Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Movie Review: "Ninja Assassin"

Originally written for the Nov. 29 edition of "The Source":

Things heard upon leaving a recent screening of “Ninja Assassin.”

”That was more like a slasher movie than an action movie.”

Probably one of the most astute things I’ve heard from an audience member following a free screening. “Ninja Assassin,” the latest action flick from Warner Brothers, spills its blood by not by the gallons, but by the pool.

Of course, one would expect the tale of rogue ninja Raizo (Korean pop star “Rain) on the run from the clan that trained him to have its moments of carnage. Martial arts films are chock full of dismemberments, broken bones and gouged eyes. But from its opening sequence, in which a ninja dices and slices a group of punk teenagers in a tattoo parlor, “Ninja Assassin” wallows in the wet red stuff, eviscerating characters (the term is used loosely in this review) with such wanton gore and bloodlust that even Freddy Krueger would consider it over-the-top.

Of course, some will give it a pass because it’s stylized and computer-generated blood that pours from wounds like a leaky faucet, not the gritty and realistic violence we see in the “Saw” films. While director James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”) keeps things cartoonish enough that no one will ever buy it as real, seeing a man’s head spliced in half in the first three minutes of a movie is jarring no matter what the context.

The plot also resembles a slasher movie, if you consider the evil ninjas to be the story’s boogeymen. They pick off a random group of people one by one—not high school students but rather high-ranking Interpol officials who catch wind of the clan’s existence. And they set their sights not on a heroic cop but on a helpless young woman (Naomi Harris), whose only hope is the Raizo, who was once trained by the clan and, we learn through a series of flashbacks, turned against them after they murdered his girlfriend.

I bring up the gore first because that’s really all “Ninja Assassin” has on its mind. Even the title screen is nothing more than formed by a splash of crimson. One fight scene even takes place behind a screen where we can’t even see the shadows of the contenders but can see their blood being splashed on the wall. In this movie, throwing stars don’t simply cut someone but tear them apart with the force of an uzi. Forget style, grace or skill; McTeigue is only interested in how much computer-generated plasma he can douse the screen in.

I have no problem with the use of violence and blood in an action movie; after all, swords do cut and bullets pierce. But just as gore in a horror movie doesn’t make the film scary, blood in an action flick doesn’t make it exciting. Especially when that blood is obviously computer generated and watching hundreds of ninjas and police die excruciatingly looks like something out of a videogame.

Which leads to the next thing I heard while exiting the theater.

”That was just like ‘Kill Bill.’”

No, it really isn’t.

I can understand the comparison. Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill, Vol. 1”—possibly the best action film of the decade—climaxes with a 20-minute battle in which Uma Thurman hacks apart ninjas with a samurai sword. The violence in the scene is just as bloody as anything McTeigue shows in “Ninja Assassin,” so why is one a classic and the other a dud?

It comes down to showmanship.

McTeigue is a stylish director. I admired “V for Vendetta” and he’s been a second-unit director on movies like “The Matrix” and “Speed Racer.” He knows action and style. What he doesn’t show is a love for this particular genre of film. “Kill Bill” was bursting at the seams with visual and aural cues that expressed passion for martial arts movies; the spurting blood geysers were not meant to excite audiences’ bloodlust but instead paid homage to the films of the Shaw Brothers and other genre masters. Every swing of the sword, gouge of the eye and kick of the foot was done as a love letter to a particular type of film; the joy of the scene came not from the carnage but the knowing re-creation of a beloved film style. In “Ninja Assassin,” McTeigue thinks audiences simply want to see dismemberments and decapitations for their own sake. He knows the lyrics to a good action movie but not the music that makes the scene dance.

Let’s not also forget that “Kill Bill’s” climactic showdown was done largely without the aid of computers. Tarantino used stunt men and women to capture the grace and beauty of martial arts. “Ninja Assassin” is staged like a typical kung fu flick, with a fight every five minutes or so, but McTeigue forgets that the exhilaration of watching Bruce Lee, Jet Li or Jackie Chan in action is in the long shots that show them performing tremendous physical feats. There is a skill in martial arts that is lost when you’re quick-cutting every five seconds or using computers to do work that Chan could do in grade school. Also, I understand the visual appeal of keeping ninjas in the shadows, but the film is so murky that it’s hard to get a grasp on anything going on; ironically, the blood splashing gives us our only frame of reference. Just as you can’t capture the beauty of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly without showing their feet when they dance, you can’t recapture the thrill and artistry of martial arts without showing the full body in motion; CGI and rapid cuts take all the danger and thrill out of the fight.

”That movie was really stupid.”

If I could get away with a five-word review, I would have just added that quote verbatim. Forget Rain’s wooden dialogue or Harris’s non-existent personality. Forget the imbecilic Interpol agent who seems to reverse his position every five minutes only to end up as a hero anyway. Forget that a key plot point is that the great ninja assassin gets caught on a home surveillance camera or that Interpol has a team of super agents dedicated to arresting ninjas. And forget that the film’s climax suddenly gives its villain superpowers but he can still be surprised by a “glorified librarian” with a gun. Forget all that, and you forget the entire movie. Which may be a good thing.

”Sir, you’re a walking hazard."

That was actually directed at me as I was attempting to cross the lobby while using my Blackberry. Maybe the lady who chided me was right. Maybe I should learn to walk safer. And the first step of that: walk away from any theater showing “Ninja Assassin.”

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.