The room is dark, and a squad of young arrogant gangsters, under attack from an unseen force, is visibly worried. One turns to an old man, presumably wise, for an explanation. “You can’t bargain with it. It’s not a human being,” he warns the gang leader. “It’s a demon sent straight from hell.” As if to underline, the “it” proceeds to slice off the leader’s hands, then lop his head off. Blood spurts. The old man’s eyes go wide.
So begins Ninja Assassin. When the titular figure does, in short order, become visible, he’s done up in the typical ninja style—black outfit and mask, knives shiny and sharp. The old man, having endured no small abuse from the now-dead gangsters, appreciates what he’s seen. “For 57 years I’ve told your story,” he says. “No one would believe me, but you are real, aren’t you?”
Err… not exactly. The story of the assassin Raizo is implausible in any number of ways, not least being the fact that the Korean pop star Rain, who plays him, isn’t a martial arts expert, a customary prerequisite to star in a martial arts film. The film’s general murkiness covers up some of this deficiency, while close framing and quick editing obscure it in other ways. Given the movie’s truck-sized plot holes, however, this detail may be just that, a detail long since made irrelevant with the use of wirework and body doubles and other cinematic tricks, whether in spectacles like the Kill Bills or in those projects featuring legitimate martial artists.
All this means that it doesn’t matter what’s real or not real in Ninja Assassin, whether kicks or leaps, emotional arcs or moral dilemmas (and including that ridiculous body makeup at film’s end, indicating that Raizo’s torso has been carved to bloody shreds). Still, the film goes through considerable motions, some entertaining, most ridiculous. During his mostly rainy, melodramatic childhood (revealed in multiple flashbacks), Raizo is scooped up by the Ozunu clan, and trained by the brutal Lord Ozunu (Sho Kosugi) to repress his “feelings” (“The body must obey the will,” Ozunu intones, “Life is combat”). As he focuses on completing missions, Raizo becomes the perfect machine, gifted and self-punishing and only briefly distracted by beautiful and rebellious fellow student Kiriko (Anna Sawai).
All this backstory leads roundabout to Raizo’s current situation, that is, escaped from the clan and targeted by Lord Ozunu and his very pissed-off number two, Takeshi (Rick Yune). This makes him lethal and vulnerable, the scars on his pretty-hard-skinny body soliciting your sympathy even as his self-training sessions indicate his resolve. That he finds another girl in need of protection—beautiful and rebellious Europol agent Mika (Naomie Harris)—helps to secure his appeal. A forensic researcher who stumbles on the ninjas’ existence by accident, she’s the point of departure for a preposterous plot, in which Europol seeks not only the assassins, but also their gangster/business/political targets, which makes for a lot of villains, a pathetically inept police force (a reference to Guantánamo underlines their corruption as well), and lots of confusion—intermittently alleviated by slamming—if not precisely convincing or compelling—action scenes.
It’s a sign of the film’s illogic that the bad ninjas tend to be caught on surveillance film (so the Europol folks can identify them) and also “sneak” on to scenes by whispering collectively that they’re coming to kill Raizo, a decidedly un-ninja-like tactic. The fights themselves tend to be dark, prolonged, and noisy, alluding repeatedly to clan’s internal dysfunctions, both father-son (Ozunu tortures Raizo) and fraternal (Takeshi tortures Raizo).
Even when he’s on his own, training with stars and rods in his spartan apartment, Raizo is tormented by memories of past abuses. These make him a bland less-than-scintillating conversationalist and goad him, despite his newfound reluctance to kill on command, to fight back when Ozunu’s assassin army comes after him. They also come after Mika, whose function ranges from kidnap victim to spunky sidekick to savvy tech. She spends a few minutes studying bank transactions “in the regions of high profile assassinations” (think about that for a minute—why any of these transactions would occur in any proximity to a crime). And lo, she figures out that the once mythic ninja assassins have been reduced to mere mercenaries.
This discovery brings to Raizo’s plot a brief glimmer of context. Underscore “brief.” Once Miko makes the point to her boss, Marlow (Ben Miles), it’s forgotten, or more accurately, repressed. Ninja Assassin never much cares about how or why bodies are flayed, pounded, and tossed, only that they are, incessantly. The repetition constitutes its own sort of politics and art—both dauntingly trite.