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rochefort [Celluloid 11.24.09] movie review action thriller drama crime

Year: 2009
Directors: James McTeigue
Writers: J. Michael Straczynski / Matthew Sand
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: rochefort
Rating: 5 out of 10

[Editor's note: Marina's Ninja Assassin review from VIFF isn't much brighter]

Directed by James McTeigue, "Ninja Assassin" stars pop idol Rain as Raizo, a modern-day ninja. Kidnapped while still a child and trained in the ninja arts by Ozunu (Sho Kosugi), lord of the Ozunu Clan, Raizo, now grown up, rogue, and out for revenge against his old master, shows up in Western Europe soon after Mika (Naomie Harris), a Europol bookkeeper, starts uncovering the connections between supposedly mythological ninja clans and political assassinations throughout the ages. Against the wishes of her skeptical superior Maslow (Ben Miles), Mika follows the clue trail far enough to become a target. Soon after the clan sends a group of ninjas, led by Raizo's old rival Takeshi (Rick Yune), to kill her, and Raizo becomes her only chance for survival.

Ninjas, man. There was a time when I was such a freak for all things ninja that I even regularly watched that awful NBC show "The Master" just in the hopes that one might show up in tonight's episode and grace the proceedings with about 9/10's of a second of badassness. Ninjas tend to improve anything in which they appear. There, I said it. The ninja training scenes are arguably the best part about the excellent "Batman Begins". The ninja assault in "The Last Samurai" is good enough to almost make me want to watch the entire movie again, as long as I can mentally superimpose Clive Owen's face over that of Tom Cruise (for the record, I said almost). Ninjas (and hopefully it's obvious that I'm referring to the real thing, not the parodies or kid-friendly takes) are the Darth Vader of martial arts movies; no matter how many times somebody goes back to the well, often eroding away at what made them cool in the first place, there are those of us who are genetically obligated to see the latest take and give it a shot. Several animated movies like "Ninja Scroll" are overall pretty strong, but the best live-action films in which they appear are more often than not samurai movies, with them thrown in as ancillary threats. So despite the massive amount of ninja-themed movies that have been produced since as early as the 1930's (and I know full well that a number of cinephiles might take me to task for this next statement), to date there's never been a standout ninja movie so good that every other attempt is judged in its shadow. Enter the Wachowski Brothers and McTeigue, who have taken all that clout they earned with "The Matrix", "V for Vendetta", and, um, "Speed Racer", and set out to make the final word on stealthy, black-clad, shuriken-wielding deadliness. Problem Number One: "Speed Racer" is a rare example of how the insert-a-ninja formula doesn't always work...

The story follows a pretty traditional trajectory: Raizo is our conflicted hero, the perfect assassin, one trained to kill without emotion. He has a change of heart, defies his master, and seeks revenge, all while trying to protect a clueless Westerner from the sheer might of ninja fury, yada, yada, yada. The Wachowskis weren't too happy with early drafts of the script and subsequently called in J. Michael Straczynski ("Babylon 5") to redo everything; he reportedly wrote his draft in just under three days, and boy does it show. If this is their idea of a passable re-write, I don't want to think about how soul-crushingly awful the earlier versions must have been. I know this is the broken-record part of this review (and most of my reviews, for that matter), but "Ninja Assassin"'s biggest problem is its script, which is written in that same machine-like, super-earnest style that characterized the worse aspects of the collective creators' previous work. Remember how whole chunks of the "Matrix" films and even the less ridiculous scenes in "Speed Racer" played like slowed-down bits from "Dragnet", the characters dour, the high stakes of each exchange less conveyed than steamrollered into your ear canals? Well, there's a lot more of that on display in "Assassin". It's not that any part of the story veers off the rails with an absurd level of amateurishness, but rather that pretty much every scene that doesn't involve fighting is absolutely lifeless, and the stakes just don't resonate. Nothing is even remotely interesting about the characters or their conflicts, and the plot treads ground that is so familiar even to the casual fan or uninitiated that the whole thing smacks of obviousness: the bargain-basement, early-teen anime plot is nothing more than a rice paper-thin excuse to get to the fights. Which would, I guess, be appropriate if this was a lighthearted, neutered, ninja-with-a-heart-of-gold family movie, but "Assassin" features action scenes that are among the bloodiest and goriest I have ever seen in a big-budget studio picture, so the kids will have to sit this one out, and us adults need the other important stuff (you know, all that pesky dialogue and character development) to be at least marginally engaging. But not a single surprising thing happens. Not one.

And just to clarify: I am an unabashed martial arts fan, well aware that certain tropes and storylines in Eastern cinema have been recycled hundreds of times. The argument isn't whether or not the "Lone Wolf and Cub" or Fong Sai Yuk myths can be revisited over and over. They clearly can, and with often spectacular results, but the one-note revenge plot of "Assassin" is a clumsy step backwards. It's not a condescending take on the material, which I suppose is some relief, but is instead numbingly flat, and the script handicaps its cast at every turn. Rain gives his physical all as Raizo, and shines pretty brightly in the action sequences, but his acting everywhere else consists mainly of tightening his jaw and looking very tortured. Naomie Harris is a bitter pill for me to swallow, as well, not because I don't like her, but rather because nobody since Danny Boyle has caught that lightning-in-a-bottle mix of hotness and hardness she did so well in the first half of "28 Days Later", and she fares no better here. Harris is one of the few young Western actors whom I can actually believe could herself become an assassin (and I mean male or female; most of our modern crop seem like they'd go into seizures if they got their nails dirty), so sticking her in the role of a pencil-pushing amateur gumshoe seems a real waste, especially when the filmmakers have given us the likes of "The Matrix"'s ass-kicking Trinity and "V for Vendetta"'s complex Evey.

