Watching Ninja Assassin was like getting a date with the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, only to realize minutes into dinner that she’s actually dumb, boring, and incapable of holding up her end of the conversation. I sat there in the darkened theater less than halfway into Ninja Assassin’s running time, wondering how a movie with that title (and that trailer!) could be so dull and uninteresting. Ninja Assassin is an old-school martial arts movie in the sense that any time there isn’t a fight happening – which is all too often in this film – it’s about as much fun to watch as drying paint.
Ninja Assassin’s plot (and for a martial arts flick, far too much time is devoted to it) follows Raizo, a rogue member of an ancient ninja clan (inhumanly pretty Korean pop star Rain, shredded to almost Bruce Lee proportions) whose one-man campaign against his former family lands him in the path of a researcher at a fictionalized version of Interpol (Naomie Harris), and, naturally, they team up to fight the ninja clan.
The stuff that works in Ninja Assassin is, as you'd expect (or in my case, hope), the ninja stuff. Director James McTeigue is a competent action director, and the action scenes are generally fun and fast-paced. They’re also quite dark, literally, which might make them a little hard to follow. I didn’t really mind though, as it’s thematically appropriate (ninjas don’t exactly favor broad daylight to operate), and I found I could follow the fights if I paid attention. Ninja Assassin is, however, hampered by the fact that the most fun action bit is actually right at the beginning. It’s a gleefully violent scene – not really a fight as much as a wholesale slaughter of some yakuza thugs – that unfortunately sets the bar at a point nothing else in the movie can quite reach. It also establishes the film’s style: fast action, severed limbs and torrents of CGI blood.
The stuff that doesn’t work is basically all the non-action bits, which, unfortunately, make up a lot of the movie. After that awesome opener, Ninja Assassin’s first half consists almost entirely of dull, drawn-out flashbacks (seriously, I’d guess about 30-35% of this movie is flashbacks) to Raizo’s training with his ninja clan (with a regrettable emphasis on a leaden romantic subplot with a female student), him training in his Berlin apartment in the present day, and Harris investigating the ninjas with her boss. It sucks.
The thing I just couldn’t understand is why the filmmakers – especially bona fide geeks like the Wachowski Brothers, who produced the film with V for Vendetta director McTeigue – decided to spend so much time on the Naomie Harris/Europol subplot. The whole movie slows to a crawl whenever it becomes the focus, and that happens a lot. Whoever had the notion that the audience for a movie called Ninja Assassin wanted to spend this much time watching a third-rate Bourne rip-off should rethink their career in popular cinema. Why do movies like this always have to have tacked-on global-police subplots? It’s like the makers of Ninja Assassin watched the cruddy 2007 video game adaptation Hitman and decided to emulate all the things that similar missed opportunity did wrong. Harris’ researcher has about as much (if not more) screen time that the ninja assassin of the title, which would be fine, I guess, if the movie was called Forensic Researcher, but it’s not. It’s called Ninja Assassin. So yeah. Problems.
In terms of craft, Ninja Assassin really did feel like a step backwards from V for Vendetta. McTeigue’s 2005 adaptation of the rightfully-acclaimed Alan Moore/David Lloyd graphic novel was quite good, easily the best film of an Alan Moore comic until Watchmen. It had excellent performances, looked great, and managed to tell a fairly complex story in a way that was easy to follow. The buzz around V was that the Wachowskis were far more hands-on producers than is the norm, and essentially directed chunks of that movie themselves. No idea how true that is, or if the same is being said about Ninja Assassin, but there’s a sloppiness to the storytelling (which, to be fair, is probably tied to the weak screenplay by Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski, but the Wachowskis got their start as writers, so that’s not much of an excuse either) that I didn’t see in McTeigue’s previous film. The sharpness of V for Vendetta was one of the reasons I’d had high hopes for Ninja Assassin, but the movie was a significant letdown. All Ninja Assassin had to do was showcase fun action and not drag on too much during the scenes where there’s no fighting, but they filmmakers only get half of that equation right, and even then the action isn’t sufficiently mind-blowing to excuse the limpness of the rest of the movie. For a martial-arts movie geek like me, it’s one of the more disappointing movies of the year.