With Rain, Naomie Harris, Shô Kosugi; Directed by James McTeigue; Rated R for strong bloody stylized violence throughout, and language. 99 minutes.
It says something about NINJA ASSASSIN that it shows more blood in any random two minutes than “New Moon,” a movie about vampires and werewolves, shows in its entire two hour plus running time. This is a violent action film about a trained assassin who rebels against his teacher. With swords, chains, fists, throwing stars, and anything else that’s handy, they slice and dice each other until the final showdown.
It may follow genre conventions, but let it be said that it’s not strictly by the numbers. Veteran writer J. Michael Straczynski (“Babylon 5”) was brought in to do a rewrite of Matthew Sands’ script. It isn’t deep, but the movie takes its story and characters seriously enough that we don’t get bored between action set pieces.
Raizo (Korean pop star Rain) has been trained as an assassin by Ozuno (veteran martial arts actor Shô Kosugi). As we see in flashbacks, Ozuno is ruthless, beating and torturing his young charges to mold them into a group of elite killers. When one of Raizo’s friends is slain for rebelling against Ozuno’s authoritarian ways, Raizo wants out.
The present-day plot has Mika (Naomie Harris), an analyst for a European law enforcement agency, uncovering the secret of the ninja assassins. Now she’s marked for death, only to be rescued by Raizo. If they can trust each other, perhaps they will be able to bring down Ozuno and his deadly clan.
The plot is just an excuse for a mixture of acrobatics, martial arts, and special effects. Be warned: the action gets very bloody. Right at the start of the film someone mocking the very idea of ninjas is beheaded… on screen. Watching the blood flow and the body parts fly in ways not seen outside the films of Quentin Tarantino, one can only wonder if he’d enjoy it, or be jealous he didn’t make it himself.
In fact it was directed by James McTeigue whose previous film – after a serving as assistant director or second unit director on numerous films including “The Matrix” series – was “V For Vendetta.” So while this is first and foremost an action movie, it’s not afraid to touch on ideas, particularly on such matters as loyalty, asking when loyalty to a person or group demands too much.
For someone trained primarily as a dancer and singer, Rain is a convincing action star, all coiled muscle and grim determination, yet able to reveal some feelings when appropriate. Harris tries to make the thankless “female sidekick” role something more than that, and succeeds at least to the point that her character’s presence is welcome rather than an annoying distraction. Kosugi wisely underplays what easily could have turned into a camp, snarling villain role.
“Ninja Assassin” is still little more than an action programmer, but it shows enough talent and wit – along with the requisite violence – to make it a worthy entry rather than something destined for the DVD clearance bins.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.