James McTeigue comes awfully close to making a successful, gory comedy out of the ridiculous splatterfest Ninja Assassin, which centralizes and embellishes the ninja’s traditional hallmark of stealth in order to stage numerous scenes in which the pajama-clad swordsmen dismember their victims after descending on them from shadowed heights or zooming in from off-screen at blinding speed. The film’s pleasing amount of low-brow humor comes not only from shots of heads being graphically split in two and victims losing their legs out from under them, but also from the sustained, straight-faced premise that these ninjas are reality-based instead of possessed with supernatural powers. It’s a conceit that’s ultimately blown apart in an applause-worthy, strictly-for-laughs finale during which the CG-assisted martial arts lunacy finally attains the video-game level of unreality it’s been inching toward all along.
Walking the line of straight-faced absurdity, as Lexi Alexander did with her cheerfully obscene Punisher film, has a notable downside in that the tongue-in-cheek approach to action makes the dour exposition between the fun stuff all the more tedious and inconsequential. Unlike a horror film, an ostensible policier like Ninja Assassin has little opportunity to fill its action-free beats with dread or tension, and relies instead on a surfeit of monotonous, information-heavy filler material. Here, the excessive talking revolves almost exclusively around Berlin-based Europol investigator Mika (an American-accented Naomie Harris) and her skeptical boss Ryan (Ben Miles) as they look into a series of recent assassination-style killings in the city, murders Mika suspects may be the work of an ancient clan of assassins from the Far East (spoiler alert: she’s right!).
After unearthing a series of patently silly clues ranging from ancient scrolls to a VHS tape that captures existence of ninjas on film, Bigfoot-style, Mika comes into the crosshairs of the mythical Ozunu clan, which dispatches dozens of warriors to take the head of this five-foot tall desk worker and leads her to a fortuitous meeting with Raizo, a conveniently Berlin-based ex-ninja played with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm by Korean pop star Rain. While dodging and confronting ninja squads with Mika in a variety of picturesque Berlin locales, Raizo’s tale of woe drips out via extended flashbacks that begin with his childhood induction into the clan and mentorship by Lord Ozunu (martial arts legend Sho Kosugi), whose ultimate-villain status is unquestionable from the moment he begins gumming out lines like “Failure must be sewn into the flesh.” In a flashback development that’s more than a little reminiscent of the one in Batman Begins, Raizo eventually comes to an awareness of his clan’s unstated villainy when forced to decline and flee his final initiation ritual, an assassination of a helpless woman.
One would think Lord Ozunu might have made an exception in Raizo’s case, considering he’s far more talented than all his fellow students combined, a truism repeatedly demonstrated in the present-day action scenes during which he routs his opponents by the dozen using his weapon of choice, a length of chain with a bladed end piece. McTeigue’s reliance in these sequences on a highly-stylized aesthetic involving slow-mo, fast-mo, backgrounds of rain and fire, and oodles of CG assistance is a key, disappointing choice that drains each clash of any visceral impact. There’s little here we can buy as being unassisted by wirework, careful camera placement and teams of computer artists, unlike the painfully real stunts preferred by kung fu stars like Jackie Chan, who make a point of demonstrating their veracity in every scene. Typical of Ninja Assassin‘s consistently underwhelming commitment to composition-over-action choreography is an instance of single combat between Raizo and a rival ninja that occurs in a laundromat, during which the audience’s point of view of the brief skirmish is deliberately blocked by a flurry of sheets and clothes. Also typical, though, is how easy McTeigue makes it to forgive when he caps the scene with a throwaway shot revealing that Raizo has left his opponent’s dismembered pieces spinning in a dryer.