If James (assistant director on the Matrix Trilogy) McTeigue’s 2009 Germo/Yankee film is anything to go by, the life of a Ninja Assassin is pretty tough. It isn’t all shuriken-throwing and disappearing-into-shadows badass glamour. They have all kinds of shit to worry about like rival ninja’s trying to kill them while they’re doing laundry or grocery shopping. And the pay is really poor– they’re still getting paid the same rate from 600 years ago. Inflation, it’s revealed, is not part of the ninja code.
It’s no wonder that ninja Raizo goes rogue.
When this was released I was working at a shop in the UK called HMV. For anyone not familiar, HMV sold films, music, and video games. While we’d endure the misery of lowly shop assistant wages and social stigma there were some perks to be had. A hefty discount on stock for one, and the ability to watch pretty much anything we wanted on break. Ninja Assassin was one such “dinner watch”. Sadly, morbidly watching stock-room Doug chow down on a microwave pie that cost him 25p and being forced to listen to Jen’s mobile phone (locked in her locker) ring tone (the Five megamix) every time she got a text, distracted me from the movie. I didn’t give it much chance until 8 years later, when surfing Netflix for a film to annoy my girlfriend. Revenge for fucking Stardust. Let’s just say I enjoyed it more the second time round.
Ninja Assassin begins with a pretty cool sequence set in Japan. Some Yakuza boys are drinking in a bar, while Fast alumni Sung Kang (Bullet to the Head) is getting tatted up. But he’s squirming about under the artist’s needle. The old dude doing the work (Randall Duk Kim – Matrix 2 & 3) starts getting all philosophical, quoting the Book of Five Rings (no, not the sequel to Lord of the Rings, you uncultured slob), which Kang takes offense to. He’s basically saying he shouldn’t be a gold-plated pistol wielding lacky of the Japanese mafia, and should instead be a farmer or something.
During the argument an envelope containing black sand arrives. We know it’s important because it’s waxed sealed. The old guy gets all spooked out by this and he recounts how when he was young artist a group of other people in a similar bar all died violently by some unseen murdering force otherwise called NINJA. He shows them a wicked scar on his chest, over where his heart would normally be. He only survived, he explains, because he was born with his heart on the other side.
They all laugh at the stupid old bastard. Ninja’s don’t exist. 9mm gats exist. Along with the iron rule of the Yakuza and it’s boys.
But all the fun and games end in a squirt of blood as half a head of Generic Bodyguard A is severed from the rest of his skull. The lights are then shut off and people start to die. We quickly learn that this film is not fucking around in the ludicrous gore and ninja departments. This intro is really effective, though I did feel bad for the tattoo guy. Here he is, trying to work, but is getting shoved around by Fast and Furious guy and his goons, then assassinated by a ninja. He should have lived (again).
If you were a special kind of moron, you’d probably think the title Ninja Assassin to be redundant. I mean what else are ninja’s gonna be? I suppose it is specifying that it’s going to be about killing and shit. It’s not going to be like Ninja First Dates or something. Yet this film isn’t about ninja assassins. It’s more about one particular assassin of other ninjas. So it technically is more valid than say Reservoir Dogs (which features neither).
The ninja assassin is called Raizo, played by a Korean dude called Rain (Speed Racer) – no shit that’s his real name. Not only does he sound like a character out of Final Fantasy, he looks like one too. Much of the film is him in his apartment doing kata or eating noodles. Thankfully, he’s wearing more clothes than Colonel Stuart in Die Hard 2. Raizo never really wears any ninja gear, save at the beginning. Instead he’s more often in street clothes. Personally, I think he should have worn a different coloured gi, like a red ninja outfit. It would have signified how badass he is (because red is the colour of blood) and still keep him as a ninja.
Anyway, at first we think he’s the ninja that Europol agents Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris – Skyfall) and Ryan Baslow (Ben Miles – V for Vendetta) are after. They’re investigating shady political murders. He doesn’t believe that ninjas can be involved, but Mika has been checking bank accounts against high profile assassinations. The Ozunu Ninja Clan are historically paid 100 pounds of gold per hit, so using a calculator, she’s managed to trace all the hits they’ve made by looking at market values. Baslow is impressed, but unconvinced. He needs evidence, hard evidence, the kind of thing that ninjas seldom leave (except just bodies).
