Ninja Assassin (James McTeigue, 2009)

 You must hate weakness in others and in yourself

It’s easy to see where the fascination for ninjas comes from. Invisible warriors, hiding in the shadow, flitting over rooftops, lethal with any weapon, possessing supernatural powers. It should come as no surprise that though ninjas did exist, they were nothing like this romantic vision. The historical ninja has as much in common with the black-hooded killer from pop culture as actual British secret service agents have with James Bond.

I say that with some irony, as Bond film You Only Live Twice portrayed various ninjas. It even included a recreation of a (possibly untrue) assassination attempt on the famous unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi, whereby a drop of poison was guided into his mouth along a thread lowered from the ceiling.

In any case, it should be obvious there’s not a shred of truth to Ninja Assassin, which indulges in ludicrous fantasy. Real ninjas disguised themselves as commoners to blend in with the crowd. They ran intelligence networks. They wore no black hoods. Rarely they engaged in assassination, and even then it was nothing flashy.

Surprisingly, there is quite some story in this film. As a child, Raizo is raised in a ninja sect by a disciplinary ‘father’. As his mind and body are steeled for a life of murder, he falls in love with one of the female ninjas in the clan. Interests conflict and before you know it he’s on the run. As an adolescent, the confrontation comes to a climax and swaths of bodies are left in his trail as he fights his way to take vengeance on his once-master.

Ninja Assassin is violence porn. Its only objective is sensationalism. The thought behind it is that the more people are decapitated and their limbs cut off by wire, the better. It displays a crudeness that is miles away from the careful, deliberate gratuity of Kill Bill or Old Boy. But don’t think this violence is horrible to watch. Bereft of any depth, it’s cartoonish.

The exaggeration of its bloodbaths diminishes the impact. Do we need fountains of thick blood to understand people are dying? There is a sequence in which Raizo trains with his weapons. As swords and sickles fly by, they leave trails in the air. That makes it cheaper, not cooler. It emphasizes that this is all fake. One of the things that makes Jackie Chan movies so interesting is the knowledge that his stunts are real and performed by Chan himself. Artifice is boring.

But that’s all that Ninja Assassin is. Artifice. It takes a bullshit notion of what ninjas are and builds a shallow spectacle around it. James McTeigue, who earlier directed V for Vendetta and parts of the Matrix films, can deliver excellent work, but even he couldn’t save this unexciting mess.

Roderick Leeuwenhart