The extraordinarily violent Ninja Assassin opens with a tough guy Yakuza gang leader having a tattoo inked on his back by a mysterious old man who talks about the four noble professions, the five rings, and other cliché Japanese cultural mumbo-jumbo. A henchman enters the lair and announces, “I got something for ya, boss.” It’s an envelope full of black sand.
The old man (Randall Duk Kim) says he’s seen it before and last time everyone was then slaughtered by ninjas. Seconds later — surprise! — ninja assassins appear and everyone in the room is graphically and methodically slaughtered. The “splattered blood on the wall” motif is also established in this first scene.
Cut to Berlin and the headquarters of Europol, where forensic researcher Mika (Naomie Harris) is explaining to her skeptical boss Maslow (Ben Miles) that she’s uncovered a trail of assassinations that appear to have been committed by modern-day ninjas. “Wait a minute,” he responds. “What word doesn’t belong in this sentence: laptop, space shuttle, nanotechnology, ninja?” But the ninja clans are real, and they operate by stealing children and training them to be selfless, ruthless, and generally mean, vicious little killing machines willing to beat each other to death, all in the name of honoring their new family. Yeah, insert “kung fu movie cliché here.”
One young boy, Raizo (Korean star Rain), proves to be more talented than any of his peers, but also more troubled, and he eventually and inevitably falls for a beautiful young female ninja trainee, Kiriko (Linh Dan Pham).
Much of the film is told in Raizo’s flashbacks, memories of training to be a Ozunu black sand clan ninja and, eventually, turning on them when he refuses to kill a defenseless woman in cold blood.
The action in the film takes a while to get going after that first violent scene, but once it starts, it really doesn’t stop. I lost track of how many bodies are scattered to the ground as the Western Europol cops with guns versus the black pajama’d ninjas battle from place to place, leaving rivers of blood and no wall unsplattered. Yes, it’s pretty darn violent, and then some.
But it’s also fairly entertaining, and some of the set pieces, including the battle between Raizo and his archenemy and fellow ninja Takeshi (Rick Yune), are pretty darn impressive. Sure, there are some confusing elements, like how Takeshi is slammed off his feet by a car in Berlin, just to show up in the next scene back in Japan, unharmed, but maybe it’s just that amazing ninja ability to heal yourself (and, presumably, catch plane flights while bleeding)?
If you’re expecting Ninja Assassin to be a thoughtful film that explores the nuances of a society built around the twin pillars of honor and violence, this is not it. If you’re just looking for a rollicking good time, a kung fu film with all the sensibilities of The Matrix, then you’ve found a good guilty pleasure movie. And that’s no surprise: from the director to the producer to many of the f/x and production team, this is the same group that worked with the Wachowski brothers (Larry and Andy) to bring The Matrix Trilogy to the big screen too.