A film review by Craig J. Koban December 10, 2009


2009, R, 93 mins.

Rain: Raizo / Naomie Harris: Mika Coretti / Ben Miles: Ryan Maslow / Rick Yune: Takeshi / Sho Kosugi: Ozunu

Directed by James McTeigue / Written by Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski

NINJA ASSASSIN is one of the most ridiculously and hilariously violent action films I have ever seen.  I would aptly describe it as an unapologetic splattergorium.  It’s not that the blood just spills in this cheeky and hyperactive homage to gleefully cornball and carnage-filled 1980’s auctioneers; the bloodletting here so fastly and furiously flies across the screen, into the frame, and onto other people that the silver screen looks more like a canvas right out of Jackson Pollock's portfolio.  The blood spurts, it bubbles, it seeps, it curdles, it’s viscous, it’s gooey, and it’s most uproariously everywhere during the course of this 93-minute exercise in wanton mayhem and stomach-churning ferocity.   

I thought that the hero-inflicted human suffering in last year's RAMBO reached a whole other level of overcooked hysterics, but NINJA ASSASSIN rewrites the playbook.  Stallone’s anti-hero decimated people with machine guns, whereas here the ninja antagonist literally slices and dices his victims into Swiss cheese: katana blades cut various parts of the human anatomy to shreds, throwing stars puncture innumerable holes in torsos; hell, even a ninja’s hands are used to pass through enemies.  

There are so many inordinate examples here of eviscerations that I lost count, so much so that – while feeling increasingly numb and faint in the stomach from witnessing this film’s barbarism – I found myself having a sick level of odd appreciation of it.  Very few films so utterly unleash violence with as much velocity and intensity as NINJA ASSASSIN, yet the film – from its opening action sequence – never apologizes for it.  It delivers exactly on what it promises: A ninja assassin uses non-stop sword fighting, martial arts skills, supernatural powers, stealth abilities, and a subhuman ability to take and withstand mortal punishment to enact his lifelong revenge against those that have scorned him.  NINJA ASSASSIN is pure violence porn/comfort food.   

Perhaps what’s most remarkable is that the extraordinarily dexterous and immortally skilled hero is played by, yes, a Korean pop star and one of Peoples Magazine’s “Most Beautiful People in the World” from 2007 – and Stephen Colbert’s fake nemesis – Rain.  Make that, Raaaaaaiiiiiiinnnnnn!!!   He last appeared in SPEED RACER and he apparently so impressed the Wachowski Brothers that they decided to take a gamble with the young import and gave him the starring role here.  He lacks a considerable amount in emotional charisma (in his quieter dialogue exchanges he’s about as dull as a rusty razor), yet this role does not require a master thespian, but a physical specimen, and Rain clearly fits the bill.  His look and physique is interesting: think of the shredded visage of a mid-1980’s Sly Stallone mixed with the improbable proportions of a Ken doll and you get the idea.  I think that Rain knows his limitations as an actor (more often than not, he plays his lines like an adolescent Christian Bale with a sore throat), but I also think that he does the right thing by not overplaying his role.  Instead, he is monotone, casual, and slickly cool tempered, and when he unleashes hell, he’s a Bruce Lee-esque firecracker. 

Thankfully, NINJA ASSASSIN does not waste our time on a meaningful and resonating storyline: C’mon, plot and character development takes a decided back seat in these types of films.  What narrative we do have revolves around Raizo (Rain) whom – through various flashbacks in the film – is shown to have been orphaned as a child, but later becomes “owned,” raised, and trained but a ruthless and deeply mysterious ninja clan known as The Ozuna, which the world believes to be a myth (what ninja clan in the world is not mocked a myth?).  His childhood under the brutal, dictatorial tutelage of his master is one of daily torture, but this toughens him up to the point where he becomes one of the most accomplished – and entertainingly impervious – ninjas in the world.  However, his rise up the ranks to become a soulless killing machine takes a detour when he hooks up and inevitably falls in love with a fellow student (Anna Sawai), who teaches him, among things, that even merciless killing machines have a heart of gold.  


