This week the cinema is full of treats for the ladies, with not one, but two releases featuring pretty young men kindly displaying their rippling torsos for generous stretches of time. Like the other flick that shall not be named, the action-packed, video-game-esque Ninja Assassin has a moody, floppy-haired dreamboat with a lust for blood and is one of those mystical beings we never thought existed: ninjas.
(Actually, I always assumed that ninjas were real, but most of the non-ninja-affiliated characters in this film didn’t, and I’m still not certain which of us is wrong. Maybe it’s Santa Claus all over again.)
Also like this week’s other torso-fest, Ninja Assassin is otherwise mediocre, with a flimsy plot, stilted dialogue and clich*d characterization, but it is somewhat salvaged by the watchability of leading man Rain, a few easy laughs and eye-catching fight sequences – which is probably what you care most about when it comes to this genre of film.
Ninja Assassin follows Raizo (Rain), the titular ninja assassin and one of the most deadly in the world. Originally a street orphan, he was transformed into the perfect killer by the Ozunu Clan, a secret 1,000-year-old society. For reasons that become clear as the film unfolds, he has left the clan and is seeking vengeance on his ninja “family”.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, Europol agent/forensic researcher Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) has discovered a money trail linking a series of political murders to an underground network of untraceable Asian assassins. Raizo’s and Mika’s fates converge and the improbable duo find themselves working together to bring down the murderous clan.
Rain is a superstar in Korea and famous throughout Asia, but he remains relatively unknown in Hollywood, despite (or due to) his supporting role in the Wachowski brothers’ misunderstood live-action anime Speed Racer.
Although Ninja Assassin likely won’t significantly raise Rain’s international profile, he makes the most of lackluster raw material, exuding subtle charisma and a willingness to make fun of himself (smirking when someone says he looks like he should be in a boy band).
He carries off the action sequences with panache and you feel for him during the film’s few emotional scenes, as heavy-handed as they are. His innocent passion for female ninja-in-training Kiriko is palpable, although you may wince as they talk about listening to each other’s hearts.
Harris (Pirates of the Caribbean, 28 Days Later) holds her own opposite Rain, as a down-to-earth geek-hottie, although the two fail to ignite much chemistry. The forensic researcher seems to take more of a big sister role toward the ninja, rather than romantic interest.
The main antagonists, clan leader Ozunu (Sho Kosugi) and right-hand man Takeshi (Bond villain Rick Yune), are two-dimensional in their menace. Rain’s fellow Speed Racer alumni Ben Miles, as Mika’s Europol superior Maslow, comes off as a poor man’s Clive Owen, stereotypically trading on his British accent to seem devious.
In addition, although the film has a Korean protagonist, it has a curiously outdated approach to nationality, lumping all Asians together a la Memoirs of a Geisha.
It is never made clear where the Ozunu Clan is situated (sure it’s secret but a ballpark would have been helpful) – Japan seems the most likely, although jarringly implausible that they would all speak English all the time. (Raizo and Kiriko’s chats would be a lot less cheesy if they were subtitled.)
Middle Eastern spice is added to the mix, in a flashback depicting the clan’s origins. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t want to offend any particular country – or subject the audience to subtitles – but it’s even more odd and unrealistic that they didn’t explain themselves better.
However, as you’d expect from the people behind The Matrix, the film boasts slick visuals and elegantly choreographed fight sequences, although nothing stands out as groundbreaking.
In a scene set in a public toilet, Raizo, clad in a white uniform, plays slice and dice with a hefty Eastern European man, painting the monochromatic walls a fetching shade of fire-engine red. The most compelling and disturbing scenes are those set in the brutal training school, as children are encouraged to attack each other and are subjected to all kinds of pain to make them stronger. There are also neat effects such as the ninjas merging in and out of shadows, and mentally healing their own mortal wounds.
So if you’re after undemanding, fast-paced action and/or have an appreciation for the male form, Ninja Assassin wouldn’t be a bad way to spend 99 minutes. It’s aesthetically pleasing and mildly thrilling, but predictable and unmemorable. Hopefully the lovely Rain’s next Hollywood outing will give him more to work with – Ninja Assassin 2 looks rather unlikely, but you never know with the Wachowskis …
Two out of five stars.
Ninja Assassin (Warner Bros, 99 minutes)
Directed by James McTeigue
Produced by Joel Silver, Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski & Grant Hill
Written by Matthew Sand & J. Michael Straczynski (screenplay), Matthew Sand (story)
Starring Rain, Naomie Harris & Sho Kosugi