In the 70’s and 80’s, martial arts films went through their heyday, the glory of Bruce Lee trailing off into doldrums epitomized by the age of Michael Dudikoff. Many of these films contained stories of internship and revenge, one often leading to the other. While the acting and production values varied greatly, the action sequences often made many of the experiences worthwhile. Martial arts became the hook for grander, more powerfully-acted arthouse dramas in the 90’s and 00’s, a subgenre almost completely owned by Zhang Yimou. But the straight-up genre version of the martial arts film has pretty much gone the way of subpar straight-to-DVD entries not worth mentioning. Director James McTeigue (V FOR VENDETTA) decided that the old, forgotten genre film needed a new coat of paint, and has created a thrilling update in NINJA ASSASSIN.
Perhaps the best thing about the film is that it was clearly made with the intention of showing the audience a rousing good time. The film moves so quickly that its flaws (and there are several) do not hamper the fun; there is no socially relevant message deep within the story, while depth of character and plotting are cut short with every action set-piece. It’s a film made to showcase fast, violent action, first and foremost, and in this it succeeds quite handily.
Raizo (Korean pop star Rain) was trained from early childhood under the brutal and exacting tutelage of the Master of the Ozunu Clan, an organization that has created ninja assassins for centuries in complete secrecy. Raizo rebelled against the clan near the end of his training, and has since made it his duty to wipe out the Ozunu ninja, including his former Master (played by veteran martial arts icon Sho Kosugi). Meanwhile, plucky Europol agent Mika (Naomie Harris) makes a connection between a string of political assassinations and a mythical band of killers dating as far back as feudal Japan. In widening her investigation, Mika makes herself (and most of Europol) a target for the silent, shadowy agents. It’s only a matter of time before wide-eyed Mika ends up with a very determined and able protector.
NINJA ASSASSIN’s strengths are polar opposites: action sequences are tightly paced and thrilling, while flashbacks to Raizo’s training are more methodical and dramatic. But make no mistake, both are brutal and violent; why use a light sprinkling of gore when severed body parts and great gouts of blood are available? And if your tolerance for violence falters when it comes to children, let’s just say you’ll have some uncomfortable moments during those training scenes.
Though one might question the wisdom of shooting many scenes of shadow-traversing ninja in utter darkness, creating an occasionally muddled image on screen, McTeigue has made a very polished and effective film. After V FOR VENDETTA’s similarly good-looking take on more daunting socio-political themes and NINJA ASSASSIN’s lightning-fast thrills, McTeigue should be in a good position to handle any job Hollywood sees fit to offer (it’s been announced that he will co-direct the 2011 production of X-MEN ORIGINS: MAGNETO).
And let’s face it, not every film can be TOKYO SONATA. There is a time for lofty drama, and a time for the well-crafted rollercoaster ride. NINJA ASSASSIN is a solid effort that balances all those important films with something fun. (Review by Steve Norwood - content provider for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas - AFFD; re-posted with permission of the AFFD)