Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ninja Assassin: Carnage at its Finest

I had been looking forward to seeing the movie Ninja Assassin
ever since I saw the first trailer online sometime last year, and at long last, it came up on my Netflix queue and appeared in my mailbox. It delivered on exactly what I had expected - over the top action and beyond expected gore and carnage.
A little background on my Ninja experiences - The first time I had seen Sho Kosugi's "Revenge of the Ninja" was way back in 1984 (and probably on Betamax) at my friend's 9th birthday party (us children of the 70's had it so much better - no seatbelts, no protective sports gear, no green participant ribbons, and no political overlords keeping cool action movies under lock and key). I haven't seen the movie since then, and after 26 years I barely remember it, but to my 9 year old brain I remember it as being serious, hardcore, and VIOLENT (Yay!), and I probably assumed that Ninja were real superhumans with mystical powers.

Ninja Assassin stands firmly on this foundation, and in more ways than one. Remove the technology, change the hairstyles to bad 80's cuts, and keep the dialogue, and you have before you something that could have been produced in 1983. The characters are fully invested in the myth, and in fact take it way too seriously. But I'll get to that later.

The movie follows the protagonist, Raizo, who we will find out part way through, has forsaken his Ninja clan, not really out of love, honor, or morality, but essentially because his mentor, the head of the "Ozunu" clan (played surprisingly solidly) by Sho Kosugi (of the original "Revenge of the Ninja" fame), was unable to completely remove his humanity. That's it. Unlike most "revenge" movies, the main character isn't motivated by anything so obvious or simple as emotion - his best friend/lover/etc. wasn't murdered in cold blood - simply one person reminded him that he wasn't a an object; a living weapon of the Ozunu clan. The fact that this person (by the name of "Kiriko", presumably the Japanese characters for "Cutting Child") was killed in front of him is probably immaterial to the plot; Raizo is like one robot in a robot army that suddenly becomes self-aware, and in that awareness realizes that the programming it has been fed doesn't compute. Pretty deep stuff, all things considered.

The "everyman" in the film is "Mika", a forensic researcher of Europol, which seems to be some sort of world police force based in Germany. Her and her partner, Ryan, end up on the trail of the thousand year old Ninja clan that spawned Raizo, which has been taking part in political assassinations. These two characters seem to have been resurrected directly from 1980's cinema, and act mainly as the cardboard characters that provide the eyes and ears for us, the audience. They, in fact, take everything too seriously for us, the audience, to take them seriously - maybe there was some backstory I was missing, but I couldn't figure out exactly whey they were so grave when talking about Ninja clans on the rampage before the characters themselves really had much in the way of evidence that the Ninja clans were real. By extension, the movie takes itself too seriously as well - the story is completely unbelievable, and watching these two characters react in shock, awe, horror, and gravity to every little piece of the puzzle they pull together is almost comedic. The movie could have worked perfectly well without them, and in fact probably would have, but as we all know, Hollywood needs its John Blackthornes, its Nathan Algrens, and so on - because apparently they think we need someone we can "relate to". An everyman or everywoman pulled into inextricable circumstances, trying to make sense of what's going on, on behalf of the audience. Watching Ryan and Mika stumble around in circumstances beyond their understanding is somewhat disconcerting, as the audience has a far better and clearer grasp is going on than they do, which makes their roles as the everyman for us to experience the movie through almost completely superfluous.

Unlike Mika and Ryan, Raizo and Ozunu are solid characters, well acted and well represented. You have no doubts that Ozunu believes completely in what he is doing without regret or remorse. He is what he is, and Raizo is what he is, and they are destined to cross swords by the end of the movie.

The visual effects require special mention - no matter where the fighting takes place- in the dark illuminated by a flashlight, in the street at night, or in a burning Ninja temple, the visuals are nothing short of amazing. And the blood - oh the blood...! Swords and blades move like hot knives through butter, and copious amounts of blood are spilled- definitely stylized blood, but visually spectacular - as are the constantly flying body parts. So over the top that I can find it hard to imagine anyone would be horrified or discouraged by the gore, since it plays out more like a violent video game than actual
people losing arms, legs or heads.

I can give this movie a qualified 5 out of 5 stars, since this movie was obviously influenced by the 1980's Ninja obsession, and I can respect that, since I was there. It embraces the sub-sub-genre of goofy and poorly acted 80's Ninja craze movies - it is what it is. For anyone who didn't experience the Ninja craze of the 80's, this might be a hard movie to swallow acting- and plot-wise, and it might look like I've even gone so far as to give it far more credit than it is due, but there should still be a little something for everyone - hardcore bloody action the likes of which haven't been put to film before, as well an interesting philosophical thought that simple human self-awareness alone can be enough to motivate one to be better - or to take down a thousand year old Ninja clan.

1 comment:

  1. I hope you made sure your phone was locked while you were watching this...