The contemporary and predominantly Western setting is another major disappointment. The culture clash inherent in depicting ninjas doing their thing against a modern European backdrop probably seemed like a good one on paper, but for those of us who still want to see the ultimate ninja movie set in feudal Japan, this ain't it. Teasing us with a hint of what could have been, the most interesting non-action scenes involve Raizo's maturation under Ozuno's tutelage, and take place in a hidden location seemingly unaffected by the passage of time, but we've still seen better in countless other martial arts films (the majority of them period pieces). And the training sequences are told as flashbacks which are, typically, sandwiched between the rest of the much less interesting European stuff, which dilutes their effectiveness even more, yet another long-standing rule of plot structure that H'wood filmmakers stubbornly and confusingly refuse to break. I found myself remembering "Highlander" (not a great film, but a fun one), recalling that that movie, too, kept switching back and forth from excellent period scenes to a modern investigation subplot that could have easily been excised, and the overall story would have been much richer as a result. And are we still making movies with the attitude that Western audiences won't show up for a martial arts film unless a handful of boring, non-Asian characters get equal screen time? Dude, that's just racist. Not to mention stupid. When your movie is called "Ninja Assassin", we're expecting to get an overdose of all things Japanese. Freakin' commit.

So. The action. There's way too much CGI blood, too much CGI-enhanced ninja stealth and shadowplay, and Raizo's weapon of choice, a shoge (knife on a chain), is, yup, rarely an actual physical prop. But all in all I had a really good time with most of the action scenes, especially the opener, in which heads are lopped off, bodies sliced in half, various limbs shattered, pierced, sliced and diced with cartoonish excess. We get to see ninjas being ninjas, treated with the kind of hyperbolic bombast that befits their mythological reputation, which is rare enough in modern Western cinema. These guys aren't afraid of anything. At all. Crack combat troops with machine guns are just more targets for their razor-sharp throwing stars, and unless you spill bright light into every corner of every room, you will not see these guys coming until they're slashing your throat. Which is as it should be. Once the resignation to the CGI had set in, I found the action surprisingly satisfying, even while a couple of scenes brought to mind the computer-enhanced blitzkrieg of "300". The shooting style is a mixed bag, occasionally over-edited, but more often refreshingly wide in scope, and did I mention the buckets of blood? Man, does it ever flow freely. On this front, "Assassin" delivers just what it promises. Too bad it's not enough.

Us action/martial arts fans have to make a stand. We've grown up with a long history of cheesy and hackneyed genre entries, but the key phrase here is "grown up". Maybe there was a shadowy cabal who would meet in some dark bunker in Santa Monica and decided long ago that when it comes to action films, it's a waste of time to treat your audience with much respect. We're stupid, right? Otherwise we wouldn't be so interested in watching people beat each other up onscreen, right? News flash, guys: very few of us are koozy-obsessed, tractor pull fans. Things are different now. We all know what heights can be reached by filmmakers who understand the inherent power of a well-written action movie, "Assassin"'s makers included. "The Matrix" and "V for Vendetta" both, in their own respective ways, substantially raised the bar for action films, and it's clear in this case that they've forgotten some of the new rules they themselves helped to write. Fact: once civilization has destroyed itself and the remnants of humanity are reduced to a small handful of ragtag groups who split their time between fighting motorcycle-riding punks and killing zombies, the only flourishing life-forms on planet earth will be cockroaches and ninjas. That's some serious awesomeness, and it deserves more respect than this.

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Anonymous (12 years ago) Reply

Eloquent review however...
Have you ever stopped to think that martial arts movies (in all their cheese glory) appealed to us while in a certain age group? Then we grow up and expect intense intellectual stimulation and poetic inspiration from films meant for dreamy, wide eyed we use to be.

Are you trying to fit into your old prom tux 30 years after the fact and writing that it just doesn't deliver anymore?

Please be fair to this genre and admit, like most of us should...that we are now out of the intended demographic. The 20-something droves that grew up on Grand Theft and similar mind blowingly pointless violence will still dream about being bad ass scary as hell ninjas after watching this glorification gore.

This is a martial arts action film not a political symposium or literary presentation.
So we agree that it delivers cool, brand new martial arts action. It is not meant to deliver anything else...

We fuddy duddies need to find our shuffle boards and walk away shaking our heads, mumbling..."kids today" Instead of publicly damning talented film innovators like the W brothers...always pushing the envelope on CGI possibilities.


soundnfury (12 years ago) Reply

Interesting opinion, however...
Have you ever considered that generic expectations and quality of film-making are two separate issues? Just because a work belongs in the "martial arts" category does not necessarily mean that it has to be dumb. Just like serious psychological dramas do not always turn out so intelligent.

To be fair, certain genres have seemingly always had the misfortune of being considered "low-brow" by definition. Still, popular perception of the genre does not need to reflect on individual works. There are many smart, though-provoking movies using true-and-tried generic conventions to explore complex social, political, or psychological issues. So please do not use genre as an excuse for poor quality. A shallow movie will be shallow no matter what.

As for "pushing the envelope on CGI possibilities"... It's all fine and dandy, but what does that serve, exactly? CGI for the sake of CGI? Pointless spectacle? Why should we applaud this? Why should we support it?

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