Friday, 4 June 2010

Ninja Assassin (2009)

Don't worry. You won't be needing that for this film.

After watching Isaac Florentine's direct-to-DVD movie Ninja, I decided to check out it's big(ger)-budget Hollywood equivalent, James McTeigue's indirect-to-DVD movie Ninja Assassin. It's interesting how differently the two films approach the same subject matter. In Ninja, the titular assassins are highly-skilled martial artists, but still essentially human. In Ninja Assassin they are treated like mythological creatures. They can literally melt into the shadows, teleport, throw hails of shuriken etc. Instead of hanging garlic to ward them off, you have to flood everything with bright light. Instead of silver bullets, you have to use... well, regular bullets I guess. But they're pretty hard to hit. It's basically a vampire film except with ninjas.

In keeping with the monster movie feel, they give them a suitably creepy/mysterious introduction. The film opens with a bunch of cocky Yakuza hoods getting tattoos. When one of them receives an envelope full of black sand, the old tattoo artist tells a story about how he witnessed a ninja assassination many years ago but nobody believed him. The punks just laugh at him, but suddenly the lights go out and they are attacked by mysterious unseen assassins. Are they ninjas? Could be. It's pretty gory; there are partial decapitations, limb amputations, etc. CG blood and body parts spray everywhere. I thought the ninjas would let the tattoo artist go, to spread the myth, but they murder him too. I guess an opportunity to tie up loose ends like that doesn't come around every day.

Naomi Harris plays a Europol agent named Mika. After the massacre she walks into her boss's office with a big stack of folders linking it to her pet theory; that there are secret clans of ninja performing assassinations around the world. In the real world this would make her dangerously deluded at best, but he just rolls his eyes at her. "Again with the ninjas?" I'll bet she's always trying to link random crimes to her pet theory. Drug deal gone bad? Ninjas. Tourist gets mugged? Ninjas. Company CEO embezzles the pension fund? It's gotta be ninjas. She's also an American, and although her presence in Europol goes unexplained, I assume it's because her American superiors got sick of her talking about ninjas all the time and transferred her to Germany.

Her boss gives her the go-ahead to investigate further, and she visits the widow of a Russian spy who was supposedly killed by ninjas. She gives Mika one of those metal boxes full of evidence that always crops up in movies like this. It contains some security footage of ninja assassins skulking around their house, which would have probably come in real handy during the murder investigation. Soon the ninjas figure out that she knows too much and send a group of assassins after her. Thankfully she is saved by Raizu (Rain), a rogue ninja who has turned against his clan. It's never exactly clear why he intervenes to save her life, but it leads to ninja fights etc. He is a mysterious man, a man of contradictions. For instance, he conceals their movements by using cigarette smoke to throw them off her scent, but at the same time he leaves their shuriken-riddled car parked out in full view in the hotel parking lot.

The main plot is interleaved with a series of flashbacks that explain Raizu's origins and why he has a grudge against his former Master (played by Sho Kusagi). Like the rest of his clan, he is an orphan raised to be a deadly assassin through extremely strict and counter-productive teaching methods. For example, when Raizu fucks up while sneaking across a creaky floor, Kosugi cuts up the bottom of his feet. That's exactly what you need when you're sneaking around barefoot, your soles covered in scar tissue. When Raizu winces after getting his head cut open in a training match, Kosugi uses a ninja pressure-point attack that leaves him writhing around on the floor in agony for several days. The present-day Raizu is covered in scars, so either particularly Kosugi's methods are particularly cruel or Raizu was just a colossal fuck-up.

Like in Ninja, the daughter of the Sensei had the hots for him. She's always disobeying clan rules and talking about her heart as a pretext to get him to touch her boobs. There's a lot of shit about hearts in this film. One plot point that crops up multiple times is dextrocardia, a medical condition where you are born with your heart on the opposite side of your body. Apparently ninjas will always try to stab you in the heart (except when they cut your head off), so dextrocardia is a get-out-of-assassination-free card since apparently being impaled through the chest is otherwise non-fatal. Anyway, Raizu's would-be girlfriend tried to escape, but she was captured and gleefully executed in front of him by his main rival Takeshi (Rick Yune). This was what inspired him to leave the clan and go on the lam. There, I saved you 45 minutes of flashbacks.

If you want to see ninjas stabbing dudes then you probably won't be disappointed. There's a lot of fighting. There's fighting in a warehouse, in a makeshift Europol headquarters, in a ninja dojo, and a pretty cool battle in the middle of a busy freeway at night, which is pretty much the worst place to be wearing a black ninja outfit. McTeigue is the Wachowski's second-unit, plus he did V for Vendetta, so the fights are shot pretty well. They are also extremely bloody; every time someone gets cut there is a geyser of CG blood, which is a pretty cool effect at first but grows tiresome. Action isn't always clearly communicated (it didn't help that they are all dressed in black and usually fighting in the dark, Ninja handled these scenes way better) but I never got too annoyed. It is acceptable. I accept it.

I don't know much about this Rain guy except that he's some Korean pop star with great abs and he was a hidden character in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. He does an okay job I guess. He's not a very charismatic hero. Even the marketing department doesn't give a shit about him; they cropped the top half of his face out of the poster. I guess he's trying to move away from his public image as a teen heart-throb, since I can't imagine a movie less suited towards 13 year old girls. Plus one of the Europol agents makes a crack about him looking like he belongs in a boy band, and he looks really angry, like he's going to kill him. Hang in there, buddy. Mark Wahlberg had to appear in a whole bunch of films before anyone could take him seriously.

As I suspected, Ninja was way better, but this film was not the complete garbage I was expecting. It still kind of annoys me that they are giving starring roles in martial arts action films to pop-stars while Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White toil in DTV obscurity. I am a little concerned as to where this trend might lead. Justin Timberlake starring in a bloody gladiator epic? Justin Bieber playing the lead in a Rambo-style jungle action film? Re-uniting the Backstreet Boys for a gritty Dirty Dozen reboot? Actually I'd probably watch that last one, if only to see which ones survive. My money's on Kevin.

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