After some more digging, they come across an ex-KGB agent called Aleksei who got kicked out of the service for being a head case. He believed the same as Mika, that a group of 9 clans were responsible for a load of assassinations. Mika visits his widow (unsurprisingly he was brutally dismembered by persons unknown). She says it was all covered up and that Mika is the first person to take her late husband’s work seriously. She gives her a box of files that includes a surveillance tape of Raizo kicking the ass of someone outside of Aleksei’s apartment years ago.
Meanwhile, Raizo is having to fend off other ninja’s trying to kill him. He’s busy doing his laundry and some woman (she has a scar on her chest so we know she’s legit) tries her luck. Her head ends up in the washing machine, because Raizo is the subtle type. During his downtime he does a lot of misty-eyed reminiscing of his time under Lord Ozunu’s (Sho Kosugi – Bruce Lee Fights Back From The Grave) tutelage back when he was a ninja cadet.
As an orphan child he was inducted into the clan along with a load of other kids. They’re shown how to do all kinds of ninjary. But the training is lot more brutal than Batman Begins‘ beginning. Here any failure is punished severely. During a stealth test, Raizo has to sneak passed Ozunu while he’s in a room with his back turned. When Raizo fucks up and makes a sound, Ozunu whips his feet with a cane. Child is pit against child in fights that end in broken bones or worse. One particular fave punishment is for Ozunu to do some Fist Of The North Star putting-his-hand-into-their-stomach style pain moves.
Quickly a rivalry with a dirtbag called Takeshi (Rick Yune – Die Another Day) brews. It’s probably due to Raizo getting attention from pretty ninja girl Kiriko. She wants to leave the life of ninja-hood and go to the city to become middle-management or something. Her teenage girl allure does it’s work on Raizo and he nearly betrays all his training when she asks him to leave. He can’t go though, because he hasn’t learned all the ninja ways.
Lord Ozunu doesn’t abide by deserters though, and has his ninja boys track her down and bring her in. She’s tied up and made an example of by Ozunu and Takeshi. It’s devastating for Raizo and Takeshi knows it. He looks right at him as he’s executing Kiriko, knowing that Raizo totally wanted to bone her.
Back to the present day, and Raizo is mysteriously handed a photo of Mika with her address scrawled on the back. His next target? That night, Mika receives the envelope of doom. She knows what it means (because Aleksei also got one, according to his wife). Fumbling around for a torch, she doesn’t see some black-clad ninja slip from the shadows behind her. Poised to strike, he’s intercepted by another ninja and is brutally slain. Mika is a bit concerned because 1) an ancient organisation of killers is now trying to get her and 2) a ninja’s brains are now decorating her modest apartment.
“I can help you”, says a shadow.
But he doesn’t mean with the cleaning. Slipping out of nowhere, the masked protector removes his mask. It’s Raizo. And he’s here to protect her.
It seems that our boy Raizo took Kiriko’s death a bit to heart; during his final training mission, he’s goes rogue, kills a load of his brethren and takes out Ozunu’s eye with his spinning chain blade weapon. He’s been pursued ever since. But now with Europoll on the case he can finally emerge from the shadows (so to speak) and help the good guys take them down. Why Raizo is chasing the ninja is not really discussed. Maybe it’s revenge for killing Cute Ninja Girl. Maybe it’s daddy issues. Afterall, Lord Ozunu never bought him that pony. Instead, he just trained him from childhood to rip people’s hearts out of their chest and to disappear in to thin air. Personally, I’d rather have had that kind of birthday present (the training, not my heart being ripped from my chest) than an Amstrad 464 computer way back when. Actually, scratch that, because Spin Dizzy was the shit.
