James McTeigue, director of "V For Vendetta," is back in the saddle for the new Warner Bros. action movie "Ninja Assassin," and the good news is that it's an energetic, gore-soaked bit of fun.
It's Teflon, slick and without substance, and you may have a hard time describing the film's plot two hours after you see it, but I'm not sure I would hold that against the film. It's so aggressive about delivering a series of crazy set pieces that I admire it for it's single-mindedness, and there's at least one major choice made by McTeigue that I really like.
Hats off to Warner Bros. for taking a chance on Rain as a lead actor. Although I'm one of the most ardent supporters of "Speed Racer," I wasn't convinced that Rain really worked as a lead. Here, he's absolutely charismatic enough to pull it off, and although it's a very simple character arc overall, Rain plays enough shade and nuance to make me think he can handle even more the next time out.
Naomie Harris ("Miami Vice," "Pirates Of The Caribbean") stars as an analyst for an intelligence agency who is convinced that she's uncovered proof of a shadowy organization of ninjas who work as paid assassins around the world. Her investigation eventually brings her face to face with Raizo (Rain), who is the one member of that organization to ever successfully walk away. Together, they go on the run and have to face down the killers who are chasing them.
The end. It really is just that simple. There's some stuff about Raizo's childhood, and some stuff about the people Harris works for, but most of the film is a chase, one set piece to the next, and on that level, it really works. McTeigue's best decision in the entire film is to shoot the ninjas as monsters and to shoot the film as a horror movie. That way, it gives him permission to keep them offscreen except for glimpses, and it keeps them from feeling ridiculous. Cranking up the gore to a ridiculous degree also works in the film's favor. The action choreography is good but it's also studio-safe, meaning you don't get the same kind of kinetic "did they just kill that guy?" thrills you get from Thai action movies, so they ladle on the CGI gore as a distraction.
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The strangest thing about Naomie Harris so far is how she vanishes into each movie. I watched this whole film wondering who the female lead was, and when I saw her name in the closing credits it surprised me. She's a chameleon. Overall, the movie comes down to the chemistry she has with Rain, and that works. The two of them make an engaging couple on the run, and it's smart that they never try to turn her into an ass-kicking fighter. Considering how polished everyone in the movie is, they'd have to fake it with her, and it would just come across as silly. Bonus points also for the casting of Sho Kosugi as the mentor leader of the ninja cult. He almost single-handedly defined ninjas onscreen in the '80s, so it is appropriate to cast him here as the guy passing the torch.
I do think the film is narratively thin, but J. Michael Straczynski said he rewrote Matthew Sand's script in less than a week so that they could make a start date. I'd believe it. You've seen most of this before. It's just that McTeigue shoots it with a vigor and a joy that is almost palpable. I get the feeling he really enjoyed shooting the film, and it's nice that he and the Wachowskis seem to be developing a working method that makes all of them happy and that results in solid B-movie-with-A-list-values films like this one. It feels like an origin story, and I'd love to see Rain return in a series of films as Raizo works on an international scale.
If you're into crazy violent blood-soaked revenge stories, this is going to make you very happy on Thanksgiving weekend. Now if we could only find a way to cross this movie with "Old Dogs." I'd love to see John Travolta making lame baby jokes only to have Rain cut him in half with a giant sword. That would be a very happy Thanksgiving, indeed.
"Ninja Assassin" opens nationwide November 25th.
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