Ninjas in the modern world? Isn’t that something from 16th Century feudal Japan? The basic premise of the entertaining and graphically violent film Ninja Assassin is that the clans still exist and that they are behind some of the most mysterious of assassinations, all paid for using the ancient calculation of a man’s life being worth 100 pounds of gold.
The old man (Randall Duk Kim) explains that it’s a sign that he’s seen before, seconds before everyone around him was slaughtered by ninjas. He shows them a scar on his chest where his heart would normally be “but I was born differently, my heart is on the other side of my chest.”
Seconds later the ninja assassins descend and without ever seeing more than a fleeting glimpse of any of them, the entire room is graphically, methodically slaughtered. The “splattered blood on the wall” motif is established and subsequently appears again and again as this astonishingly violent film proceeds to its predictable, but still reasonably satisfying climactic scene.
Cut to Berlin and the headquarters of Europol, where an attractive forensic researcher, Mika (Naomie Harris) is explaining to her skeptical boss Maslow (Ben Miles) that she’s uncovered a trail of assassinations that appear to have been committed by modern day ninjas. “Wait a minute,” he responds, “Which word does not belong in this sentence: laptop, space shuttle, nano technology, ninja?”
The ninja clans are real, we learn, and they operate by stealing children and training them from a very young age to be selfless, ruthless, and generally mean, vicious little killing machines who are willing to literally beat each other to death and ignore any physical pain that they’re subjected to, all in the name of honoring their new family. Yeah, insert “kung fu movie cliché here” works too.
One young boy they recruit off the street, Raizo (the Korean action film sensation Rain), proves to be more talented than any of his peers, but also more troubled, and he eventually, and inevitably, falls for a beautiful young female ninja trainee Kiriko (Linh Dan Pham).
While the film takes place in present time, much of it is told in Raizo’s flashbacks, his memories of training to be a ninja for the Ozunu black sand clan and, eventually, turning on them when he refuses to kill a defenseless woman in cold blood.
Later in the film after the martial arts stock scene of the hero practicing his form, throwing knives, stars, slashing swords and generally doing a kind of Bruce Lee air guitar sequence, Kiriko explains to Raizo that while he believes he has no heart, he does indeed have one. The deep, existential dialog goes like this:
To get to this point we have endured quite a few self-conscious koans, including “life is combat, you know this is true.” “suffering only exists because weakness exists. You must hate all weakness.” ” At one point Raizo is seriously injured and is informed by the ruthless clan leader (Sho Kosugi) that “this is your test: survive the night.”
The action in the film takes a while to get going after that first violent scene, but once it starts, it really doesn’t stop and I lost track of how many bodies are scattered to the ground as the Western Europol cops with guns versus the black pajama’d ninjas battle from place to place, leaving rivers of blood and no wall unspattered. Yes, it’s pretty darn violent, and then some.
But it’s also fairly entertaining and some of the set pieces, including the battle between Raizo and his arch-enemy and fellow ninja Takeshi (Rick Yune), are pretty darn impressive. Sure, there are some confusing elements, like how Takeshi is slammed off his feet by a car in Berlin, just to show up next scene back in Japan, unharmed, but maybe it’s just that amazing ninja ability to heal yourself (and, presumably, catch plane flights while bleeding)?
If you’re expecting Ninja Assassin to be a thoughtful film that explores the nuances of a society built around the twin pillars of honor and violence, this is not it. If you’re just looking for a rollicking good time, a kung fu film with all the sensibilities of The Matrix, then you’ve found a good guilty pleasure movie. And that’s no surprise: from the director to the producer to many of the ef/x and production team, this is the same group who worked with the Wachowski brothers (Larry and Andy) to bring the Matrix trilogy to the big screen too.