Last night seems like it would have been the perfect night to go see Ninja Assassin, not that one ever really needs a specific set of circumstances to enjoy an action movie with ninja fight scenes. No? That’s just me? Well, then.
Normally I try my best to review a movie without spoiling the story since, after all, usually you want the review before you’ve seen the film, but in this case, I admit to finding that a bit of a challenge, but I’ll do my best.
So, what’s it about? An Interpol research agent is interested in the legendary nine clans of ninja. Specifically, she suspects that they’ve been hired by governments to dispense with inconvenient political figures through time. Naturally, she is right, gets into trouble, and mayhem ensues.
On the other side of the scenes spliced in with the present time, we get to see the upbringing of one such ninja, from pouty-lipped childhood up through adolescence. The story is what you’d expect: the stern mentor, the crazy, impossible-seeming challenges, the out-of-place tender romance. Back in the present, the action (and there is a gratifyingly high amount of it) takes place in Berlin.
I’m surprised to say I like the characters. Yes, the main ninja character could have been better developed, especially given the amount of time given to his backstory but, as he is also a “human killing machine”, I’m okay with there being a little mystery to him. That said, good characters are not really high on my list of priorities in an action movie; they’re more of a “nice to have”.
Fight scenes, however? These are critical. Full points for awesome stuntwork, cool flashy weaponry, great choreography and Kill Bill-style excessive blood.
I’m not so much a fan, however, of the recent trend in movies to have strobe-lit fight sequences (or just to shoot them essentially in pitch dark), because quite frankly I’d rather see a crappy fight sequence in good lighting than a perfectly-blended shadowy mess of CGI and other effects. Directors: we’re there for the fight scenes. Stop hiding them. If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon could do it, so can you.
If we get over my rant about cinematography, we get to the one real flaw. (One that actually bothered The Boy so much he commented on it in the theatre.)
In your average movie, you are likely to have the good guy be able to easily take out the first few bad guys, then struggle a little, but still manage with the next couple, then almost get wiped out at the big boss, but succeed, barely, in the end. This is the well-known and loved formula for constructing battles in an action movie. Even Ong-Bak, which had the main character kicking ass without breaking a sweat for the first 40 minutes, still followed the formula, eventually.
This movie? Not so much with the balance. There is the eventual expected progression, but by the time the hero gets to the “big boss”, your suspension of disbelief has been completely shattered by the lack of realism in his previous fights. (That’s about as much as I can say without ruining it. For more detail, see below the *** .)
So, with all of that, would I recommend it? Maybe. It’s definitely rental calibre, cause you’ll never rewatch it, so my answer is that if you’ve got a big screen to watch it on, rent it. If you don’t, don’t bother. You won’t get anything out of the fights (except for the occasional glint of steel, screaming, and a spray of blood) on a smaller screen and… the movie’s really not worth watching without them.
That sounds like a pretty harsh recommendation for what was overall an enjoyable movie. I won’t say it was satisfying (see below) but it still hit the spot. I’m disappointed in this movie because it could easily have been much better. Still, I have a soft spot for martial arts movies, so old system: 5/9
For those who are not afraid of having the movie spoiled, highlight over the white text below if you’re looking for why I’m so disappointed that a movie which could easily have been “pretty good” was merely “mehn, ninja”.
Right, back to the part about balance.
A big part of what makes this movie frustrating is that the main character, who clearly is some sort of ninja prodigy, is apparently able to wipe out whole hordes of his ninja brethren without even a scratch. More frustrating still, when they do eventually manage to wound him, it’s not because he’s now fighting the better, smarter ninja brethren; it’s merely because he’s so vastly outnumbered. Seriously? That doesn’t work for me.
A ninja-on-ninja fight scene? Fantastic. In fact, there are more than a couple in the movie, and they are extremely satisfying (if a little noisy — aren’t they ninja??). In the scenes where the lone, bare-chested hero faces down 30 armed, shadowy foe, however, it’s hard not to lose respect for the movie.
Those scenes seem introduced solely to show off Rain’s limber dodge and fight maneuvers amidst silvery projectile flashes. (Don’t get me wrong; I think he was a great casting choice as the hero. I just think those fight scenes were totally ridiculous.)
So how could they have gotten the point across without losing the viewer? Easy. Have him fight every single one of those ninja in sequence (maybe two or three at a time) rather than all at once. How hard would it have been to force everyone to run down a tunnel, thus allowing him the chance to not face 50 of them all at once? Less impressive visually, perhaps, but it gives the viewer…
1 – A much more satisfying fight scene. Rather than one guy surrounded by a circle of weapons being thrown at him, you get to see actual fighting with only two or three players. If we’re lucky, maybe there’s even good lighting!
2 – A reason to believe the ninja really are as deadly as their legend implies. Watching one guy (prodigal ninja though he is) effortlessly wipe out what must be a hundred ninja who presumably went through the same training he did doesn’t do much to carry on the fantasy that they are elite and unbeatable. It just makes them common goons. In a movie that spends at least 35 minutes setting up how scary and unbeatable these ninja are, that’s an important fantasy to preserve.
Last thing that bothered me is actually not all that uncommon: it has to do with loose ends in the story. For example, all this fuss is made about the Nine Clans… where are they? Do they actually act as a sort of shadowy brotherhood? There doesn’t seem to be much solidarity, if so. After dispatching the Clan of the Black Sand, everyone (still alive) in the movie dusts their hands off and goes their separate way back to their own lives. If we’re to believe the mythos of the world, however, there’s still another 8 clans worth of ninja out there wreaking havoc. What of them? Argh.
It’s a minor detail, but it’s the kind of thing that nags at me when I walk out of the theatre, especially since it has an easy fix: don’t bother with the Nine Clan story in the first place. Make the story about the legendary ninja, and that’s that. Tidy ending, lots of gore, everybody gets out of the action movie what they expect.
End summary: not bad, but not nearly all it could have been.