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Ninja Assassin

You can’t believe everything you read on the internet. For instance, the page for Ninja Assassin says that producers the Wachowski brothers weren’t happy with the original script and hired J. Michael Straczynski (Changeling) to do a complete rewrite, which he finished in 53 hours.

This is clearly absurd: There’s no way it could have taken anyone more than two hours on what passes for a script here. Do you honestly expect me to believe that dialogue like “They laughed as you laugh now, but their laughter was soon drowned in blood” was labored over?

Not that this is a deal-breaker for any viewer who sees the title Ninja Assassin and thinks, “That sounds like I movie I’d like to see.” For you, I can happily report that the price of your ticket will buy you 100 minutes of almost nonstop fighting and state-of-the-art decapitations, limb-severing, and eruptions of spurting, spraying blood.

I cannot emphasize this point too strongly. Had the title There Will Be Blood not already been taken, it would have been appropriate here. Fans of Japanese cinema will be expecting this: It’s axiomatic to even the most arty instances of the genre that when blade meets flesh, bodies do not simply bleed, they produce a fountain of blood. And because Ninja Assassin, despite a title that makes it sound like something on the bottom rack of the DVD store shelf, is a big-budget film co-produced by the aforementioned Matrix guys and Joel Silver, it sets a new standard for slicing, dicing, and spurting.

It makes you wish that you had these guys on hand to carve your holiday turkey.

The plot, such as it is, takes place in Berlin, where important people are being assassinated by figures in nose-to-toe black robes. Don’t worry about who or why, as these are questions the movie only pretends to be concerned with for a few minutes as we are introduced to Raizo, the most skilled of the modern ninjas.

Raizo is played by Rain, the Korean pop star who is internationally responsible for even more swooning teenaged fans than Edward Pattison. (If you’re not a K-pop aficionado you may recall him as the object of a Stephen Colbert feud.) Whether or not Rain can actually act is a question the movie leaves open, requiring him to do little more than look agonized while covered in blood. Female fans can enjoy the sight of his gym-sculpted torso as he engages in such apparently traditional ninja exercises as doing handstand pushups on a bed of nails.

Much of the movie is a flashback to Raizo’s training at a secret school run by Lord Ozunu (played by Shô Kosugi, who is as much of a superstar as can be found in the ninja genre). To call this a rough place is an understatement: I went to a Catholic school myself, but for as bad a rap as nuns tend to get, none of them ever beat the soles of my feet until they bled.

Among Raizo’s classmates is one female ninja-to-be. This seems like an awfully bad idea, for reasons that seem apparent to everyone except Ozunu. Suffice to say that Raizo is scarred for life by knowing her, and after finishing his training turns against his master and classmates.

In other words, ninja war! Because if a ninja is an all-powerful unstoppable killing machine, the only possible interesting thing to do with one is pit him against other ninjas. Otherwise, you’d have the equivalent of a cage fight between Superman and Miley Cyrus.

My guess is that Silver and the Wachowskis wanted to do something on the order of Wanted or Shoot ’em Up with a touch of Kill Bill, a genre movie that could afford to do all the stuff that the originals had to fake. The fight scenes suffer from the usual problem of modern action movies, which is that the rat-a-tat-tat editing diffuses the impact, making it impossible to focus on anything that’s happening and, at worst, making things seem fake.

Worse, most of the fight scenes are so dark that the problem is compounded. The review in the trade journal Variety suggests that this might be the result of post-production tinkering to keep the film from getting an NC-17 rating, which seems plausible.

Purists may object to the finale, which adds guns and firepower to the mix in the form of Europol forces trying to take down the ninjas. And as for the stunts, Jackie Chan it’s not. But for an army of teenaged boys looking for revenge on the girlfriends who dragged them to see New Moon, it couldn’t be any more perfect.

Watch the trailer for Ninja Assassin

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