This is foremost an old-school martial arts revenge flick, made distinguishable by elaborate effects and polished spectacle. It also has enough blood and gore to put most horror films to shame. Before even the film’s title appears, heads and limbs have popped off or been sliced in two, and the blood sprays like geysers. Fans of Kill Bill’s carnage are gonna go nuts.
It’s been produced by the Wachowski brothers, whom I’m guessing are responsible for the film’s stylized effects, which drive the action sequences to nearly insane heights. There’s fights involving swarms of ninja, crazy stunts, and one particularly good hand-to-hand fight while standing in a busy street. CG effects are often laced in, such as when the hero battles a crowd and the camera speed ramps and bobs in and out similar to the look of 300. A spray of throwing stars are dodged almost like Neo dodging bullets.
What took me by surprise though, was the brutality of the action. Guys are gutted, hit by cars, and stabbed in ways that made the audience repeatedly gasp, and, just as often, applaud. When the hero needs to kill a giant dude in a bathroom, what should be a quick assassination is drawn out into an increasingly vicious fight. By the end, the white tile walls have been sprayed entirely red.
The story is very straightforward and fairly familiar, traveling from the hero’s early days of boyhood training, to the final showdown with the master. But in this similar structure, the training scenes are the most interesting. The school for assassins-in-the-making is more like a punishing prison, forcing kids to fight one another and not be gentle about it. Like the rest of the film, the brutality in these scenes is surprising.
Rain, as an actor, is a huge improvement over his minor role in Speed Racer, although his dialogue is kept short. I just respect the guy for letting himself drop the boy band image to get cut up and ugly with a growing collection of wounds and gore throughout the movie. In an over-the-top gore film, he just rolls with it.
So that’s it. Ninja Assassin is an audience pleaser for sure. Like an amped up, CG-fueled Kill Bill. It may not signal a comeback for the ninja genre, if there was such a thing, but I have to admire a balls-out martial arts flick for the modern age.
And for those that like bullet points:
- Heavy and surprising doses of crowd-pleasing ultra-violence.
- Fairly non-stop action scenes, from modern locations like freeways to an old-school dojo.
- Ninjas, crouching in shadows. Gotta love ‘em.
The Not So-Good:
- The plot, rather than presenting an original spin on ninjas or martial arts stories, relies on cliches and archetypes. Betraying the clan, avenging a girl, fighting the master.
- The relationship that grows between the hero and the female cop he’s mixed up with, grows from an incomprehensible notion that he can hear her heartbeat, and that it’s “special”. This is also how we know the warrior hero is, in fact, gentle and sensitive.
- There’s the embarrassing use of Asian mysticism in some scenes, such as the act of meditation being able to heal wounds.