Review: Ninja Assassin (2009)

When I saw the Ninja Assassin Blu Ray on sale at Target for $10, I’d never even heard of the movie before.  That’s very bad news for a major studio release backed by the Wachowski brothers.  I knew it was probably bad, and it was.  I wasn’t even surprised by how it went wrong.

Director James McTeigue was an assistant director for the Wachowskis who miraculously got tapped to direct V for Vendetta.  I liked V quite a lot, but there isn’t a lot of action in it.  For his second effort, he directed this pile of shit in much the way the Wachowskis probably would have.  Need to show some action?  CGI it!  Need to have every character who gets a scratch bleed buckets of blood?  CGI it!  Need to tell a story about modern day ninjas?  Recruit a Korean for the lead!  Huh?

Rain (born Jung Jihoon) and the other asian actors cast for this film (mostly Koreans), bring nothing of the Japan I know and love to the table.  This is an American film, made by people who obviously know little of the Japanese.  This is the least Japanese film about the Japanese that I have ever seen.  Yes, there are pseudo-Japanese settings, but even they fail to ring true.  Here’s an idea:  If you want to make a ninja movie, you might want to do some research on feudal Japan.  I’m just saying.  Sho Kusugi does what he can in his pivotal role, but it’s not nearly enough to bring the tone of this film out of the American cinema gutter.  I was surprised to see that J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) co-wrote this embarrassing crap.

While I was waiting for the movie to play itself out (it’s 90+ minutes but felt like three hours) I thought about how the CGI “artists” milked all spontaneity out of their images by being too clever.  Everything moves just so.  A character swings his kusarigama and the blade whisks by the camera oh so perfectly.  It looks more like a video game than a feature film at that point.  The trouble is that CGI is actually a selling point to the Hollywood brass these days because they think that the over the top imagery is what gets butts in the seats.  I’ve often been baffled by this thinking (can’t everyone see that it just looks BAD?) but I had time to think about it during Ninja Assassin and I now have a theory.

Ever since Star Wars and Jaws started Hollywood’s blockbuster thirst, the works of Joseph Campbell have been languishing on every producer’s bookshelf.  Myth has been the answer to filling those seats, and that’s resulted in some pretty good movies.  Virtually every big action/scifi/superhero epic of the last thirty years has been based on Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  That accounts for Hollywood’s dry well of inspiration and it also accounts for its lack of visual creativity.

Hollywood has created the visual equivalent of the structure of Campbell’s hero tome.  Every blockbuster now pulls from a set visual vocabulary.  While it isn’t written down anywhere, it has a dictionary of sorts and that dictionary is a movie.  The Matrix.  If you pay attention, you’ll notice how similar The Matrix is to the original Star Wars.  That’s because both screenplays are based on Hero with a Thousand Faces.  But CGI hadn’t developed to the point where it could create its own mythic visual cliches until the time of the first Matrix picture.  That’s really its genius.  The problem is that every film since 1999 has been trying to make the same visual vocabulary faster, cheaper, and now 3D.  Even George Lucas fell victim to this plague with his own SW prequel trilogy (The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 as well) which spawned hundreds of copies of the same old hackneyed images.  The snake has now eaten its tail.

Ninja Assassin proves that the core set of mythic images is more stale than ever.  Avoid this uninspired film unless you think you might like to see a Hallmark Channel production of the latest Saw sequel.

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