Ketchup, red ink and blood. In the world of “Ninja Assassin,” these liquids are all the same. The threat of bloodshed is always imminent in the film, so sudden close-ups of a tattoo artist applying red ink to a client’s back and ketchup squirting on a basket of fries send premature shivers down the spine. After the initial shock, these jokey shots should remind audiences, “None of this is real, it’s only a movie.” On top of that, the film’s downright wacky plot distracts the audience from grasping the scope of the film’s unsettling blood lust.
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Raizo (Rain, “Speed Racer”) is a rogue ninja who turns against the mysterious ninja clan who both raised and trained him to be a killing machine. Now he’s on the run, and clan leader Ozunu (Shô Kosugi, “Journey of Honor”) is out to kill him for mutiny. Meanwhile, Europol investigator Mika (Naomie Harris, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”) begins to discover the web of secret assassins behind high-profile murders dating back a thousand years. Naturally, Raizo’s and Mika’s paths cross, and they join forces to take down Ozunu and his evil clan.
Obviously, the plot is ridiculous and over-the-top. The action scenes are only a small part of a strange narrative cocktail that includes a heart-rending coming-of-age story, melodrama, training montages, romantic comedy elements and conspiracy theories. The film’s kitchen-sink approach leads to deliriously silly moments, like when Mika pulls up to a hotel with her Lexus covered in shurikens. Raizo’s ability to sense what’s in people’s hearts (yes, like the kid with the monkey from “Captain Planet”) is, intentionally or not, another source of humor.
As expected, fights are the film’s main focus. The shadowy ninja showdowns are the most engaging skirmishes, with arcs of steel and blood splashing through the dark like a Jackson Pollock painting. But all too often, the combination of quick-cutting and jittery camerawork ruins the elaborate choreography. The film wants to show gore, not ballet, so the “Mortal Kombat”-style dismemberment is front and center.
Another sore spot is the uncharismatic hero. Rain’s pretty-boy looks could be ignored if he had the acting chops to play a convincing assassin — but most of the time he looks bored, not badass. Sure, he’s supposed to be impassive, but on-screen the performance comes across as lazy. There are a few moments where he cocks his head to the side and barks, “Let’s go!” with swagger, but that’s about it.
“Ninja Assassin” has all the makings of a great action movie, but squanders its potential with jumbled action scenes, a dull hero and a fixation on gore. Seeing someone’s insides is par for the course in ninja flicks, but the film keeps the blood flowing to the point of exhaustion. Seeing someone bleed is one thing, but seeing dozens of bodies instantly split in half is another. The film’s sense of humor works, but feels a bit disingenuous when placed alongside the excessive and indulgent violence. Queasy scenes aside, “Ninja Assassin” delivers a meaty action fix.