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David Hines [userpic]

alas for the Ninja Assassin

November 27th, 2009 (07:25 pm)
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I didn't know it going in, but coming out I'm not surprised to learn that JMS had a hand in writing NINJA ASSASSIN -- the combined love of backstory and the speechifying should have given it away. The flick is fun in parts, but it suffers from an awkward screenplay, dull cinematography, and often very poor direction. Nor is the cast all that great; bad guy Sho Kusugi is always great to see, but Naomie Harris, who plays the female lead, is likeable but doesn't do anything interesting with her part, and Rain, who plays the male lead (an eponymous ninja who, curiously, is also an assassin), is just okay. There are some cool bits using visual effects to make ninjas literally dissolve into and out of shadows, but director James McTeigue overplays it; when it works, you think, "Holy crap, was somebody there the whole time and I just missed him?" When it doesn't, it looks like a bad visual effect. McTeigue also does badly with the action scenes, which are after all a good chunk of the point of a flick called NINJA ASSASSIN; there are some moments and even scenes (ninja fight in traffic! ninja fight in traffic!) that work wonderfully, but for the most part these aren't effective in whole sequences, but in the rare individual shots in which McTeigue 1) pulls the camera back to let you see what's happening, and 2) holds the shot through enough action that a sense of excitement builds. A lot of the time it's cut-cut-cut-cut-cut, to the point that I felt bad for the talented stunt team and for Rain, who reportedly trained an insane amount to do martial arts that the audience doesn't get a good chance to see.

The film also suffers badly from the lack of a clear viewpoint character and reasons for characters to do stuff, and also for the fact that it takes forty-five minutes before anything fucking happens. For example, after an opening ninja action sequence we meet Naomie Harris, who is a forensic researcher for Europol with a ninja bent. She gives us, and the operative she works for, the necessary exposition. As she continues her investigation, we get a couple more expository scenes and several scenes in which it is established several times that heat is coming down on Harris and her colleague because the ninjas do government assassinations for pay, which means they have government protectors. Meanwhile, we meet Rain, who is a ninja. He fights an attractive woman, who is also a ninja, and at a laundromat, and then goes back to his apartment and practices being a ninja. Then we get yet more scenes about Naomie Harris having to deal with heat for investigating the ninjas -- the best I can figure is that this is in case the audience got bored and went for popcorn and so missed those scenes the first time.

I'm still puzzled by the laundromat ninja. She's an attractive woman who asks him to help fold her laundry, so we think we'll get a Rain-the-outcast-from-society scene at first. But Rain realizes she's a ninja somehow, and then she attacks him, and we get a fight that is too close for us to see anything but is there on the grounds that a pointless, poorly-staged ninja fight will keep the audience from noticing that nothing is fucking happening.

Okay, follow my reason on this one:

1) Rain is an outcast ninja, so his ninja clan wants to kill him.
2) His ninja clan sent somebody to Berlin to kill him.
3) Said ninja knows where Rain does his laundry.
4) Said ninja therefore knows Rain's movements.
5) There is a good chance that the ninja clan therefore knows Rain's movements.

So what does a ninja do when he discovers his enemies know where he is? I bet he does some smart ninja shit. He does countersurveillance. He figures out if he's being followed. He picks up stuff that he's stashed somewhere. If he absolutely has to go back to his apartment, he has some sneaky-as-shit way to go about it. He has, in short, the opportunity to demonstrate to the audience that he is a smart, sneaky, competent motherfucker, and let us feel vicariously like smart, sneaky, competent motherfuckers because we're watching him. Sweet!

Nah, I'm kidding. Rain just goes home.

He does takes his shirt off and works out with a bunch of ninja weapons, so there's that; but that just tells us that Rain's character 1) is pretty and 2) is a ninja, and my guess is the audience has figured that out already. He also thinks about his childhood for half the movie, and that stuff goes on for far longer than it really needs to.

Anyway, Rain and Harris finally meet up and the movie actually starts happening. But even here, the movie persists with a problem that plagues it from the opening: it is not really sure whether it wants its viewpoint character to be Rain or Harris, and so splits awkwardly between them. In this kind of movie, the viewpoint character *should* be Rain, because in a movie called NINJA ASSASSIN the audience is really going to want to stick with the character who does badass ninja shit. The script is trying for an X-MEN thing, where the character (Rogue, and later, Wolverine; in this movie, Harris) who does not know about our fictional world of cool badassery learns about it and so serves as the eyes of the audience -- J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is another example of this gimmick; hell, so is freakin' TWILIGHT. But in those stories, the viewpoint character is either a member of (Wolverine) or becomes a member of (Harry) the group of badasses who know and understand and kick butt in this world. Naomie Harris is not going to become a ninja. So we *want* to stick with Rain.

