Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2009

Ninjas are boring

No, not really - but you might think so from watching 'Ninja Assassin'

Ninja Assassin
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: James McTeigue
Screenplay: Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski
Starring: Rain, Naomie Harris, Sho Kosugi, Ben Miles, Rick Yune, Anna Sawai and Randall Duk Kim
Rated R / 1 hour, 39 minutes
Opened November 25, 2009
(out of four)

The phrase, "It is what it is" could rarely be more appropriate than it is with Ninja Assassin. It's right there in the title - simple, direct, unapologetic. It's the most straightforward movie title since Snakes on a Plane. Even Fighting was a more nuanced title.

Ninja Assassin delivers exactly what most would expect of a movie called Ninja Assassin. Technically more - there's not just one ninja assassin, but several. Perhaps they were saving the title Ninja Assassins for a potential sequel? But I digress.

Suffice it to say that this movie won't exactly surprise anyone. It promises to be an over-the-top, blood-soaked movie about ninjas, and that's exactly what it is. We expect stereotypical plotting, and that's what we get. We expect cheesiness and we get that, too. Problem is, as bloody as it is, it doesn't do much to actually get our blood boiling. It offers only the expected - moderately effective, moderately watchable, intermittently exciting. For a movie about ninjas, it certainly isn't very much fun.

The ninjas in the film treat their mythological history and customs with the greatest of reverence, but that doesn't mean the filmmakers had to follow suit. Let's have some perspective, shall we? Nothing with this silly of a plot and this sparse of character examination deserves to be given this kind of dramatic weight. It is once again, and I'm weary from having to bring this up so often, a matter of tone. Ninja Assassin never finds the right one. I'm not asking for irony here - just a bit of levity, please.

What lightness the film has comes largely in the form of an Interpol Agent, Maslow (Ben Miles), who can't help but laugh when his partner Mika (Naomie Harris) posits the theory that clans of ninjas - thought to be only an ancient myth - are behind a recent string of political assassinations.

After all, how could he take such an idea seriously? But the amusement he gets out of it soon turns to somberness, and then fear, when the investigation begins lending more weight to her theory.

Enter Raizo (Rain), a former assassin himself who saves Mika's life after a bounty is placed on her head. Like others of his kind, Raizo was taken from childhood and trained to be a ruthless, unstoppable, borderline supernatural force of nature - taught to no longer feel pain, to master the martial arts, to live unnoticed, lurking in the shadows. And, as the Internet meme has shown us time and again, to hide in plain sight.

But Raizo left his clan on moral grounds - which we discover in flashbacks about a pseudo-romantic relationship between him and a fellow ninja trainee, Kiriko (Anna Sawai). His former mentor, Ozunu (Sho Kosugi), would like nothing more than to find him and execute him for his betrayal.

Now doesn't that sound fun? It does, but it isn't. It plays almost like one of those urban crime dramas from the 1990s, only without the justification for such a somber attitude. I could get behind the film attempting to plumb the depths of ninja mythology or even psychology - but this one doesn't spend the time to develop anything like that.

Instead, it gives us the blood-splattering we want - often with cartoonishly CGI-enhanced blood that tells us we're supposed to be laughing. Except that is the movie's sole effort at anything resembling style, not to mention humor. It feels like there are conflicting intentions at work.

Ninja Assassin moves through a series of kinetic action sequences that are admirable in their level of martial-arts skill, but rather dry as cinema. Nothing propels them any further. It's odd that a movie this bland could come from the Wachowskis and their protégé, V for Vendetta director James McTeigue. Even their box-office flop, last year's Speed Racer, had passionate defenders on one side and passionate adversaries on the other. Ninja Assassin isn't likely to inspire any such fervor.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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