By: William Goss, reprinted from Fantastic Fest '09
One can't ask too much of a film called Ninja Assassin -- that's a given -- but James McTeigue's proper directorial follow-up to V for Vendetta does its damnedest to take that insta-pulp title and weave around it a worn-out tale of forbidden love, family betrayal, and government conspiracy. Complete with some hard-to-see fight scenes and some harder-to-hear dialogue, all delivered with a poker-straight face and capped off with some super-splattery kills, it's like a graphic novel adaptation with comic book punctuation, a film so flagrant in its fakery that it almost forgets to have any fun.
Raizo (Korean pop star Rain, of Speed Racer and "Colbert Report" fame) was once an orphan, raised by a secretive clan to, um, assassinate as, well, a ninja would. One forbidden fling and one shamed father later, and our pariah protagonist is off to Berlin in order to save Europol* agent Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) from the grisly fate that her criminal investigations have inevitably drawn.
To its credit, Assassin doesn't skimp on its action sequences, but what's there is a flurry of fury at best, cluttered with the exaggerated motions of swinging swords and throwing star after throwing star, and then cut up to undermine the genuine physical efforts of its lead and countless stuntmen at every turn. Two night fights early on are near indecipherable in execution, while a mid-point slo-mo slice-and-dice shot seems lifted wholesale from Warner Brothers' own 300. Worse yet, each kill is then accompanied by a garish burst of computer-generated bloodshed, a novelty that wears out its welcome from the prologue on and renders each subsequent death scene as unremarkable and unexciting as the last.
And each video game has its share of cut-scenes, we're treated to the cheesiest dialogue uttered by a uniformly wooden ensemble in between melees. As the eponymous soldier of stealth, Rain only fares best because he has less to say than this review does and is often shirtless demonstrates a viable physicality that goes otherwise obscured during the chopped-up, blur-happy battles. Harris plays panicked on cue, and McTeigue vet Ben Miles (Racer, Vendetta) plays her boss/boyfriend with a perfectly adequate sense of skepticism. None, though, can manage to make the plodding plotting seem particularly urgent or critical in the greater scheme of things, and none can justify the handy mysticism that creeps in enough to make literal shadows out of assailants and heal any wound at any time.
All of the back story in the world can't make us care about what made a ninja assassin just that, though, similar to how all of the whooshing sounds can't help us grasp just who is sparring with who when the chit-chat does subside, and all of those flying fluids can't disguise the fact that Ninja Assassin is a thoroughly bloodless experience.
*That's right, it's not even Interpol. Hell, the film should just take place in Schmerlin.