I avoided Ninja Assassin when it came out because I took an irrational dislike to the artwork. It looked like some kind of Matrix bullshit and the fact that it was produced by the Wachowskis and directed by the guy who helmed their V For Vendetta adaptation convinced me it would be terrible. How dare they touch my beloved ninjas? Still, in the interests of fairness and for the fact that so few 21st century ninja films exist, I figured I should give it a watch on the blog…
Ninja Assassin stars K-Pop superstar Rain as Raizo, a ninja trained in the mountains by a clan called the Ozunu. They have been around for over a thousand years and have a tradition that they accept 100lbs of gold (or the contemporary equivalent in cash) for difficult high-profile assassinations. To train such top-tier killers, Lord Ozunu (the legendary Sho Kosugi) collects orphan children and puts them through years of rigorous, often highly sadistic, exercises so they know nothing other than how to murder. If they survive this training (and many don’t), they come of age as ninja warriors. Although his master requires Raizo to abandon all compassion, since it’s viewed as a weakness, he falls in love with a fellow trainee, Kiriko (Anna Sawai). She’s too sensitive for the Ozunu dojo and tries to run away but is brought back and put to death under clan law. When Raizo completes his training, he flees and swears vengeance on Lord Ozunu…
There’s enough of a bare bones ninja plot there to create a decent story but the screenplay feels a little rushed. Apparently the original script by Matthew Sand didn’t please the Wachowskis so they drafted in J. Michael Straczynski to rewrite it in 53 hours (!) and it kinda shows. There are a ton of loose ends and the emotional beats are never given quite enough time to hit as hard they need to. Straczynski’s TV and comic book experience is a double-edged sword; it helps give the film a lightning pace and a wide variety of settings and characters but it does leave things feeling unfinished, almost as if he’ll sort it out in a future issue/episode. Admittedly I’ve happily forgiven the likes of Godfrey Ho far, far greater plot holes than anything here but I do feel like he was doing his best with what he had, whereas here it feels like a missed opportunity where they could’ve done more. This has to be the first ninja movie ever made on a budget this high ($40,000,000) and it’s a shame that the story is the weakest link in what’s otherwise – to my shock – a fairly strong chain.
The action sequences here are fantastic. There’s some CGI post-production work that I could do without but the stunts are all real, the choreography is tight as Hell and the splatter – even though it’s often digitally enhanced – is off the scale. I’ve never seen a gorier ninja film. It plays more like The Story Of Ricky than any of the canonical 80s classics and the action is relentless (the director cites anime as a key influence and, while I can see this, it’s not too annoying or oppressive). There’s a fight scene that takes place on a rooftop – against a classic urban skyline – that blew my mind to pieces. It was just perfect. They’ve obviously done their research into what makes a ninja film work. Ninjas and skylines. Flawless combination every time.
Just the sight of Sho Kosugi onscreen for the first significant time in decades is a joy too. When I hit the inevitable final fight between him and Rain, I think I actually held my breath as they started circling one another. The anticipatory thrill of seeing Kosugi in action again was so great, it’s worth watching the movie just for that moment. It’s also a quality acting performance from him, playing against type as a deeply dark, evil sadist. He’s properly unsettling for most of the film, becoming creepier as his face and body get gradually more fucked up.
The imagination shown in the violence is what keeps Ninja Assassin riotous throughout. Endlessly disposable ninjas get sliced up every conceivable way (there’s a whopping body count of 137 according to moviebodycounts.proboards.com). Spurting limbs are flung at the camera. Throwing stars have never been thrown so brutally: you could make a business selling unlucky ninja pincushions, there are so many of them here. There’s one absolutely mind-melting death scene where Rain chops off all ten of a dude’s fingers, chains his hands together, stabs him through the hands and then uses the chain to pull the knife backwards so he slits his own throat. The whole movie is a delirious celebration of ultraviolence and dazzles despite its flaws.
The only other significant American-made ninja films of the decade are the two Scott Adkins ones (Ninja and Ninja : Shadow of a Tear) and despite the higher budget and heightened insanity here, both of those are superior to Ninja Assassin. The reasons for this are that they hit the exact balance needed between emotional realness and insane action. Bearing a much closer resemblance to the classic Cannon films, the Adkins Ninjas hold a sense of genuine heroic rage – there’s a cathartic element to how he does the Right Thing. Here, you never really care whether Rain gets revenge or not, let alone what happens to anyone else. Everyone’s kind of awful and it’s really just a high-octane horrorshow. Still, switch off your mind and there’s plenty of merit in this visual assault, as I say. I enjoyed myself a lot watching Ninja Assassin but it’s all guts, no heart. Five-star fight scenes in a two-star movie.