Ninja Assassin crept inconspicuously onto DVD shelves today. No, it’s not all that good, but how much good do you expect? If you keep your expectations at a rational level, you’ll have a good time. It should be noted that there’s not exactly a precedent for overly impressive quantities of cinematic quality in the ninja genre. Ninja movies are probably my favorite genre of movie where you couldn’t name a single legitimately “good” one and you don’t need to care about the distinction anyway. There are good movies and there are fun movies, and sometimes the two overlap and sometimes they don’t. In the past twenty years, movies like The English Patient, Titanic, Shakespeare In Love, American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, and Chicago have been deemed worthy of the awarded title “Best Picture” – but add them all up and they still can’t match the number of times I’ve seen Shogun Assassin. (That’s Shogun Assassin, not Ninja Assassin – but it’s an understandable mistake. These movies do tend to overlap in the naming.)
Ninja Assassin is a movie without much common sense, and one that is boldly meaningless when it comes to matters of theme or emotion, but it kept me thoroughly entertained throughout its admirably efficient running time. There are ninja-on-ninja fights and ninja-on-cop fights, ninja stars and ninja swords, ninja jumping and ninja grunting, explosions and rain and rivers of blood and one very pretty girl (the lovely Naomie Harris.) You really only need the one pretty girl when she’s THAT pretty, and surrounded by ninjas. The French film director Jean-Luc Godard said, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” Well, all I personally need to like a movie is ninjas and Naomie Harris. By that barometer, Ninja Assassin succeeds by a wide margin.
The story is pretty standard and pretty forgettable by ninja standards. One ninja develops a conscience and tries to break from his ninja assassin clan, so the ninja assassin master sends all of his ninja brothers after him for some ninja reckoning. The ninja clan is technically evil so they’re into some real-world criminal activity, which is how Interpol gets into the story. Naomie Harris, who I’ve appreciated very much in movies like 28 Days Later and Miami Vice, is a low-level agent who picks up on the case and has trouble convincing her supervisors that the European ninja threat is real. To be fair, the ninjas in this movie can literally blend into the shadows and become invisible, so they’re even a little less believable than the average every-day ninja.
The movie’s main character is generally ridiculous. He’s played by a single-named Korean pop star named Rain, who can at least be complimented on his commitment to doing sit-ups, if not his acting. Brotherman definitely has some impressive abs – which the movie repeatedly hones in on – but I’m not impressed by abs. The movie heroes I respect are guys like Gene Hackman, guys with faces full of character and hard-lived life, who might be a little paunchy but who – even now – could use guys like Rain for toothpicks. This Rain kid looks more like a sad puppy – like that old cartoon character Droopy, if someone had taken away his ice cream. Let’s see where you are in a couple decades, Rain. If I’m wrong, feel free to track me down in the old folks’ home and make me eat my words. (Just be sure to remind me to also take my prunes with those words, please – I’m so forgetful sometimes…)
Anyway, whether this guy is a convincing bad-ass or not is actually irrelevant, because it’s all about the stunt teams enlisted to carry out the ninja action, and those guys are phenomenal. Ninja Assassin was a Joel Silver production, and he knows the right guys to hire. The fights in the movie are uncommonly quick-moving but still coherent and fun (and remarkably, almost supernaturally brutal.) The director was James McTeigue, the AD on the Matrix movies, and he brings all the best fight choreography from those movies to this one. J. Michael Straczynski did a quick rewrite on the final script – comic book fans might know him best as a guy who wrote Amazing Spider-Man for a while there, but I know him best as the guy who finally defeated the unparalleled spelling abilities of both myself and Microsoft Word.
But probably the most valuable contribution to Ninja Assassin comes from Sho Kosugi, the veteran star of many ninja movies from the 1980s, who has aged into a pretty mean-looking bastard. He plays the villainous ninja master, and he scowls and bellows just beautifully. Casting Sho Kosugi gives the movie a ninja street cred that it might not have otherwise had. Ninja fans know Sho Kosugi as a convincing heavy from classic non-classics such as Enter The Ninja, where Italian film star Franco Nero dons a white ninja suit and prowls through the jungle (surely one of the greatest camouflage failures ever enacted by a great white ninja.) Really, I wish I could take more time to dissect Enter The Ninja because it’s pretty spectacular and has one of the more unintentionally hilarious villains ever seen in a 1980s movie – which is saying plenty!
But today is Ninja Assassin’s day, and while its day may pass quickly, its makers can rest easy, knowing that they have made an entertaining addition to the canon of ninja movies, a canon that doesn’t require much more than the aforementioned amended-Godardian elements to be perfectly enjoyable. In other words: If you like ninja movies, probably you’ll like this ninja movie. I do, and I did. In other words, then: If you like ninja movies, there may be something wrong with you, but at least you’re in good company.
NOTE: I’m aware that I’ve been conspicuously (or inconspicuously) absent from the CHUD blogs lately, but that’s changing. I have a whole bunch of fun stuff planned for my Slow-Motion Quick-Draw blog, and if you miss me in the meantime, I’m always posting content over at www.mapcidy.com/jon-abrams.