There are some movies you call in first few minutes. Before the main titles roll, you know if you're going to like it or not. Ninja Assassin is one of those movies.
The film opens with an arrogant Yakuza soldier undergoing a grueling tattoo session. An envelope is delivered: Folded parchment with a wax seal, holding nothing inside but a handful of black powder. The old tattoo artist recoils in horror because he know that this is the calling card of the Black Sand Clan of ninja assassins. The thugs are still laughing at him when the blood bath starts.
Arms drop from shoulders and heads roll from necks, with nothing but the sounds of *SWOOSH* and a *SHING* to motivate them. Wounds open up into glorious splatters of blood – buckets and buckets of blood – as the Yakuza, falling one by one, helplessly fire into the shadows at an enemy they cannot see. But to no avail, for the shadow creatures they face are...Ninjas!
Ninja Assassin makes no bones about it: Ninjas are every bit as deadly, mysterious and borderline-supernatural as the legends make them out to be. They are invisible. They can climb any surface and enter any locked room. They can heal from any wound and kill you before you ever know they're there.
Everyone who isn't a ninja in this movie, laughs when they first hear tell of the black-clad assassins. Such is the burden carried by Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris), a Europol agent who believes she's uncovered a paper trail proving the existence of ninjas, willing to kill anyone for 100 pounds of gold. She has to convince her boss, who (like everyone else) first scoffs at the idea.
By acknowledging the inherent silliness of the basic premise, the filmmakers here get to have their cake and eat it too. "Yeah, we know the idea of ninjas might seem goofy at this point – but buy in, because we've got a bloody good story for ya."
But Mika is a secondary character, an ally on the hero's journey. The guy we really want to see is Raizo (played Korean superstar Rain), who is gradually revealed as the Ninja Assassin (an assassin who is a ninja) turned Ninja Assassin (one who assassinates ninjas).
Mika is but the facilitator of Raizo's quest for revenge. There's some good-humored chemistry between Raizo and Mika, and while the plotting is a tiny bit more sophisticated that what you might expect, let's face facts: you're not here to see a hero reach his dramatic need and discover a fundamental truth about the human condition.
You are here to see some ninjas scare the crap out of people before chopping them into burrito fixins'. This movie has that by the truck loads.
Ninja Assassin bounces along between flashback revelations of Raizo's brutal childhood training (shades of King Leonidas in 300) and the present run-and-gun battle between him and his attackers from the Black Sand Clan.
Director James McTeigue stages the escalating battles with panache. He opts for frenetic Bourne-style action scenes with an occasional dip into bullet-time well of his producers the Wachowski Brothers. It's computer-enhanced, wire-fu fighting to be sure, but easy on the eyes. The shooting style is occasionally frustrating as it's sometimes hard to see exactly what is going on, but in a way that enhances the ninja mystique. They are moving faster than your perception!
Best of all everything is doused in wonderful excess: Blood sprays by the gallon. Shuriken hail down on victims like rainfall. Raizo's torso is more scar tissue than skin. A dozen ninjas? Why not a hundred? Throw in a bunch of army guys with machine guns while you're at it! This movie goes so far over the top it's orbiting Mars.
Is the story thin? Like the slice of lettuce on a triple Whopper with cheese. Glorified violence? Yes and without apologies.
But is that really such a bad thing? Like 300 or Blade 2 or Versus, Ninja Assassin is a lean movie that blasts forward on the strength of its stylized, high-octane mayhem to deliver a shot of adrenaline to the heart. In that it succeeds wildly.