Movie News & Reviews

'Ninja Assassin': Bloody swords but no edge

In Japan, where the blades are shiny and sharp, and if the fake blood isn't staining the lens you're not trying hard enough, there's a rich tradition of sword-and-spatter pictures. That's the tradition that Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill leaned on, and it's the foundation of Ninja Assassin, a more run-of-the-mill Hollywood ninja movie with Matrix ties.

For a thousand years, The Nine Clans have taken in orphans from around the world and have forged — OK, beaten — them into cold-blooded killing machines, lightning-quick shadow warriors who move too fast to see and have supernatural abilities to recover from all the cuts that their samurai swords, throwing stars (shuriken) and neato dagger-chains (kusarigama) inflict. Meet their price — it hasn't changed in a millennium, "100 pounds of gold" — and they'll kill anybody you ask them to.

Ozuno (Sho Kosugi) trains his clan to kill without mercy — orphans beating and killing other orphans — and ignore their blood and their own agony because "pain breeds weakness. Suffering exists because weakness exists!"

Raizo (Korean actor Rain of Speed Racer) remembers this brutal training in flashbacks. He wears the scars of those years on that mountaintop clan hideout. But he got out. Now hiding in Berlin, he tries to help those whom the clan has marked for death.

Naomie Harris (Pirates of the Caribbean) is a Euro-police researcher who has learned too much about these secret societies. As she digs deeper, shadows shift and move into place to slice and dice her. Will Raizo awaken from his flashbacks in time to save her?

The action is dark and savage in this film produced by Andy and Larry Wachowski and directed by their Matrix protégé James McTeigue (V for Vendetta was his, too). The brawls, beginning with an opening Yakuza (Japanese mob) slaughter in which we can't even see the killers, are graphic in the extreme — the most realistic decapitations and dismemberments ever filmed, if that matters to you. The design of the picture is stylized — crimson washing machines in a laundromat where one front-loader is a swirling foam of body parts, ornate Japanese paper walls streaked with arterial spray.

There aren't many surprises here — from the training flashbacks (blindfolded sword fighters) to the murder of Raizu's one true love to the climax — a real battle royale. Ninja Assassin has some cool touches — the death warning to the doomed is a wax-sealed envelope with black (volcanic?) sand in it.

However, because "cool" was the only goal, I have to say Ninja Assassin just isn't cool enough. Rain makes a charismatic coiled spring of a hero. But there's more to making sword-and- spatter work than shiny blades and blood. It has to have an edge, and the one on Ninja Assassin is dull as a butter knife.