Harris does not work as a viewpoint character for another reason: the script starts out with her trying to find out about the ninjas and about Rain. So the opening dynamic has Rain being a mystery to Harris. This is a problem: when one character is a mystery to another, the character who is a mystery is built up. By "built up" I mean "elevated in cool." But you do not need to build Rain up. HE IS A BADASS NINJA. He is already elevated in cool. By further elevating him, you make him further eclipse Naomie Harris's character. It would work better if we stuck with Rain and saw him investigating Harris, who becomes a target of his ninja clans because of her work. ("He's interested in her? What's special about her? Why does the badass think she's important? She must be cool.")

Moreover, once things get rolling, Harris's one ruthless, potentially bad-ass moment as a character is undermined by the fact that 1) it isn't shown as a ruthless, bad-ass choice, but as the character wimping out and 2) it doesn't make any fucking sense. She uses a homing beacon to contact her buddy at Europol, knowing that the ninjas will find out about it first because 1) they have contacts and 2) they're ninjas. Rain is in a ninja healing trance, and is taken while Harris watches from a distant observation post. The good guys then use this to trace Rain to the ninja lair and launch the climactic fight scene.

If you think about it, this could be a ruthless but nasty smart thing for Harris to do: sacrifice or potentially sacrifice Rain, but at the chance to wipe out the ninja threat. You would not like her for this decision, but you could possibly respect it. But she tells Rain beforehand, while he is unconscious, that *she can't do this,* that she's just a researcher, that she's not like him. She wimps out. She's not using Rain. She's getting rid of him. This makes her a weak character, one you cannot respect. And it makes the good guys following the homing beacon nonsensical: if she just wanted them to take Rain away, why plant the beacon so that it would go with him, rather than, say, leave it on the nightstand? And if she *did* plan to follow Rain, what on earth made her think that the guys who just spent considerable effort, um, trying to kill him, wouldn't just kill him immediately? This was a gimmick that needed more working out.

(Another example of stupidity: at one point early on, as a bit of disguise, Rain tells Harris to take a no-soap shower and change her clothes; he then asks if she smokes; she doesn't, so he lights a cigarette and wafts it around her. This is part of a disguise -- changing her scent. It makes no sense at all if you think about it, but for the purposes of a movie it is a cool ninja thing to do. Later, when Rain is in his healing trance, we see Harris beside him, watching him sleep. She has a lit cigarette, and takes one drag before wafting it around herself the way Rain did earlier. It is a nice little transfer, and a good bit of business -- and *it is completely obviated by the previous shot, which showed their bashed-up, shuriken-riddled car parked in full view outside of the motel they are staying in.* That's the movie killing a perfectly decent character moment for the sake of a quick laugh.)

Anyway: I cannot recommend NINJA ASSASSIN, but it does have one really neat action sequence (ninja fight in traffic! ninja fight in traffic!), and Rain does get shirtless, oiled up, and tortured, which I know some of my flist members will go for. Still, it could have been better as eye candy.

Comments

Posted by: Randall Randall (randallsquared)
Posted at: November 28th, 2009 02:34 am (UTC)
Comment contains spoilers

"parked in full view outside of the motel they are staying in"

Well, in the theater I was in, both the shot of the car and the cigarette wafting by Harris were accompanied by laughs, so it seems the primary purpose of that was not to show Harris becoming a badass, but to release the tension of the previous long fight and getaway, and to reinforce the "completely ordinary woman" that they keep trying to hammer home. The Harris character is supposed to be someone we identify with, precisely because she is not in any way a badass, and they conspicuously shut down any plot turn that could have her becoming competent at evasion, etc.

Anyway, the second wafting is doubly ineffective in the world of the movie, since the clan ninjas have encountered them since the first wafting, and therefore will be able to (ludicrously) track the cigarette smoke just as well...

This movie had some fun fight scenes (the end scenes were my favorite; the "bring rocket launchers to a shuriken fight" aspect was a nice change from the usual pace of the genre), and had some neat dialogue in places (ninja girl in box paraphrasing Thoreau, for example), but it clearly wasn't meant to be taken too seriously.

Posted by: Jayman (smjayman)
Posted at: November 28th, 2009 02:40 am (UTC)

It is better if you drink about 4 cocktails before viewing.

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