Movies · Reviews

Fantastic Fest Review: Ninja Assassin

By  · Published on September 30th, 2009

I’m not sure what bothers me more – bad movies or bad movies that show a touch of potential. At least with a blatantly bad movie the skill level is consistent throughout, but with a potentially good movie it sends me out of the theater wondering who exactly messed things up and why no one saw the mistakes as they were being made. That frustration is alive and well with Ninja Assassin.

An orphan named Raizo (Rain), raised and trained by an ancient ninja clan, cuts a bunch of heads off while an investigator from Europol, Mika (Naomie Harris) tracks down the group in connection with several high-ranking assassinations.

Ninja Assassin is a great movie that gets dragged down by some serious problems. It’s fun, an interesting take on a dormant genre, and there is all sorts of blood being spilled and bodies being sliced apart. Still, it suffers from some of the same pitfalls that other blockbusters seem to be facing lately. Hence the frustration. How can a movie with such promise and so many good elements end up falling short?

The beginning of the mystery of what went wrong with this movie starts with the writing, cuts right through some of the action sequences and stops dead with the acting.

For starters, some parts of the script are decent, especially for a martial arts film. The story is simple enough, but gets overly complicated by the Europol section. For the most part, the training and back story for Raizo is solid stuff, telling a great story of a young boy that is trained to become a killer through harsh punishment for mistakes and clever zen koans spouted by ninja film legend Sho Kusugi playing Lord Ozunu. The concept of having ninjas in the present-day is a fantastic one, but the execution is lacking because the story just isn’t there. The idea of ninja clans being hired by all world governments to carry out assassinations is laughable considering that there aren’t a huge swath of political assassinations period let alone a ton of important people left chopped into three pieces in a bloody pile. If there was, you’d think the public would catch on fairly quickly.

Beyond the blending of a great story with a terrible one, the writing also gave me a lot of opportunities to cringe and shift awkwardly in my seat. The dialog is soap opera-worthy at places, and it doesn’t help that the actors struggle to say even the simplest of lines. It’s noble to want to take the genre to the big budget realm and make it darker, but by doing so the film opens itself up to unintentional laughs and schlocky dialog told by stiff actors. A better writer could have really elevated the genre while keeping in a ton of great action, but apparently that just wasn’t in the cards.

Speaking of the action, it ranges from the amazing to the poorly-lit and frantic. The opening scene is one that people will be talking about a lot because of the shock and awe violence that starts the flick off on the right foot. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay on track as two of the main sequences are too dark, and McTeigue and his cinematographer refuse to keep the camera still long enough to really admire the fighting that’s going on. The bulk of the action is great – although the composite CGI blood is downright awful most of the time – but even a few missteps coupled with the bad dialog and acting cuts the only leg the movie has to stand on right in half.

As for the acting, it’s pretty clear at this point how I felt about it. Rain just isn’t an actor. He’s also not a martial artist. Both of those facts are painfully clear in this movie. He’s owed a certain amount of respect for some of the fighting that he does, but it’s nowhere near the level of martial artistry that I’ve come to expect from modern fighting movies. He’s acrobatic, but not a good fighter. I understand he’s at a disadvantage because he’s not a native English speaker, but that’s just the pitfalls of bad casting, especially in a time when moviegoers seem more than happy to read a few subtitles on screen as long as wanton violence follows shortly.

Naomie Harris (who no one will recognize as the witch woman from Pirates of the Caribbean) clearly cannot act without a fake Haitian accent. She vomits out most of her lines and seems especially enthusiastic about the cheesy bits. But in her defense (and trust me, she needs it), her character is little more than Ms. Exposition who has passages that explain what’s going on and end with a bland question that deserves a glib, slightly dramatic one-liner in response.

On the logical side of things, I just can’t understand how physics staying constant is so difficult in some films. A lot of the ninja fighting varies in a nonsensical way. They are built up to be invincible in the beginning which makes things tricky as the film goes on. Plus, for people with what amount to super powers (apparently they can track by scent and teleport between shadows), they become complete idiots when it’s convenient for the story. However, the most irritating thing involving the ninjas is that they are incredible killing machines unless there’s a main character amongst the group. Bodies get slashed in half with delightful disregard, but the chaos seems to reign all around main characters instead of on top of their heads. So remember that. Ninjas are the most effective killing machines known to man unless you turn the lights on in the room or if you’re a main character. Everyone else will be hacked to bits within seconds, but you will be left to stand around or make your slow escape.

That’s not to say the film is terrible. It’s decent, but not unwatchable. Some of the fighting sequences are fantastic, and as I previously mentioned, Raizo’s training and back story is strong – hearkening back to some of the ninja films of the late 1970s and 1980s as well as a few nods to the classic training montages from kung fu films. Beyond the usual friendship/love/betrayal/revenge aspect of that story, the scenes work really well because there’s very little talking in them, and when someone does talk it’s usually Sho Kusugi who knows how to deliver those genius lines of faux-wisdom that read like a fortune cookie written by a Guilo.

The look of the film is also stunning from time to time. In particular, a scene in a bamboo forest in the rain looks absolutely beautiful both in depicting the natural setting and in shooting the close up shots of the actors. Some shots of the city are also nice, but for the bulk of the beauty comes in the shots of the compound where Raizo trains and grows up. A lot of the modern day stuff is pretty standard, and some of the fight sequences (like one where ninjas are playing in traffic) are barely visible.

So there’s a balance here. Two segments of one movie, one being strong, the other being weak. It works in a Yin Yang sort of way, but not in a filmmaking sort of way. I rolled my eyes about as many times as I clapped my hands, squinted into the darkness as many times as I opened them wide, and scratched my head almost as much as I smiled at some great ninja action. But that’s the problem. Ninja Assassin is ultimately frustrating because it hints at moments of greatness and squanders any good will it earns. When it’s stripped down and simple, it works, and we get some blood in our eyes, but too much of it is over-produced, under-written, and depends far too much on bad CGI and quick edit camera work.

The Upside: A few great action scenes, a cool training story, and Sho Kusugi.

The Downside: Action scenes that are too dark, inconsistencies in the story and the action, bland writing and terrible acting.

On the Side: Sho Kusugi has been in a ton of martial arts films, and if you haven’t seen them you should probably check out Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja.

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