Ninja Assassin features gigabytes of blood being shed on screen.
Is this the way it’s going to be from now on? We’re done with on-set
blood, replacing it with rendered geysers of pixels? There are a lot of
problems with Ninja Assassin - hell, the movie is a
problem – but the thing that kept getting to me was the spurts of
bright red digital blood that made all of the ninjas appear to be from
I really enjoyed James McTeigue’s V For Vendetta, so I’m baffled as to how he possibly fucked up a movie as obvious as Ninja Assassin.
Well, I’m baffled as to the process, not as to the mistakes. The
mistakes are right there on screen. They start with the decision to
shoot every action scene in maddening close-up in the dark; at first I
was giving him the benefit of the doubt – the concept must be that the
ninja are so fast, so invisible, that he wanted to give just the impression
of action at first. But then the movie keeps up the impenetrable
darkness. At one point I wondered whether there even was a lighting
department on the damn crew.
The next big mistake was making the story about an international
paramilitary police force hunting down ninjas. Every time the story
switched to the offices of Europol, where a spunky young researcher
(played by the excruciating Naomi Harris) becomes convinced that ninja
clans still perform assassinations in the modern day, I began to feel
woozy. ‘Why do I care about this?’ I wondered, and the answer is that I
simply don’t. And what’s worse is that this storyline leads to a
confrontation between ninjas and a heavily armored brigade with
bazookas and air support – when I’m watching a ninja movie I want to
see ninjas fucking shit up, not getting hit with bazooka shells. I
mean, there’s a place in the cinematic universe for a movie where a
soldier atop a humvee uses a mounted machine gun to mow down ninjas;
I’m just not sure it’s in a movie where my allegiance is to the ninjas.
Surprisingly, the least annoying thing in Ninja Assassin is
pop star Rain, playing a ninja who has betrayed his clan for reasons
too insipid to list here. He’s actually effective and good in the role,
even if the movie feels the need to drop a joke that he looks like he
belongs in a boy band.
There’s good stuff in Ninja Assassin, but all of it comes
before the credits sequence. The opening prologue is a kick ass
slaughter of yakuza – lots of body parts digitally removed from the
trunks of Japanese gangsters – and it’s moderately well lit and shot.
After that everything goes to hell; there’s a good action scene here
and there that manages to break free from the murk, but even those
scenes tend to be undercut by the sheer amounts of digital chicanry
going on. Here’s the problem with a martial arts movie like this: 70%
of the enjoyment of these films is seeing wildly talented people
performing acrobatic, exciting and seemingly dangerous and painful
stunts and fights. When everything in the movie is half cartoon, you
lose that completely. Watching Rain jump over obviously CGI weapons is
just not exciting. When you can follow an action scene it has
no weight, no heft, no meaning. All of a sudden a CGI chain reaches out
and draws a fountain of CGI blood from the head of a guy who just
turned from a CGI shadow into a real live extra in pajamas.
I really wanted to like Ninja Assassin. It’s been too
long since we’ve had a good ninja movie, and the idea of this film
sparking a resurgence of the subgenre filled me with excitement. There
are a lot of talented martial artists plying their trade on movie
screens across the globe, and Ninja Assassin‘s
multi-ethnic view of ninjas seemed to open the door for all sorts of
people to don the black pajamas. But the film, which is inert and
mostly boring and without any sort of compelling throughline at all
(seriously, you can walk in and out of this movie and miss just about
nothing. It makes the Europol scenes all the more frustrating that the
spine of the story is absolute nonsense), has probably killed the ninja
film for yet another decade.