Ninja Assassin (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Bloody Mess

“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.

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll, anti-abuse measure. If your comment is not spam, trollish, or abusive, it will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately. (Further comments may still be deleted if spammy, trollish, or abusive, and continued such behavior will get your account deleted and banned.)
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Tue, Nov 24, 2009 1:03pm

MaryAnn, I’m pretty sure you’re not actually in the target audience for this movie…

Seriously, though – the thing was written in three days. I saw JMS give a speech in which he explained that he got the job to do a page 1 rewrite on Tuesday that needed to be delivered on Friday.

When you’re dealing with that kind of timeline there’s literally nothing you can do except scribble down every cliche that you can remember.

Tue, Nov 24, 2009 1:11pm

Yeah, blame the writing on this film on the orignial writer Michael Sand. JMS just did a 52 hour, page 1 rewrite. If the end result is this bad, i shudder to think how bad the orinigal script must’ve been.

But i hope all this talk about the fight scenes being too dark to see anything is an exageration. That’s the kind of flaw that even action-hungry, gore-hounds won’t forgive.

Tue, Nov 24, 2009 1:29pm

JMS give a speech in which he explained that he got the job to do a page 1 rewrite on Tuesday that needed to be delivered on Friday.

We can blame JMS for taking the job. His name is on the film. If he didn’t think he could do a good job in the time allow, he could have turned it down. If he’s not proud of what he did, he could have had his name removed from the project. But he didn’t do either, and he surely must know that there are those who expect a certain something from a project with his name on it.

So I’m comfortable blaming him, too.

Hank Graham
Hank Graham
Tue, Nov 24, 2009 1:43pm

Joel Silver reminds me an awful lot of Carlson from “WKRP in Cincinnati.” I imagine him giving an interview about “Gothika” and “Orphan” and this one some day, and saying that as God is his witness, he thought turkeys could fly.

Hasimir Fenring
Tue, Nov 24, 2009 2:02pm

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 in a minority among the target audience for Ninja Assassin.

I guess I don’t have to see this film, since I’ve already experienced it as Kill Bill. If it’s blatantly racist as well, Tarantino should sue.

Tue, Nov 24, 2009 2:19pm

cupcake pony? girls are weird

Tue, Nov 24, 2009 6:33pm

ninja assassin? boys are gross *yuk*

Tue, Nov 24, 2009 6:58pm

I’ll go see this. Of course, if someone ever put out a movie called “Cupcake Pony” I’d probably go see that too. For nearly the same reason.

Tue, Nov 24, 2009 8:01pm

Sho Kosugi and bloody gore, sold, it’ll leave my brain at the concession stand. They should of got Chuck Norris too, oh well.

Thu, Nov 26, 2009 12:26am

Target audience intentions-correct.
For me, it was over the top. Too many ninjas.
Got to be like cowboys and Indians (apologies to
Native Americans).
They saved a lot on hiring skilled martial artists
by keeping the light low. I suspect it was easier to
layer in CGI efx.

Just saw it (Thanksgiving Eve).
The first gore scene, I couldn’t help to think about
how I was going to carve up the turkey.
Ninjas running around in traffic made me crack up
laughing. Lesson learned: The bumper/grill is mighter
than the sword.
“I hate to sound critical.”

Thu, Nov 26, 2009 12:47pm

Damn, you weren’t exaggerating MaryAnn, even the action scenes are poorly done. Yeah, there’s really absolutely no reason to waste your money on this crap. If you haven’t already seen it, stay away.

Mon, Nov 30, 2009 7:23am

Typo: This offends me. In this I will clearly [?] in a minority among the target audience for Ninja Assassin.


Mon, Nov 30, 2009 2:57pm

I don’t want to hear any crap about how MAJ is not “the target audience” of the movie. I know, deep in my bones, that I’m the target audience for a movie titled “Ninja Assassin”. That title moved me like the title “Snakes on a Plane” moved Samuel Jackson, and I know in my heart that a movie with that title could be — wants to be — one of my top ten favorite movies ever.

But not this movie.

The only way this could be an issue of “target audience” is if the target audience of the movie was someone who likes everything that I do, except for quality.

P.S. Going by IMDB, it doesn’t look like JMS has gotten a whole lot of work since B5. At some point, pride in one’s art gives way to the need for a paycheck. Which isn’t to say we can’t blame him for the result. But it’s a little like when a musician who you know just got into IRS troubles starts doing a lot of Pepsi commercials. You kinda hate them for selling out, but feel a little sorry for them too.

Tue, Dec 01, 2009 4:06pm

JMS has done a lot of comics of varying quality – including the widely loathed Spider-Man “One More Day” story, in which he trades his marriage to Mary Jane to Mephisto in exchange for Aunt May’s life and the restoration of his secret identity. So it’s not totally unprecedented…

Once your name is on something that hated, I don’t see how this could really hurt.

Mon, Nov 11, 2013 1:59am

This is one of those rare films that, for a fan of Ninja films, sucks
the life out of a fan of Ninja films. Imho this film is just total,
utter, trash! And most certainly not in any good way. The oriental
actors are great. Then we’re snapped away from them to the “Europol”
people…who act like their name was Mahogany. Seriously…combine this
with the cinematography accompanying the scenes shot involving them, and
it feels absolutely like you’re watching some absolutely crap BBC1
drama on digital freeview such as Spooks. Excuse me to those whom it
pleases, but when I watch a movie, I want it to feel like I’m watching a
fricking movie! This look is just SO CHEAP looking! Top Gear is shot
more classily/film-like-ishly. Is that a word? It is now! I could go on
for days about all the ways in which this film is utter crap. AND I’d be
being constructive with it! If you want a better made newer Ninja film,
then go for Ninja. It was made in the same year. It was made for a
quarter of the budget of N.A., and it was made with infinitely more
class. As opposed to not being able to see how the bad guys are taken
out with the use of skilled martial arts magic 95% of the time, in Ninja
you actually get to see (in extremely awesome fashion) how the bad guys
actually get taken out. Yes, when CG does rear its head (and it IS only
for a second or two here and there, as opposed to Ninja Assassin –
where it’s every other fricking minute) it can look a little ropey. But compared to the feeling of the film that second or two (which it is) becomes irrelevant.
The acting, overall, is also far superior. Will somebody please not
reemploy that English Europol guy from N.A.?…I felt like I was
watching an episode of Eldorado! I think, in N.A., it’s half the awful
script, half the awful delivery. Ninja avoids this travesty on your
senses – I didn’t work on the movie lol – I swear. I’m just a big fan of
martial arts and Ninja movies. Seriously, if you haven’t seen N.A., my
advice is not to bother. Either way, I’d advise you to check out Ninja.