[25 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
They are known as “gorehounds” - genre film fans who enjoy the life-fluid lasciviousness of movies drenched in blood and guts. For this discerning demographic, no narrative is complete without massive amounts of arterial spray, vivisection, and body cavity defilement. It’s the raison d’etra of special effects both practical and digital. So imagine their surprise to see more sustained splatter in a Tinseltown tempered martial arts movie than in every Friday the 13th film ever made…and then some. Indeed, Ninja Assassin is nothing more than 99 minutes of hacked limbs, sliced organs, and vein gravy so ripe and red that it seems to overwhelm everything else.
When he was a young boy, Raizo (South Korean pop star Rain) was taken in - or perhaps sold - to the deadly Ozunu Ninja Clan. For 100 pounds of gold, this ancient family offers its highly polished skills as hired killers. They’ve been doing so for centuries. After a brutal childhood, a tragedy forces Raizo against the clan and the man (Sho Kosugi) who trained and raised him. Now, Europol, led by forensics researcher Mika Corretti (Naomie Harris) are on the verge of uncovering this corrupt criminal organization. Of course, neither Ozunu nor Raizo can let this happen. Thus begins an elaborate cat and mouse which starts in the streets of Berlin and winds its way around the world to the mountain top training facility of the murderous mob itself. And along the way, many individuals both innocent and guilty will be systematically slaughtered…
It is simply astonishing how much blood there is in Ninja Assassin. Imagine the most basic effort from The Shaw Brothers, toss in a contemporary police angle, and then paint the whole damn thing with more offal than a slaughterhouse in overdrive and you’ve got some idea of James McTeigue’s approach here. Clearly, this movie was meant to jumpstart the stealthy Japanese icons lagging cinematic fortunes. It’s been decades since the ninja ruled the wire-fu roost. And there’s even a videogame like perspective applied to most of the action. Yet because of the director’s desire to spill galloons of grue after each and every sword/throwing star slice, what starts out serious ends up looking like a Ginzu version of 300. In fact, anyone who complained about Zack Snyder’s reliance on the red stuff in his story of brave Greek soldiers will be dumbfounded by how much F/X fluid is flung at the audience.
In fact, there’s so much, it clouds some otherwise effective elements. While he won’t be winning any awards for his depth, international sensation Rain is very good as Raizo. He brings the necessary steely resolve to the well-practiced ninja character, and thanks to some wonderful work by another one named wonder, Joon (as his younger incarnation), there’s enough backstory and dimension to counterbalance the lack of upfront emotion. Indeed, Rain appears to have been hired because of his well-toned physique and ability to mimic real martial artistry with flying kick abandon. Of course, McTeigue shoots his action in such a flamboyant, Hellsapoppin’ style that we’d never know if the performer has all the right moves or is just a pretty torso trapped in a greenscreen groove.
As the bastard who brings orphans to his mountain retreat, eager to put them through a deadly “survival of the fittest” forced education, Sho Kosugi is all gruff and gravel bluster. While he gets to show off his celebrated fithting skills at the end (he’s made a career out of reinventing ninjutsu), the rest of the time he’s like Lawrence Tierney channeling the Master character from Kung Fu. He makes a hissable villain, but we don’t get much more than that. Sadly, it’s he same with Raizo’s Western allies. Naomie Harris is the standard sidekick in distress, a clueless catalyst for more and more of Rain’s ramped-up derring-do. Similarly, Coupling‘s Ben Miles is tossed in as a ridiculous red herring - the kind of crossed wires bureaucrat who may be working against our hero…or who might be secretly trying to support him.
All of which leads us back to the blood. It’s stunning that the MPAA awarded this movie a mere “R” rating. They will take Kevin Smith silly scatology all the way to an NC-17, or treat any issue of sex or the physical expression of love and turn it into proto-porn, but hack a person in half and watch the entrails spill out and you earn an easy teen (and financially) friendly label. Granted, had McTeigue simply toned down the spray, giving us hints instead of histrionics, the fighting would be PG-13 territory all the way. But Ninja Assassin is clearly going for a more “sophisticated” level of viewer, one who doesn’t balk when endless extras are minced and mangled like so many PS3 pawns. Toss in a torrent or two of body broth and you’re ready to rock.
Of course, few will find anything outside the violence remotely interesting. At its core, Ninja Assassin is a revenge flick, albeit one stunted by an off balance tendency toward telegraphing its motives. When we meet the rebellious young girl who catches Raizo’s eye, we just know she’s doomed. Better still, when our hero faces off against Ozunu underling Takeshi, we just know their vendetta will rage on well into Act Three. As it mindlessly moves from plotpoint A to B, Ninja Assassin is entertaining. It doesn’t demand much of the audience except for a suspension of disbelief and a cast-iron constitution. There will be some saddened by the notion that these once great mythic warriors who saved small villages and avenged the disenfranchised have been transformed into faceless facets in a motion picture geek show. While there is more to Ninja Assassin than endless gory excess, what’s remains is like an arterial spray afterthought.