“Ninja assassin.” You just know that producers Joel Silver — he helped create the modern action movie with Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, but he’s also responsible for modern schlock such as Gothika and Orphan — and the Wachowski Brothers (of Matrix fame), professional fanboys all, were peeing in their pants with glee when they came up with that concept. It’s like “monster trucks” and “automatic weapons” and “zombie Nazis”: you take two great things that are awesome separately, and then you put ’em together and it becomes like totally mindblowing, dude.
For certain dudes, at least. While some — male and female alike, of course — might prefer the mashed-up awesomeness of, say, “cupcake pony” or “chocolate orgasm” or, heaven help us, “sparkly vampire boyfriend,” the preview crowd with whom I saw Ninja Assassin was absolutely in ecstasy over this bloody concoction of slasher movie blended with martial arts and a small helping of faux Eastern philosophy. They appeared, if their cries of laughter and whoops of delight were any measure, utterly unrequiring of anything approaching movie content beyond that. The gallons of blood and countless gory dismemberments were interrupted only briefly for nods to plot and character and story and theme, and the crowd was absolutely fine with that. They weren’t cheering for or against anyone, they were cheering for the gore. They wanted blood, and they didn’t care whose it was: they approved just as heartily when it was the putative hero’s as they did when it was provided by armies of anonymous ninjas or anonymous paramilitary cops.
I don’t mind cinematic blood and gore and violence — I just don’t want it to be the entire point of a movie. This offends me. In this I will clearly be in a minority among the target audience for Ninja Assassin.
The curious question the title of the film has raised for some is this: Is the titular stealthy warrior a ninja who is an assassin? Or an assassin who assassinates ninjas? Turns out it’s both at the same time, which is still nowhere near clever as deployed here. You’d think that J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5 — who is worshipped as a god in some quarters — might have written an actual script instead of the collection of clichés and witless, disjointed nonsense we see here, though we shall probably never really know how constrained his was by whatever his coscreenwriter, newcomer Matthew Sand, brought to the table. Suffice to say that whenever someone isn’t saying something like, “Whatever they’re paying you, I’ll double it! I’ll triple it!” someone else is saying something like, “Why do I think I’m going to regret this?” If someone is urged to leave the premises to get out of harm’s way, that someone is saying, “Not without you!”
About halfway through the film, I was suddenly slapped in the face with the realization that, dear god, this is an origin story, and we’re going to see more of these. Raizo was raised from a pup by Master Ozunu in a remote mountain training camp for ninja assassins, who for a thousand years have accepted a hundred pounds of gold — or the modern equivalent in the stable currency of your choice deposited into a Swiss bank account — for their services. (Maybe they killed JFK for the Mafia? It’s a question I presume will be dealt with by at least Ninja Assassin IV.) But Raizo has a Heart, even though he insists he doesn’t, and he is Noble, and he leaves the clan to Do Good. Like protecting “Europol” investigator Mika from the bad ninjas when she stumbles onto their doings, which are, it must be said, less than legal.
It’s all meant to be mythic, but director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) has no idea how to make it so. Everything on the screen feels small and petty and cheap, from the scenes of mass slaughter, which are so dark you can’t really tell what’s going on except that a whole buncha nameless folks are getting their limbs sliced off — or maybe getting beheaded! cool! — to the cast, which collectively has a negative presence, sucking away whatever charisma might be accidentally exuded… like by legendary martial artist Sho Kosugi, as Ozunu. He at least has an appropriate menace about him. But Korean pop star Rain (Speed Racer), as Raizo, and Naomie Harris (Street Kings, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), as Mika, might as well be ninja shadows themselves. They’re both very pretty, but they both feel as if they might float away without the piles of body parts and seas of blood around them weighing them down.