Ninja Assassin review

Action fan Duncan watches Ninja Assassin. Action fan Duncan now loves ninjas even more than he did before.


Some of you might remember back in November that I reviewed The Descent 2, which occurred after an incredibly bad day and was ruined by the idiot from hell sitting behind me. As that was the last official screening of 2009 I attended, you can understand that as I headed to my first of 2010 after another terrible day I was incredibly anxious, with a composure about one step away from a certain D-Fens in Falling Down (but without the prospect of the lovely Dedee Pfeiffer serving me fast food to calm me down). Thankfully, the scenario was quite the opposite. There were only a small amount of us there, but, more importantly, Ninja Assassin was a fantastic amount of violent fun.

I love ninjas. More specifically, I love 80s ninjas. The 80s gave me my beloved characters, Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, and more movies with the word ‘ninja’ in than ever before. By coincidence, in the last year, a friend and I have watched three American Ninja movies (even seeking out Avenging Force to get another fix of Michael Dudikoff and Steve James), as well as attempting several of Sho Kosugi’s ninja films, though, with the exception of Revenge Of The Ninja, they proved to be nearly unwatchable.

Nevertheless Kosugi’s involvement in Ninja Assassin was enough to get me excited, as I hoped it proved director James McTeigue’s intention to make the 80s ninja movie that never was and, my god, he certainly did me proud.

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The first five minutes of Ninja Assassin will be all it takes to make you decide if you love it or hate it, as the film boldly states the path it intends to follow – a mega violent, incredibly funny, utterly (but intentionally) vacuous, gore filled, over the top action movie.

It always makes me chuckle when press releases try their utmost to make the film they’re promoting out to be the next Citizen Kane, when they’d have been much better off handing out plastic shurikens, covered in fake blood, to promote Ninja Assassin.

If you spent your youth revelling in westernised martial arts films, then this could be the film you’ve always wanted to see, instead of the traditional sight of wobbly choreography being carried out by B-list actors (that’s not a criticism, by the way).

The closest film to it for comparison is Blade. They’re both very aware of having comic book stylings, with the violence being stretched into the realms of fantasy and, as in the first Blade, let down at times with the overly computer generated effects. The blood too, is overly stylised with its colouration at times looking more like the old Hammer Horror hue, rather than the likes used in Saw, though I suspect that getting a rating would have been extremely difficult if the film had been realistic at certain points.

It also shares Blade’s use of what I’d describe as the ‘two beat fight scene’, where the music ups tempo mid fight and increases the excitement level of what’s on screen, the best example being Whistler’s rescue at the start of Blade II.

It’s incredibly difficult to describe how glorious most of the action scenes are without spoiling the joy of seeing them for yourself, though I’ve never before realised how great throwing stars could look in a film, or even sound for that matter. They flew so loudly across the screen that my cackling laughter was, thankfully, drowned out, especially as there’s something hysterical about what the youth of today would describe as a ‘ninja fail’.

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I did worry a little way into the film, as after a strong opening and a moment of sheer geek joy, which is only lit by torch light, I found myself bemoaning some fight scenes for being too darkly lit and edited too quickly. However, it would appear that move was an intentional decision, to keep the onscreen fighting varied and make the audience savour the entire end sequence, so bear with it.

The plot, dialogue and characters are sheer throwbacks to a simpler time, but it’s to McTeigue’s credit that he keeps everything so entertaining, while it makes you wonder how many people were in on the joke.

Naomie Harris has certainly had experience delivering cringe inducing dialogue before (I’m looking at you, 28 Days Later), and here she delivers lines with all the elegance of a bag of hammers being thrown down a metal staircase, while Ben Miles comes off much better as the token Brit – presumably after working with McTeigue before on the greatly underappreciated V For Vendetta.

Ancient proverbs are bandied about in Ninja Assassin like they were going out of fashion, so it’s lucky that Sho Kosugi is on hand to show everyone how it’s done, bringing a necessary gravitas and relevance to his role that makes me appreciate him even more, like an 80s treasure who’s once more been uncovered for a new generation to see, here delivering his finest performance to date.

Korean pop star Rain (as the titular ninja assassin) is something to behold, despite jokes being made in the film about his boy band appearance, as he sets about killing everything on screen, though his performance in the flashbacks was substantially better – the price to be paid when his modern day self is free of any emotion.

Just to give you an idea of how 80s the film is, the narrative structure pans out like this: mega violence and gore – ‘plot’ – flashback – weapons/exercise montage – fight (repeat). But at a slim 99 minute run time, I was happy to bounce my way through it as a sheer guilty pleasure and found the straight forward simplicity refreshing, especially after the po-faced, bloated, cliché ridden headache that was Avatar.

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In fact, at times things flew at the screen in Ninja Assassin which felt 3D, so perhaps James McTeigue will use it in a sequel. I’ll certainly be there, only next time I’ll take my friends, as that was the only thing missing from a great night out.

Ninja Assassin opens in UK cinemas today.


4 out of 5