Seemingly made to capitalize on a dubious CG innovation — namely, the slicing of bodies in half by whizzing five-pointed stars — “Ninja Assassin” has little else to recommend it, not even laughs. Working again with the Wachowski brothers as producers, director James McTeigue delivers a lower-brow, somewhat livelier work than the team’s “V for Vendetta.” But unless the viewer is easily delighted by ultraviolence for its own sake, this thinly plotted movie about a young ninja’s revenge against his cruel trainers will disappoint. Warner Bros.’ Nov. 25 release should nonetheless prove effective as holiday-season counterprogramming, at least in the short term.
Korean pop star Rain conjures only a mild drizzle as Raizo, a limber bone-snapper trained from a young age by a secret society of child-abducting killer-for-hire ninjas. Early flashbacks reveal Raizo to have been taken in as an orphan by the Ozunu Clan, which he defies by running away in the wake of his sweetheart’s murder by cold-blooded Lord Ozunu (Sho Kosugi).
The pic’s present-day action, set in Berlin, revolves around Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris), a gorgeous Europol agent whose latenight sleuthing uncovers a financial connection between recent political assassinations and the Ozunu. Naturally, the agent herself is targeted for assassination, as chief Ozunu baddie Takeshi (Rick Yune) and his blade-tossing ninja comrades come West to forcibly halt the investigation. As if possessed of psychic powers, Raizo, hiding out in Europe, senses a chance to save a lovely lady where he had failed in the same task years before.
Eventually the film leads to a Europol-led shootout and a pair of unmemorably acrobatic duels between Raizo and his two archrivals — “older brother” Takeshi and raspy-voiced “father” Ozunu.
Though “Ninja Assassin” is implausible on countless levels, Raizo’s training to feel nothing at least gels with Rain’s ability to emote nothing. Harris, a strong presence in Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” feature, acquits herself capably here, reacting believably to the incessant carnage around her.
Of course, the film’s raison d’etre is precisely its blood-soaked combination of physical stunts and digital trickery, the latter favored to a fault. While not remotely on par with the Wachowskis’ “bullet time” f/x in “The Matrix,” the ridiculous torrent of flying blades and flayed flesh here does appear unique in technological terms, and certainly pushes the pic’s R rating to its limits.
Indeed, such is the film’s level of insinuated gore that the frustratingly dark texture of many fight-scene shots can perhaps be explained by a post-production bid to avoid an NC-17. Whatever the case, the shadowy action is too often incomprehensible, except in the general sense that heads, limbs and torsos are being severed in massive numbers.
If there’s a sick joke to be had from this sort of human meat-carving, it isn’t found by McTeigue and his key collaborators, including conventionally quick-cutting editors Gian Ganziano and Joseph Jett Sally.
Where the pic does excel is in its immersive sound design, as swords, chains and myriad other weapons seem to sail around the theater, at times helping to clarify the dimly lit action.