Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
What might you expect a movie called "Ninja Assassin" to deliver? A plot that's more than cheap wallpaper behind nonstop, hugger-mugger action, characters a cut above video-game avatars, mind-blowing martial arts?
Dream on, grasshopper. "Ninja Assassin" hangs its improbable story line on the thinnest of premises and personalities. Worst of all, it stages big action sequences in environs so dark that you can hardly make out where anyone is, or follow the incoherent paroxysms of leaping, star-throwing, sword-wielding, and knife-chain-flinging. Heads may roll, torsos get severed and geysers of blood spurt, but no amount of CGI'd gore can save "Assassin" from being dramatically lame, visually impaired and kinetically flat-footed.
For centuries, the Clan of Black Sand has recruited cast-off street orphans, training them up as unstoppable assassins who consider themselves literal "arms" of a bonded family. Passing every test of battle and intolerable pain, Raizo (Rain) seems marked as heir by the brutal head of the Ozunu clan (the estimable Sho Kosugi, veteran of martial arts movies since the '80s). Then a soft-hearted girl-ninja shatters Raizo's killer concentration, and eventually his fealty to the clan.
This touching backstory is delivered courtesy of flashbacks, as vengeful Raizo wages war on his ninja brothers. In Berlin, his path crosses that of a pair of Europol agents who've dug up dirt on this ancient enclave of professional assassins. For no real reason except to jump-start the sputtering plot, Raizo hooks up with Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris), one of the investigators now marked for death by the ubiquitous shadow-warriors.
("Ninja Assassin" is Matthew Sand's maiden voyage as a screenwriter -- think the Titanic. But get this: Co-scripter J. Michael Straczynski is last credited as having written Clint Eastwood's "Changeling"! Before that, lots of time served on TV's "Babylon 5." Maybe that's what permanently damaged his grasp of coherent narrative.)
Good move, giving Harris screen time; memorable in "Miami Vice" and "28 Days Later," this actress's natural charm and animation are welcome relief from Rain the robot's frozen expression and sub-Bondian quips, delivered in humorless monotone. A pop-star singer in his native South Korea, the boy's nicely put together, so it's not hard to watch him "dance" bare-chested through his ninja exercises. But the charisma-meter barely registers the existence of this cinematic shadow, totally eclipsed by the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or the lowliest henchmen in O-Ren Ishii's Crazy 88 gang.
"Ninja Assassin" opens explosively, with a gang of preening Yakuza punks getting a bloody comeuppance at the hands of invisible executioners firing waves of five-pointed throwing stars. That slice-and-dice extravaganza's adequately lighted, so you have a chance to really eyeball the action, such as it is. In later operatic duels -- one with Rain's jealous "older brother" (Rick Yune), the other a climactic showdown with Big Daddy Ozunu -- the firepower and bloodletting are so over-the-top that the brouhaha becomes yawn-worthy, especially since that vaunted cloak of invisibility keeps obscuring the actual whereabouts of ninja acrobats. St. Vitus' dance camerawork and super-fast cutting only add to our motion sickness.
"Matrix" masters and "Speed Racer" flameouts Andy and Larry Wachowski produced this martial arts mess, but let's seize the opportunity to lay heaps of blame on director James McTeigue, the hack who previously punished us with "V for Vendetta."
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.