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Sometimes story really doesn’t matter. I don’t say that because Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski penned a horrid piece of drivel in Ninja Assassin, but instead to make mention of the absolute lack of story at all. When you have ninja warfare with swords and awesome chained hooks, (see the cool poster), that bare resemblance to Vincent Cassel’s weapon at the end of Brotherhood of the Wolf coupled with enough computer generated blood to fill a few swimming pools, the script exists solely to string each action sequence to the next, nothing more. Frankly, there isn’t anything wrong with that. If James McTeigue learned anything from his tutelage under the Wachowskis, it was a visceral style meant to entertain and detract from any limitations the rest of the film might provide. He tried to meld that flair with substance in V for Vendetta, but in the end just subverted every shred of anarchist revolution the source material had for simplification and romance. Thankfully he sticks to his strengths with Ninja Assassin, jam-packing each frame with high-octane adrenaline and keeping the story simple and in the background.

Never under-estimate the power of the heart—this is the heavy-handed lesson to be learned, besides the equally obvious message that bright lights mean no shadows for the enemy to hide in. Boys like Raizo have never seen love; orphans chosen by men like Ozunu, they only learn discipline and respect as they are grown into killing machines that feel no pain, or any emotion for that matter. Surrogate father to them all, Ozunu’s is just one of the nine clans that have been breeding warriors for centuries—killers for hire that have been getting paid by governments around the world for untraceable murders. The intangibles can’t always be accounted for though, especially when training men and women together. At some point a romance might blossom, even if said relationship simply comprises of periodic help with wounds or stolen instances talking to the other’s heart, (and I mean that literally here). Since the only way to become a cold-blooded killer is to show no remorse or feeling, when winning a sparring contest you need to cut your opponent and spill blood. If that’s something your stomach can’t handle, let’s just say you won’t be able to just up and leave.

So, after generations of smooth transitions and uninterrupted training, Raizo is given a reason to leave—vengeance. Believing that he was dead to humanity, it was Kiriko who showed him that he wasn’t completely lost. He learned the ways of the clan and finished his education only to fight back on the day of his graduation, slicing his teacher and narrowly escaping with his life. The remainder of his time on earth now is spent tracking those hunting him, hoping to eventually eradicate them and find Ozunu for a showdown to the death. Fortunately for us, British forces have begun to dig into the odd massacres cropping up around the world, piecing together the rumors and uncovering the conspiracy of the clans. This means Ozunu’s children have come into the open to silence those prying eyes, causing a perfect storm of exposure for Raizo to attempt his one-man assault. But while the police definitely help this ninja with their high-tech electronic tracking devices, his keen senses and athletic ability—not to mention healing capabilities— are the all that can catch these shadow walkers with insane speed and stealth. Hey, I never said the film was believable.

As a result, no one will ever say the acting on display is something to be proud of because not many will remember since their minds are still replaying the stunning choreography in their heads. Naomie Harris will be the lone familiar face for most people, continuing a career of great work no matter the caliber of the material. She stands as both the conduit bringing these ninjas into the light along with partner Ben Miles and surrogate for the girl Raizo fell in love with many years before—the girl he failed. Again, however, they, like the story, are second fiddle to the action we’ve come to see. The filmmakers don’t waste time either, opening the whole thing up with a preface that sheds light on the assassins as well as satisfy our bloodlust for graphic limb removal and kinetic artistry. It’s Hollywood-ized Asian cinema, doing its best to show the fight sequences in their impressive glory, yet still feeling the need for quick cuts so our American ADHD-riddled minds don’t become bored. I did enjoy some moments where the camera is allowed to keep running, utilizing zooms and slomotion to break up the pacing instead of cutting and pasting music video style.

It’s McTeigue’s M.O., so I knew going in to expect some visual splendor. The beauty here is that it works perfectly with the subject matter at hand. I loved seeing the ninjas rising out of the shadows as though forming from thin air, even the motion blurring to portray their speed makes sense rather than seem fake. These guys are otherworldly, so if you don’t suspend your disbelief early, you might as well not even bother continuing on. Despite the menacing villains like Shô Kosugi’s Ozunu, though, Rain’s performance as Raizo is everything you could ask for—robotic in his emotionless existence, humble in his ability to help while selfishly looking for retribution, and absolutely phenomenal in his ninja maneuvering. While it may be enhanced by the more than likely animated weaponry—since that chained blade is way too impressive to be real—without Rain’s athleticism it would fall flat. Watching him fight without fear while outnumbered ten to one is what I came to see; the blood flying as he dismembers them and gets cut up himself is gravy. I could waste time remembering how weak the story was, but I’d rather recall the beauty of pain backdropped by a dark night’s rainstorm or a room full of flaming spheres hanging from the ceiling. Action fans should not be disappointed.

Ninja Assassin 6/10

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photography:
[1] RAIN (left) as Raizo in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Legendary Pictures’ and Dark Castle Entertainment’s action film “Ninja Assassin,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Juliana Malucelli
[2] NAOMIE HARRIS as Mika and BEN MILES as Maslow in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Legendary Pictures’ and Dark Castle Entertainment’s action film “Ninja Assassin,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by David Appleby

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