Just as the girl is causing some strange stirrings inside Raizo’s karate gi, she makes an attempt to flee the slavery of the clan, only to become captured and murdered.  Seeing that he cannot live with the thought of his sweetheart being murdered in cold blood, Raizo secretly begins to harbor massive hatred for his clan, but he subverts it until just the right moment.  He agrees to participate in one final initiation mission where he succeeds (although he makes the categorical error of wearing all-white to a sloppy bloodbath), and when he comes back to his clan he abruptly turns on them, nearly dying during the onslaught.  He then goes into hiding and befriends a beautiful Interpol agent named Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris), who has begun an investigation that sees money ties to political murders that she thinks are linked to ninjas.  Of course, her superior (played in a wonderfully wooden performance by Ben Miles) thinks that ninjas are a bunch of hooey, despite all beyond-obvious evidence to the contrary (this dude is one of the stiffest and most blindly naďve Interpol agents in a long time).  Needless to say, when it becomes clear that the Clan is behind all of these political assassinations, Raizo teams up with Interpol to take down Ozuna once and for all – and in the most nauseatingly disgusting and brutal manner humanly possible. 

NINJA ASSASSIN was unpardonably rated R for, let me get this straight, “Strong stylize violence throughout.”  Um.  Yeah.  Ya think?  The MPAA is guilty of being manipulated by ninjas here for not giving this film a much more appropriate NC-17; I’ve never seen a film this fiendishly gory get buy with an R.  Perhaps something has to do with the style of the action sequences.  The film mixes good old-fashioned Jackie Chan-esque stunts, martial arts gravity defying mayhem, and a goofy and ostentatious amount of CGI augmentation (all of the blood here is clearly the work of computer trickery).  Many of the fight scenes are kept in low light (and sometimes frustratingly so), perhaps to keep the level of the carnage down, yet it’s still clear how admittedly vicious the scenes still are.  

For the most part, the killings in NINJA ASSASSIN are more cartoonishly sadistic, frequently defying many scientific laws.  I found myself bowling over with laughter at many of the unbelievable sights: for example, a head is cut off, right above the upper jaw, with a precision slash of a sword in the film’s highly over-the-top opening, and throwing stars are thrown with the pace of machine gun fire, ripping though countless enemies with nefarious gusto.  Even more guffaw inducing is just how much punishment Raizo is capable of taking: this is the most beat-up and bloodied hero in action film history.  He’s been punched, kicked, stabbed (with knives, swords, and human fingers), set on fire, shot, been hit by cars, and been thrown off a twenty storey building…and he still keeps on going.  Even if the film’s comic book stylized gore numbs you to death, there’s no mistaking how absurdly and humorously ambitious this film is with suspending our disbelief.  The sheer chaotic inanity of the whole enterprise becomes slyly infectious. 

Some will, no doubt, question my three star rating for NINJA ASSASSIN, yet I give it that grade relative to what the film is trying to accomplish.  Also, I freely acknowledge that the film is junk, but it's well made junk with bankable talent behind the scenes: The Wachowski Brothers produced, James McTeigue (who made one of the most underrated comic book films in V FOR VENDETTA) directed, and the film was given a – no b.s. – 53-hour script re-write from CHANGELING scribe J. Michael Straczynski (arguably not his finest work) and the 53 hours definitely shows in the dialogue and human interaction department (the interplay and exchanges between characters frequently reach groan-inducing and eye rolling extremes, but not without embracing sheer camp value).  In the end, NINJA ASSASSIN definitely appeases on it aspirations – and then some – to be a preposterously and laughably exciting and intense ode to showing off a ninja at his most stunningly lethal and rowdily impenetrable.   

However, that is not to say that the film does not have a sobering and contemplative message:  

If you have a special heart in just the right place, you too can become the greatest of all of the ninjas that can achieve ultimate vengeance by killing hundreds of enemies with relative ease while being been killed ten times over without actually dying.  You see….a splattergorium with a heartfelt lesson.

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