I want to like Ninja Assassin. I want a nice, pulpy, old-school hyper-violent throw-back like the title suggested. The two words thrown together don’t necessarily evoke the imagery of classic cinema, but they at least promise a reasonably diverting action thriller. However, it seems that nobody told the writer and director this. Despite it’s surprisingly direct title, the movie is just one big bloated mess, which seems to aspire to a complexity that nobody expects of it, and fails miserably. There seem to be occasional moments where the film grabs the potential of the concept, acknowledging a sort of Tarantino-light nostalgic approach to pop culture trash, but most of the film takes itself far too seriously, but without the skill necessary to succeed as the film it seems to want to be.
There are moments, scattered throughout the runtime like little nuggets of gold, when the camera work feels a little gritty and grainy, as if shot on substandard film or broadcast from a projector that has seen better days. Given the entire film was shot on digital, it seems rather conspicuous. These shots are there just long enough to suggest the director wants to pay stylised homage to all those ridiculously bloody martial arts films of old.
However, most of the film is shot in the sort of ultra-modern high-definition and digital style, like a full-colour Sin City (particularly notable during a confrontation on a rainy rooftop).Other times, the film just looks like any other film, with no hint of thought or passion poured into the frame. There’s clear delineation between the styles, and no linking theme. The pulpy shots are not all flashbacks, and the stylised CGI-heavy shots are not all set in the modern day.
At times the film is hyper saturated, flooding the screen with ridiculously red blood. I recognise that these old thrillers favoured that heavily saturated look, but the use of practical effects made things seem a little classier than perhaps they should have. Opting for purely physical effects, at least for blood, might have worked well – instead we have CGI blood inserted into scenes where it’s otherwise so desaturated it’s hard to determine what exactly is going on. The problem is that the CGI is conspicuous and awkward.
Similarly, the film can’t decide whether it wants to wow its audience with impressive feats fight choreography, or whether it wants to impress its audience with special effects. It doesn’t do either especially well, but it has greater difficulty attempting to integrate the two approaches. The film uses slow motion and intense close-ups and all the other tricks and tools one might associate with the genre. i’m not one who will dismiss these tricks – in the hands of a good director, those old tricks bring new life to a film. However, they seem to be deployed here with little sense of art or taste, as if the director knows they belong, but can’t place them properly.
The whole thing just seems like a big mess, a gigantic stew made with little regard for how the movie as a whole might work (or, in some cases, even the scene as a whole). It feels mismatched and poorly judged. For example, the movie features one particularly sinister ninja assassin who can pretty much turn invisible (or move at superspeed). Such a touch might work really well in a movie structured around the idea of portrayed martial arts as almost mystical, but it has no place in a movie that leans so heavily on semi-automatic machine guns and tactical teams. The movie might as well be titled “Ninjas vs. SWAT Teams”, but would still be disappointing.
The plot is a jumble. Again, one wonder show difficult it might have been to get a simple idea like “Ninja… Assassin”to work, but the film treats its subject matter with a quite-frankly-ridiculous amount of seriousness. There’s flashbacks, and a romance, and a convoluted interpersonal history between the good guy and the bad guy, coupled with a bunch of feisty international Europol agents. None of which is really necessary, and none of which should be delivered to the audience with such a solemn sense of contemplation. The movie mistakes convolution for complexity, as if featuring flashbacks might give the movie some depth. This simple fact is that the audience gets pretty much all the plotpoints – our lead was taught by a very bad man, and rejected his evil ways – right out of the box, and the movie’s attempts to explain these plotpoints just feel awkward and trite.
Ninja Assassin just doesn’t work, which is a shame. One can sense that it’s trying to be an homage to all these pulpy out kung-fu movies, but it just doesn’t have the skill (or even the wit) necessary to pull it off.