Was the “The Matrix Revolutions” hate really that bad, Wachowski brothers? Did the last film in your beloved, formerly intellectual film series get enough flack to justify these last six years? Both of you floundering in the producer chairs for a lukewarm “V for Vendetta,” only rising back to director-ship for the horrid “Speed Racer,” and now this?
“Ninja Assassin” doesn’t need a prologue to explain itself; its title takes care of all that useless story space to make room for more action. A starring vehicle for Korean pop star/mega-celebrity Rain, “Ninja” follows an orphaned boy turned warrior as he takes out his anger at the betrayal of his former mentor and pupils. Along the way, limbs fall off in torrents of blood and digital weapons dance around the screen as director James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”) seems to be in competition with every other bloody movie ever made.
A brief clarification: “Ninja Assassin” is not a bad film. If gory deaths and fight scenes choreographed on meth attract your tastes, then said tastes will indeed be satiated here. “Ninja Assassin” is, however, a mediocre action film whose ambitions are muddied by a dim lighting design and over-use of special effects. The latter is difficult to imagine in this era of movies that take 5 million man-hours of computer alterations, but with “Ninja” every fight scene contains at least three shots of obvious CG, to the extent that it manages to over-live its cool factor by the middle mark in the plotline. It took three plug-ins to the “Matrix” (two if you were paying attention) to do that with bullet-time.
The foremost issue with “Ninja” is more difficult to leave to consumer tastes. While most of the film’s design manages to hold its own over the 99 minutes, many fight scenes are lit too dimly to fully appreciate the dedicated and extremely fluid fight choreography. While having a battle take place in a burning building is an exceptional prelude to high-octane thrills, it makes it difficult to enjoy when it seems that you are only lighting the scene with said flames. The soundtrack manages to raise the action a notch, but failts to deliver the pulse-pounding spine that many less-flashy martial arts films acquire with ease. But the costuming manages to give a decent interpretation of the Yakuza underground, and the cinematography work is smooth and has its moments of startling intrigue – when it’s not shoved to the side by another blade-flying-into-the-camera shot.
While American audiences might not share much in the hype, South Korea and many other territories have a pretty heavy claim in “Ninja Assassin.” Korean pop star Rain takes the lead role of Raizo, a man with more fans in his home county than all of the Disney Pop-Spawn can claim the States combined. As such, the guy is shirtless for about as many scenes in the film as Bruce Lee could manage in his own oeuvre. To his credit performs admirably for the action-fluff script, as do most of the cast, regularly flipping from pre-fight stoicism to post-fight melodrama with little snag. Kingpin, the film’s villain played by Stephen Marcus, plays up the character the name inspires to the hilt, to the point where the film seems to dip a bit into the comic-book-movie cheese whenever Marcus is on screen more than a minute.
More importantly, thankfully, the cast manages to fight much better than they can act. To the credit of the stunt performers and fight doubles, the line between them and the actor is a faint one in most cases. When lit properly enough to be seen, the fights whip about the frame with the agility and fervor expected from both the genre and its producers, hampered slightly by the transitions between the actual physical weaponry and their digital counterparts. Its adrenaline fodder at its most flashy, as the trailers promised, and when it works, it works well.
There’s no better way to enjoy the continued falling star known as the Wachowski brothers than with the completely fan-servicing action wet-dream, “Ninja Assassin.” Devoid of the intellectual curiosity and mish-mash of cultural themes that made them so great, the team gives us the most straight-forward action film of the decade. While its poor lighting and unhealthy obsession with the Best Visual Effects Oscar lessen the impact of its whip-fast choreography, there is still enough here to recommend a visit to the cinema, if just barely.
…. Rain is a much better actor than Keanu Reeves, though.