Ninja Action Hits the Big Screen

By Andrew Sheridan

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For over a millennium, the nine clans of the ninja have existed in secrecy. Living in the shadows, these powerful families have disciplined their stealthy warriors in the deadly arts and preyed on the weak as the world’s most elite assassins. They live without pain or fear, move without making a sound and kill without leaving a trace.

In the Wachowski brothers’ new film “Ninja Assassin,” the secret world of the silent killers is brought to the light of day, and what ensues is stylized cinematic brilliance.

The plot of “Ninja Assassin” is simple: An innocent Europol agent named Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) digs a bit too deep into a series of political killings, and finds herself the target of the deadly Onuzu clan. While the clan may be after her, rogue ninja Raizo is after them, and the unlikely pair team up to pursue their mutual goals.

The old formula of the “killer with a conscience” has been worn out over the years, but the execution is fresh and effective. The first hour of the film is interspersed with flashbacks, telling the story of how Raizo parted ways with the society of assassins and began his vendetta, and this method works naturally into the story at large.

While it is well executed, the plot is predictable and not very impressive. That’s not exactly the point, though, now is it? Unlike previous collaborations between director James McTeigue and the Wachowskis, which include “V for Vendetta” and the “Matrix” trilogy, “Ninja Assassin” doesn’t supply any literary themes or social commentary. While just as stylish as its peers, this latest film relies less on plot and more on bloody violence.

The second half of the movie more or less eschews character development, diving head-first into the ninja-on-ninja action. Korean pop star Rain is cool as ice in the lead role of Raizo, displaying impressive martial prowess in his Hollywood debut. Despite the obvious use of special effects and CGI, his athletic ability cannot be ignored, and this is not likely to be the last time we see the performer on the big screen.

Combat sequences range from over-the-top Kill Bill-style bloodbaths to intense encounters between top killers. While the best of the stylized action is a cross between “Enter the Dragon” and “300,” it verges on gimmicky when mysterious ninja abilities are demonstrated without explanation. It seems at times that the film doesn’t know whether it wants to be a realistic kung-fu matchup or a Naruto-esque magical ninja romp.

One rule that is certainly followed throughout the film is the Inverse Ninja Law, wherein the more ninjas the protagonist faces at any given time, the easier each individual ninja is to kill. As the movie progresses, the body count ratchets up significantly, with wave after wave of opponents falling under the stylized wrath of Raizo’s chain-blade.

Inconsistencies aside, the action in “Ninja Assassin” is heart-pounding. It starts off with gallons of blood and ends much the same way, with the intervening plot serving only as motive for the ever-escalating violence.

First and foremost, this film must be recognized for what it is: a flashy kung-fu flick. Those who are looking for the next sweeping drama this Oscar season would be well advised to go for something starring Viggo Mortensen or De Niro. But judged on its own merits of style and action, this tale of violence and espionage is one of the best of the year.

Andrew Sheridan can be reached at [email protected]