Ninja Assassin -- Film Review

Chances are if you're willingly walking into a movie entitled "Ninja Assassin," you're expecting to see three basic things: 1) ninjas, 2) lots of them, 3) fighting each other with all sorts of cool weapons your parents never would let you own.

It's a pleasure to report, then, that this contemporary chopsocky feature, produced by the Wachowski brothers and directed by James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta"), delivers on those essential elements. It is indeed filled with lots of ninjas who are constantly at each other's throats with all manner of sharp implements.

The film is likely to enjoy only a modest run in theaters, but its chances at a successful home entertainment afterlife seem strong.

Made for the relatively modest price tag of $50 million, "Ninja" often appears as if it cost twice that, thanks to its lush visuals (lensed by Karl Walter Lindenlaub) and terrific special effects, pulled off with a combination of practical and digital tricks. In terms of narrative, though, it's a B-picture all the way.

The somewhat jumbled story line centers on Raizo (South Korean pop singer Rain), a skilled warrior raised from an early age to be a foot soldier in a secret army of ninja assassins. But after his brutal master kills the girl he loves, Raizo goes rogue and wages war on his former employers with the help of an Interpol agent (Naomie Harris) investigating this shadowy world of sword-wielding hitmen.

A plot this thin requires charismatic actors to give the proceedings any dramatic weight. Unfortunately, that's the primary area where "Ninja" falls short. Rain might be a superstar in concert, but he's not very interesting onscreen. Granted, the serviceable screenplay by Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski only gives him glum angst to play, but his perpetual blank stare doesn't suggest much range.

It's also a shame to see Harris, who had such a steely, badass presence in her breakthrough role in "28 Days Later," stuck playing the out-of-her-depth sidekick.

Where the movie excels is the action sequences, largely because McTeigue takes full advantage of his R rating to indulge in lots of blood-soaked slicing-and-dicing, while displaying a sense of humor the rest of the film lacks.

In typical Wachowski fashion, these set pieces embrace both comic book and video game aesthetics: The frames are carefully composed and packed with rich colors, but the camera is rarely locked down, toggling around the space as if McTeigue were controlling it with a joystick. This approach might upset old-school kung fu movie fans, but it results in some of the most entertaining and over-the-top martial arts action this side of the "Kill Bill" films.

"Ninja" isn't a great movie, but if you're in the right frame of mind, it is a bloody good time.

Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 25 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Warner Bros. Pictures, Silver Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Dark Castle Entertainment, Anarchos Prods., Studio Babelsberg
Cast: Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Rick Yune, Sho Kosugi, Guido Foehrweisser, Stephen Marcus, Wladimir Tarasjanz, Randall Duk Kim, Sung Kang
Director: James McTeigue
Screenwriters: Matthew Sand, J. Michael Straczynski
Story: Matthew Sand
Producers: Joel Silver, Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, Grant Hill
Executive Producers: Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Steve Richards
Director of Photography: Karl Walter Lindenlaub
Production Designer: Graham Walker
Music by Ilan Eshkeri
Costume Designer: Carlo Poggioli
Edited by Gian Ganziano, Joseph Jett Sally
Rated R, 99 minutes
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