No one was more pumped up for a new nin­ja epic than me.  I’ve loved mar­tial arts-themed any­thing since child­hood.  With the supernatural/comic-book angles of their mys­tique, nin­jas held a spe­cial lev­el of inter­est for me, to the point that I used to draw elab­o­rate bat­tle sce­nes of nin­ja armies fight­ing each oth­er dur­ing my ele­men­tary school years.  Ninja Assassin added fur­ther appeal by cast­ing Sho Kosugi, star of count­less 1980’s nin­ja-thons like Revenge Of The Ninja and 9 Deaths Of The Ninja, in a major role.  With a pro­tégé of the Wachowski Brothers direct­ing and a respect­ed sci-fi author (J. Michael Straczynski) co-writ­ing the script, it couldn’t miss, right?

Think again.  Ninja Assassin takes a promis­ing setup and spends its time tak­ing it in all the wrong direc­tions.  The open­ing scene reveals that  a clan of nin­jas are killing crooks on a for-hire basis.  Things start to go wrong with the intro­duc­tion of (*groan*) a plucky young Europol researcher (Naomi Harris), who pieces togeth­er the nin­jas’ sto­ry and thus ensures that she and her law-enforce­ment brethren are des­tined for nin­jit­su-style slic­ing & dic­ing.  Her only hope is Raizo (Korean pop star Rain), an escapee from the nin­ja clan.  His past trau­mas roll out in flash­back form as he labors to pro­tect the hero­ine and gears up to the set­tle the score with the clan’s bru­tal lead­er, Ozuno (Kosugi).

Unfortunately, the script han­dles the­se ele­ments in a ter­mi­nal­ly bland man­ner and wors­ens things by graft­ing on mass-appeal ele­ments that just don’t work.  The real sto­ry is the clash between Raizo and Ozuno but it is forced to take a back­seat to the Europol plot thread, which offers card­board-thin char­ac­ters and is dull enough to inspire nar­colep­sy.    The flash­backs to  Raizo’s train­ing work in clas­sic mar­tial-arts flick style but even the­se get derailed by the intro­duc­tion of a love inter­est (?!?) in sce­nes filled with cringe-induc­ing, unin­ten­tion­al­ly hilar­i­ous dia­logue about love and the nature of the human heart.  The script also fea­tures dumb ideas like hav­ing gangs of nin­jas who whis­per and mum­ble when they emerge from the shad­ows.

On the plus side, there are two very good per­for­mances by Rain and Kosugi.  Rain offers a nice­ly sto­ic pres­ence and han­dle the phys­i­cal demands of his hero­ic role with ease while Kosugi brings a grav­i­tas and sense of dra­mat­ic depth to the vil­lain role that this film real­ly doesn’t deserve.  Unfortunately, they have to share their time with the bor­ing crime-inves­ti­ga­tion stuff, which is anchored by a so-bland-it’s-barely-there per­for­mance from Harris.

ninjas-kill-peopleHowever, the final nail in Ninja Assassin’s coffin is the all-flash, zero-sub­stance direc­tion from James McTeigue.  He gives the film the expect­ed visu­al gloss but is way too reliant upon dig­i­tal imagery to achieve his desired effects.  There appears to be some decent chore­og­ra­phy in the fight sce­nes but each set­piece is slathered with a ton of unnec­es­sary, car­toon­ish CGI:  sick­les on chains fly out at the audi­ence in a 1950’s 3-D style and slashed nin­jas erupt in wel­ters of neon-bright dig­i­tal gore that resem­ble Hi-C Tropical Fruit Punch.  The film­mak­ers for­got that the plea­sure of any sort of mar­tial arts film comes from see­ing fights and mag­i­cal der­ring-do that are real­ly hap­pen­ing in front of the cam­era.  What we get in Ninja Assassin is so dig­i­tal­ly pol­ished and reworked that it feels like you are look­ing over someone’s shoul­der while they play a nin­ja video game.  There’s also the usu­al crap­py fast edit­ing that drains all the visu­al intrigue right out of a fight.

In short, if you want a nin­ja fix, you are bet­ter off turn­ing to the clas­sics.  Ninja Assassin expends a lot of crash and flash but nev­er quite deliv­ers the goods.