality of every fight is totally convincing.
I am not going to complain about, say, most of the gore being computer-generated, which is an easy target. CGI is a tool used by filmmakers to serve a story, and if there’s no story worth telling in the first place then no number of polygons will rescue it. I’m annoyed because Ninja Assassin is so lockstep, so fundamentally uninvolving, so willing to simply recapitulate all the old clichés with better graphics and hardware without adding anything of its own. It’s further evidence for the theory that it’s ingenuity and inspiration that make a movie, not the size of the budget or the quality of the film in the camera. I’d sooner re-watch all of Snot Rocket and Super Detective than any one part of Ninja Assassin.
Note for future filmmakers: CGI blood looks extremely unconvincing in night scenes.