When I watch a movie like James McTeigue’s Ninja Assassin I think about what could have been. Its not that the film is terribly bad, it is just not terribly good. But oh how I wish it was. Nothing would make me happier than to see a resurgence of the ninja movie genre driven by a big budget studio film with all the money, time and craft that could be brought to it.
Instead, we’re given a movie which intercuts the Ninja story with Europol agents and their search for the ninjas. Every time the action cuts away from the story of the ninjas and went to the agents, I was bored. On top of that, the main female researcher is played by Naomi Harris, one of the most annoying and weak actresses in recent memory.
One surprise for me in this film is how much I actually liked Rain in the title role. Sure, his acting for a non-native English speaker isn’t particularly good, but he has a certain screen presence that works here. Seeing him in this film its easy to understand why he has such a huge following in Asia.
Do I wish he was an actual martial artist and could more realistically accomplish the fights himself without the aid of stunt doubles or CGI, of course. Also, the fact that he’s actually Korean and not Japanese and is playing the lead in a very deeply felt Japanese genre film may cause some, as director McTeigue put it after the screening I saw, “push back.” Maybe so, but that’s not really the problem here.
I also try not to get too disappointed with the poorly lit and directed fight scenes and the copious amounts of CGI blood. However, there’s a lot of it, so it isn’t easy. One of the best things about movies like this is watching the fight scenes and seeing masters of their martial arts craft kick serious butt. For some reason, and perhaps its because the film’s star Rain is a singer and dancer and not a martial artist, we get lots of cuts, supremely dark scenes and action full of CGI weapons, all of which really take away from the action of the film. It looks fake because it is.
When you can tell explicitly that most of the weapons are fake, especially the hero’s chain weapon, it severely limits your enjoyment of a film like this. Perhaps McTeigue and his team should have spent a little less time at the CGI studio and a little more time watching actual Ninja and Martial Arts movies to find out how these things are supposed to be done. I can give him a list if he’s interested.
There are some good things in Ninja Assassin, however, so all is not lost. The pre-credit sequence where a Ninja takes out a whole gang of Yakuza is pretty awesome. If only the whole movie could have been that good. Also, some of the fight scenes, particularly the ones where you can actually see something, such as when Raizo (Rain) makes his first real kill, are decent. The backstory of the young Ninjas going through training under the tutelage of the always cool Sho Kusugi as Master of the Clan is also one of the high points. Bu sadly, these moments are few and far between and not enough to elevate the entire film.
Instead, we are treated to scene after scene of exposition, mostly delivered by Harris, or some sort of badly lit fight sequence where its difficult, if not impossible, to follow the action. And with this kind of movie, the action is really kinda important. I’m not sure about the rest of the audience, but when I go into a movie called Ninja Assassin I expect to see ninjas kicking butt. See being the operative word here. I realize they usually work in shadows, and that’s fine, but still, it would be nice to be able to experience the action the way it should be experienced.
I’m pretty sure the decision was a conscious one on the part of the director and cinematographer to help build the atmosphere and to, perhaps, help make the ninjas that much more mysterious. With that understanding, I still say it was a bad choice. Some other bad choices include the parallel stories which focus far too much on the police characters and not enough on the ninjas and the ending.
Without trying to give too much away, I will say I’m not particularly interested in seeing the interpol army bust into the ninja compound and try to destroy all the ninjas. Again, that’s not the point of a movie like this, but I guess that was probably lost on the filmmakers. Also, I have quite a few questions about how the ninjas seemingly defy the laws of physics, throw hundreds of shuriken at a time and move so fast, but that’s probably just being too critical and asking for logic where there can’t possibly be any.
This movie feels less like a project with a singular vision guiding it and more like it was directed by committee. There are simply too many things going on and too many conflicting narratives. The movie goes so many directions trying to be all things to all people, that it fails to satisfy on almost every level. When the story centers on the ninjas or Rain and he’s doing what he does best, the film works. When it goes away from that, the film suffers.
I really wanted to like Ninja Assassin. In fact, I tried so hard to give it a chance that I saw it twice in two days. But even then, it just didn’t do it for me. Perhaps one day we’ll get a new, improved ninja movie that actually tells a compelling story about ninjas, how bad ass they are and is a fitting continuation of the genre. Sadly, while Ninja Assassin has somewhat lofty ambitions and some redeeming qualities, it just isn’t that movie.