Speaking of video games, Kosugi who plays Ozunu, beyond starring in a variety of ninja-based movies, also did the motion capture for the central male character in Tenchu: Stealth Assassin. This was a Playstation 1 game released prior to Metal Gear Solid, and if you know your video games, will recognize it as the first proper game to emphasize stealth over direct conflict. It was a badass and ludicrously violent game, where if you managed to creep up to an unaware enemy, you could execute them in a variety of ways.
Kosugi is a cinema ninja legend, and had apparently retired to run his own martial arts school after a string of ninja movies in the 80’s. Here he is a merciless, heartless bastard. But I can kind of sympathise with him; he’s raising a bunch of orphans to be killers. He doesn’t have time for angst and crap like that. He has to be brutal. Yeah, killing people who leave him is a bit much, but he’s got to protect the clan’s secrets somehow. He has to be tough on these kids.
Rain is really well cast. He can do all the moves and all the martial arts, and it’s a surprise he hasn’t been snapped up for grander Hollywood roles. I guess being a Korean popstar is enough for him, the talented, good-looking bastard. Harris, also delivers as she always does, though she’s a bit too much of a damsel in distress type here. A million miles away from Moneypenny in Bond or the badass survivor in 28 Days Later. Still, a solid and likable performance. I thought the Baslow was going to turn, right up until the end. But he doesn’t. I could have sworn he was the one letting the clan know that people were onto them. But none of that double-crossing bullshit comes up. He’s actually in it for good reasons and the kudos.
While Ninja Assassin doesn’t get as creative as seminal ninja flick Ninja Scroll (an admitted influence on the film according to the director), it does feature plenty of badass moments. Shit like ninjas appearing from nowhere, impossible acrobatics, slick katana duels and fucking ninja stars; it isn’t bad considering it’s a low-to-mid budget actioner. Despite being film in Germany and being about an overtly Japanese cultural legend, it’s pretty much all in English, and doesn’t try to be too intellectual. It does try a few new things, primarily having a non-English main character (a bold move in these whitewashed days of The Wall and Ghost in the Shell) and the choice of weaponry.
While the final battle is decided with traditional ninja katanas, Raizo does most his slaying with his twirly-chain-blade. Now I can’t recount many films that have featured the twirly-chain-blade so prominently, save for maybe a similar weapon wielded by Go-Go in Kill Bill. Ninja Assassin makes up for this. Early in the film we see Raizo training in his spacious apartment. He does a bit of dual-wielded katana chopping and spinning. But then he switches to the TCB. When he starts spinning it around it kind of glows, almost like in a video game where you press a button at that perfect time and it’s “PERFECT COUNTER” or some shit. Any way, he’s really good at it, and while it’s mostly CGI, it’s at least something different. A lot of the more creative fight scenes incorporate the weapon, and it’s very much suited to those 300-styled slow motion mid-fight sequences.
One criticism I do have is that he blood and gore is maybe too much. Apparently McTeigue was influenced by anime in this regard too, but at points I felt it went too far. Midway through, when Raizo has to fend off literally hundreds of other ninjas, he’s wounded and cut dozens of times. It stretches the credibility a bit. That’s right, I’m talking credibility in a film about ninjas. But this is a minor moan on my behalf. I’m a big hater of CGI blood, being a proponent of squibs and physical death effects.
There is a mention of 9 clans, and there is some intra-clan fighting. But it’s largely ignored. Maybe McTique planned a 9 part series of Ninja films. He could have skewed typically naming methods and gone for a more Fast & Furious style – sequels called The Ninja Assassin, Ninja Explosion, Ninja Redemption. That sort of thing. This “Ninja War” series would culminate in Raizo learning that his real father was from another clan, who gave him to Ozunu knowing that he would ultimately rebel and slay him. That’s Inception-levels of intrigue. Raizo would ultimately choose to fight his evil Dad, who also turns out to be the President of Japan or something.
Sadly, despite making it’s money back, I suspect McTigue’s Ninja saga will never be fully explored. That doesn’t mean you can’t sit down and enjoy some quality ninjitsu action. I’d recommend Ninja Assassin if you’re down for that kind of thing. Get it watched.