by HELEN GEIB
What is it: Ninja Assassin is a ninja movie.
Who should see it: People who like ninja movies.
Who should not see it: 1) People who don’t like ninja movies and 2) people who have a reflexive hostility to Hollywood making films in traditionally Asian film genres and/or in the prevailing visual style of contemporary Hollywood action movies.
Who is the ninja assassin: The ninja assassin is a young man who was given the name Raizo when he was kidnapped as a boy by one of the nine ancient ninja clans of Japan. Raizo’s nationality is unknown; he is one of many children taken from streets and homes around the world to be trained in the way of the ninja and indoctrinated into absolute loyalty to his “family.” Raizo is played by Rain, a Korean actor and pop star. He is good-looking and has a charismatic screen presence, and speaks English with an attractive light accent. The makers of Ninja Assassin followed the established Hong Kong film industry practice of casting a dance-trained actor instead of a martial artist turned actor in the hero’s part. Rain brings a dancer’s athleticism, grace, and poise to the physically demanding martial arts fight choreography.
What’s the story: Ninja Assassin has a serviceable protect the innocent, avenge the fallen story. Raizo’s childhood as a brainwashed ninja-in-training and the tragic death of his best friend, who yearned to live free of the clan, is recounted in a series of flashbacks woven through the first part of the story. Additional ninja lore and the film’s “the ninja is out there” conspiracy theory is introduced by audience proxy Mika (Naomie Harris), a beautiful Europol researcher whose investigations into the ninja-for-hire business land her on the clan’s hit list. While the script is a minor case of too many re-writes spoil the continuity, the main plot holds together well enough and successfully serves its primary purpose of moving the characters from one big action scene to the next.
Is there action: Is there ever! The film opens with a prologue, unrelated to the story, of a ninja-conducted killing of a petty crime boss and his crew. Containing the most graphic killing in the film (the top of a laughing man’s head is sliced off by a projectile weapon), numerous severed limbs, and gallons of artfully splattered blood, the prologue is manifesto and warning: ninja are mysterious, deadly, and arcane and if you didn’t know what you were getting into when you bought your ticket, leave now.
The fights get longer and more elaborate as the film proceeds, but not appreciably bloodier. Most of the action is ninja on ninja as Raizo takes on ever-increasing numbers of the clan’s foot soldiers and ultimately its leader in the climactic one on one, master vs. star pupil fight. Weapons include throwing stars, swords, knives, a knife attached to the end of a long chain, and guns (the ninja don’t use guns, but they do get shot at a lot, to very little effect). Fights are staged in a small apartment, on a rooftop in the rain, in a brightly lit laundromat, in a dark, cavernous warehouse, in the traditional Japanese-style house of the ninja training center, and on a busy roundabout at night as ninjas dodge speeding cars along with throwing stars and slashing swords.
Is there more than action: Ninja movies are about the action, but Ninja Assassin does also offer a little drama, a little romance, and a little humor. In a fine piece of special effects work, ninjas literally materialize out of shadows. The shot of Raizo and Mika’s getaway car parked outside a motel, the car’s windshield and hood studded with throwing stars, is poster-worthy.