It’s not every day that I get to say that a movie really goes downhill after the scene with the severed head in the Laundromat washing machine, but that’s the unfortunate truth with James McTeigue’s Ninja Assassin. The film starts off agreeably goofy, with an aging tattoo artist (Randall Duk Kim, Dragonball Evolution) regaling members of the Yakuza with a tale of surviving a ninja attack 50 years prior due to a birth defect that caused his heart to be on the right side of his chest. Then we’re treated to an incredible splatter bit of ninja action, which—while not nearly on par with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)—would feel at home in any number of schlock horror movies. The same goes for the aforementioned decapitated head segment that soon follows in a subsequent scene. Unfortunately, McTeigue’s film isn’t able to keep up this level of sublime junkiness.
The trouble is the film’s plot is flimsy and only serves to move Ninja Assassin along from action scene to action scene. What little story exists is no great shakes: A rogue ninja with a heart of gold named Raizo (Rain, Speed Racer) tries to bring down his former clan with the help of a Europol agent (Naomie Harris, 28 Days Later …). A lot of Raizo’s story is told through flashbacks that only serve to grind the film to a halt, since they’re too ponderous and lack what the film’s real draw is—martial arts—proving once again that a lot of kung-fu movies need plots just as much as porno does.
But even admitting that all the overwrought action is the film’s appeal, nevertheless leaves the movie feeling paper-thin. McTeigue’s only other feature, V for Vendetta (2005), was just as stylish and also had its flaws, but overcame much of this by having something on its mind. The only thing on Ninja Assassin’s mind is blood, blood and more blood, something that gets increasingly difficult for McTeigue to keep interesting as the film moves along, especially since the absurdity of the beginning of the film is quickly forgotten. It also doesn’t help that most of the fight scenes are filmed in dark spaces (these are ninjas, after all), making them nearly incomprehensible.
But as the movie progresses and continues to make less and less logical sense, McTeigue is somehow able to redeem himself by creating a stunning, stylish climax inside a burning dojo—and even manages a surprisingly effective final scene.
Seeing as how there’s little out there right now as far as action movies go, Ninja Assassin is the best bet for those looking for an action fix—or for kung-fu fans trying to tide over their already slim hopes that Tony Jaa’s Ong Bak 2 might finally make it to town. Rated R for strong bloody stylized violence throughout, and language.