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Where EAST meets the Northwest

GORE GALORE. Korean pop megastar Rain (jumping) plays Raizo in the action film Ninja Assassin, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Photo/Juliana Malucelli, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #47 (December 1, 2009), page 13.

Flying blades and feet in a high-end ninja bloodfest

Ninja Assassin

Directed by James McTeigue

Produced by Joel Silver,

Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, and Grant Hill

Now playing at area theaters

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Martial arts movies are most often associated with foreign directors, Asian production companies, and low production values ó or all three. Itís not often that Hollywood sinks $50 million and a top-flight director into a project based on high-flying kicks and flashing katanas. But thatís just what they did with Ninja Assassin, a stunning, blood-soaked new release about the mystical ninja of Japanese history from some of the same people behind The Matrix trilogy and V for Vendetta.

Though a shade over 90 minutes, Ninja Assassin manages to pack in the action with a minimal ó yet still plausible ó plot centering around the mysterious ninja Raizo, played by Korean pop megastar Rain. An orphan raised to become the most promising ninja pupil of Ozunu, the head of the Ozunu clan (played by ninja film legend Sho Kosugi), Raizo finds it difficult to embrace the ruthlessness his clan teaches.

Raizo becomes an unlikely ally of Europol forensic scientist Mika (Naomie Harris), who is trying to unravel the conspiracy covering the Ozunu clan. The clan is protected by the same governments that hire them for political assassinations, and Mikaís superiors at the European Unionís version of the CIA obstruct her efforts to root out the mysterious organization. Her relationship with Raizo provides the soft counterpart to the slashing ninja action.

Donít worry; thereís very little softness amid the slicing katanas and throwing stars, of which there are plenty, along with an unending flow of ninjas. Director James McTeigue, first assistant director on The Matrix series, creates intricate action sequences similar to that famous action trilogy, with computer-generated imagery (CGI) also creating Pollock-like gouts of blood. This movie is not for the faint of heart or the mildly squeamish, but action-flick lovers will get their fill of amputations and fantastic fighting.

Unlike other movies in its genre, Ninja Assassin holds up remarkably well even in the brief, peaceful moments. The plot has enough starch to not induce too much head scratching, and the major players can generally act without appearing too wooden. No Academy Awards will be handed out, but there are no real disappointments.

Rain, as the rebellious ninja Raizo, is a genuine surprise, at least from a ninja perspective. In true action-hero tradition, heís expected to do very little actual acting, other than the emotionlessness that passes for Hollywood machismo. But heís physically impressive and makes a believable ninja, even if stunt doubles and computer graphics no doubt gave him a helpful assist.

The downside of a western-made martial arts movie like this is the authenticity. Classic Japanese samurai movies can be a window into Far Eastern culture, but Ninja Assassin doesnít do much more than recycle familiar clichťs. Like traditional ninja, the filmís black-clad warriors slink in the shadows, wield katanas and shuriken, and Raizoís knife-on-a-chain is similar to the kyoketsu shoge historically wielded by ninja.

Thatís about as far as the similarities extend, however. When the ninja slink in the shadows, itís unrealistic CGI at work, often accompanied by a creepy whispering thatís evidently meant to suggest theyíre communicating at a subsonic level. None of them wield the wider array of ninja equipment, such as blowguns, spears, or staffs, and thereís no indication that the Ozunu ninja engage in other, less violent, ninja activities such as simple reconnaissance or espionage.

This isnít a history movie, of course, and thereís only so much a director can cram into one film. But itís still a disappointment, since The Matrix and V for Vendetta (also produced by Grant Hill and directed by McTeigue) developed cult followings due to the philosophical depth and controversial ideas simmering below the surface. Donít go to Ninja Assassin looking for an insightful view into Japanese history or to learn something new about ninjutsu.

Maybe after theyíve made a few more of these high-end Hollywood ninja movies, the novelty of glitzy martial arts movies will wear off and audiences will demand one with stronger cultural underpinnings or philosophical subtext. Until then, enjoy Ninja Assassin for what it is: a gleefully violent riot of flying blades and wild, bloody, computer-enhanced fight scenes that will whet your appetite for more ó if it doesnít put you off your holiday turkey. Especially the cranberry sauce.

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