As Ninja Assassin (directed by James McTeigue) begins, a swaggering yakuza boss receives a sealed letter containing nothing but black sand. An old tattoo artist recognizes this as the warning of approaching death by ninja; the yakuza and his cronies all laugh, of course, until they are graphically cut down by an assailant whose approach they can neither see nor hear. Thus we are introduced to the fantastic, violent world of the ninja. Back in his apartment, the mysterious Raizo (Korean pop star Rain) prepares for his next mission, broodingly recalling in flashback his childhood training with the Ozunu ninja clan. Sho Kosugi, star of the Cannon Ninja trilogy, has played good ninjas and bad ninjas in his long career, and here he plays one who is downright evil: as leader of the Ozunu, he oversees the kidnapping of orphans to fill the next generation of ninjas, and he controls their existence like a cult leader, bonding them into a family with himself as surrogate father. Weakness is not tolerated, and all of the Ozunu trainees bear the scars of punishment. As we learn more about Raizo and the forbidden love for a fellow student that drove him to break with the Ozunu clan, we realize that he is actually the hero of the story.
Parallel with these developments, Mika (Naomie Harris), a forensic researcher for Interpol–sorry, “Europol”–has put together clues suggesting that the yakuza boss was just the latest victim of a shadowy conspiracy, that the legendary ninja are still around and can still be hired for the price of one hundred pounds of gold (or its market equivalent), just as they were centuries ago. Since the victims of the ninja are not only crimelords but CEOs and government officials, she finds herself in deep waters when she convinces her boss (Ben Miles) to pay attention. A former KGB operative, whose work she is building on, found himself expelled from his agency and then eliminated by the ninjas when he got too close to the truth. This goes all the way to the top! Inevitably, Mika and Raizo cross paths when she herself is targeted by the ninjas because of her discovery.
Ninja Assassin has some big names behind it (it was produced by Joel Silver and the Wachowski siblings, and co-written by Babylon 5 creator and comic book writer J. Michael Straczynski), but I don’t remember hearing about it when it came out in 2009. Perhaps I was just busy, or not as focused on action movies, or maybe it got lost in the shuffle. In any case, there’s no mistaking it for a 1980s throwback like its contemporary Ninja: it’s every bit a product of the early twenty-first century. In addition to its kinetic, computer-aided “bullet time” approach to action (and as much spilled CGI blood as the entire Blade trilogy), the plot reveals the same affinity for government conspiracies and hidden history that have been with us since the 1990s, filtering the mystique of the ninja through the lens of John Grisham, Dan Brown, and the Mission: Impossible movies. I don’t think Mika’s side of the narrative is very compelling, but it is satisfying when she finally brings down the force of Europol on the Ozunu mountain stronghold for the final battle.
Ninja Assassin is quite gory, full of dismemberments and fountains of blood spewing from slashing wounds, comparable to the martial arts horror of Riki-Oh or other Hong Kong or “extreme Asia” imports. (A plot point concerns the ninja’s ability to heal himself through the power of the mind, so there are also close-ups of grisly wounds that would be fatal to mere mortals.) The visceral impact of all this bloodshed is tempered by being mostly CGI, however; the fight scenes, too, are marked by quick cutting and CGI compositing. As Raizo, Rain (who also appeared in the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer) looks the part, but based on this I really couldn’t tell you how much skill he actually has in hand-to-hand combat or with the whirling chain hook that is Raizo’s specialty. It’s easy to dismiss this as video game stuff, a frequently-heard criticism of action movies in the 2000s, but the comparison goes beyond the action itself to the hordes of faceless enemies Raizo mows down, the ease with which even armored soldiers are sliced in half, and the relative invulnerability of the important characters. During a scene when Ozunu digs his fingers into Raizo’s abdomen, I thought maybe he was going to rip his heart out like in Mortal Kombat. It doesn’t go quite that far–it’s a mystical manipulation of the enemy’s chi, causing intense pain, rather than something so graphic–but it’s still pretty gnarly.
On the other hand, while it sounds like I’m being critical, the heavy reliance on special effects brings to life the ninja’s ability to blend into shadows and move in seemingly impossible ways: an early fight scene in a dark room, illuminated only by Mika’s shaky flashlight beam, makes it appear as if the ninjas are appearing from nowhere, melting back into the shadows as the beam spotlights them. In other scenes, ninjas appear to crawl on walls like insects, their movements reduced to a blur seen out of the corner of the eye, and with the layering of whispered voices on the soundtrack, one gets the sense of how these stealthy assassins could terrorize their victims before striking. Finally, while it is true that all martial arts movies are choreographed and shot to make the action dramatic and theatrical to some degree, the subject of the ninja, with its superhuman, even supernatural, powers, lends itself to movie magic more than most. Once Raizo confronts Ozunu, we are treated to a more sophisticated version of the magical sleight-of-hand I observed in Ninja Destroyer: the two master ninjas disappear at will, reappearing behind their opponent, even casting false shadows as misdirection, before dueling to a very bloody death. Is this “the greatest ninja movie of all time,” as the DVD cover promises? Not really–one could argue it’s not even the greatest ninja movie of 2009–but it is certainly among the most gruesome.