For those of you who were hoping that Ninja Assassin would be a historical exploration of what ninjas were really like, be warned: the filmmakers were not striving for realism. In fact, one of their biggest stylistic influences for this film was Ninja Scroll, a particularly gruesome bit of Japanese animation where blood shoots out like geysers, the ninjas move supernaturally fast, and one even travels through shadows like they're a network of tunnels. Needless to say, I was very interested to see how they would convey the feeling of that movie in live-action, given that a direct adaptation has been on the drawing board for years. In a word, they nailed it.
In Ninja Assassin, the bloodshed starts in the first scene, and realism is clearly not the aim. An unseen sword cuts a head in half mid-laugh. A blizzard of throwing stars riddles a gunman from head to toe. A man is cut down mid-calf, and his pant cuffs drop before the rest of his body. And forearms are bisected like so much firewood. We never even see the lone ninja responsible until the carnage is complete, when he rises from a shadow that conceals him perfectly. Next, we meet Mika (Naomie Harris), the pretty, African-American Europol researcher in Berlin who's found a pattern of large payments being transferred in the wake of high-profile assassinations. Her boss (Ben Miles) scoffs at her theory of ninjas, but agrees to give Mika room to explore. In the meantime, we see Raizo (Korean pop star Rain) doing his laundry. When a pretty girl asks for his help folding a sheet, he recognizes her as a fellow ninja, and their battle ends with her chopped up in a washing machine. He is being hunted, and before long so is Mika for getting too close to the truth, which leads him to save her from another assassin and team up with her to expose the clan and bring it down.
Around this time, I realized why this movie felt so familiar. Martial arts. Swords. An enemy with supernatural speed. An intelligent African-American damsel in distress saved by a silent, stoic protector who is more like the enemy than like her. I was watching Blade. Not that that's a bad thing -- after all, when Blade came out in 1998, it was a wake-up call for comic-book movies. It showed the world that superheroes were cool and bad-ass, and they didn't need to be brightly colored cartoon characters to get people's attention. It started a trend in superhero flicks that eventually gave us The Dark Knight where there was once Batman and Robin. Ninja Assassin is like the ninja movie's Blade, leaving behind the shameful legacy of Three Ninjas and Beverly Hills Ninja to become reborn.
Of course, Ninja Assassin might as well be a comic book movie, with its fantastical anime flavors. In recurring flashbacks, we get Raizo's origin story, seeing him adopted by a mountaintop ninja clan not unlike the clan Bruce Wayne joins in Batman Begins. Ninjas can move like black blurs, and disappear in the blink of an eye, a favorite trick of Batman's. Rain wields a knife and chain that seems to respond to his every whim, like Ghost Rider's mystical chain, and we find out that all ninjas have the ability to self-heal gaping wounds through meditation and a series of hand gestures. Sho Kosugi, the star of numerous 1980s ninja movies, plays the leader of the clan and head trainer, and his pupils need that healing power just to deal with the punishments he inflicts on them, which are often worse than anything received during training.
While most of the fighting is flashing knives and spurting blood, taking place between black-clad men that you can barely see (there is also some bullet-time slo-mo), the constant brutalization of young children and, later, teenagers, is a source of grounding realism in the film. And when young Raizo botches his first kill, it turns into an unchoreographed battle for his life in a cramped men's room that has a very unglamorous La Femme Nikita feel to it. Of course, it still got huge cheers from the crowd, but so did everything in the movie. The audience response alone reaffirmed my suspicions that a modern ninja movie was long overdue, and while the crowd I saw it with would have cheered for anything involving loss of limbs, I think the movie transcends simple swordfighting. I'm going to wait and see how the movie does at the New Moon-dominated box office, but if the roaring crowd in my theater was any indication, Ninja Assassin 2 and a live-action Ninja Scroll could both go into production tomorrow, and both would get equally enthusiastic receptions. Especially from me.
Did you see Ninja Assassin? Tell us what you thought below.