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'Ninja Assassin' kills as an action movie but not much else

Korean star Rain metes out bloody revenge in a script low on story but big on all-out violence.

November 25, 2009|By Michael Phillips
  • Assassin Raizo (Rain), left, does battle with Ozunu (Sho Kosugi), a member of the deadly ninja clan that Raizo has escaped from after its murder of his sweetheart.
Assassin Raizo (Rain), left, does battle with Ozunu (Sho Kosugi), a member… (Juliana Malucelli / Warner…)

In "Ninja Assassin," which is numbingly gory when it isn't just plain numbing, the assassin Raizo, played by Korean pop star and budding actor Rain, rains down on his interchangeable adversaries like his own name. The script is pretty damp too. A deadly (duh) sect of super-secret ninjas (duh) known as the Ozunu Clan stakes a claim to the ownership of Raizo, trained from abusive childhood onward to become the most lethal of all the clan members. But he doesn't like the way they killed his sweetheart, so he bolts, goes undercover and eventually joins the Europol agent (Naomie Harris from "Pirates of the Caribbean" parts 2 and 3) who's stationed in Berlin and hot on the trail of several unsolved murders that seem like total ninja assassin handiwork.

No one expects much from a film like this, except R-rated bloodletting with some excitement to it. But director James McTeigue, who plodded his way through "V for Vendetta," has yet to show much facility for shaping action on-screen. McTeigue served as assistant director on all three "Matrix" films, as well as "Speed Racer," and here (according to the production notes) the creative team was jazzed about the prospect of something different, without a surfeit of wire work or digital fussing. The fight sequences rely on performers versed in the acrobatic specialties of parkour and old-school Jackie Chan stunt wizardry.

And all that's a secret to the audience. The opening ninja attack is so insanely gory, with so many vivisections and severed limbs a-ploppin', you barely notice the people doing the stunts. Most of the violence in the rest of "Ninja Assassin" remains in the dark, so that what we see in bright light in the Big Opening is "implied" elsewhere. But McTeigue can barely shoot straight and the editing is so hack-y, you have to take the stunts and fight choreography on faith.

How's Rain? He's fine. He suffers prettily. Harris is the best reason to keep watching, and although it's a tiny step forward to have the female lead in a film like this not treated like a piece of meat, the slaughter parade isn't much fun. According to the MPAA, the movie's R rating is for "strong, bloody stylized violence throughout." Oh, it's stylized! I see. That's OK, then. The target audience members for "Ninja Assassin" have already spent weeks vivisecting bad guys on one gaming system or another, most of them without turning into sadistic killers in real life. So that's a comfort, even if "Ninja Assassin" isn't a good movie.

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