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(2009) (Rain, Naomi Harris) (R)

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Action: As a Europol agent investigates the connection between a clan of ninjas and political assassinations, one of those disgraced warriors tries to protect her from the rest while dealing with his former rival and their master who want him dead.
Mika Coretti (NAOMI HARRIS) is a Europol agent in Berlin who believes she's found a link between various political assassinations and a clan of ninjas led by Lord Ozuno (SHO KOSUGI). Her boss, Ryan Maslow (BEN MILES), doesn't immediately believe the connection, mainly because it sounds decidedly old-fashioned.

One person outside the clan, however, knows it's certainly true, and that's Raizo (RAIN), a former ninja trained by Lord Ozuno from the time he was a young orphan forced into such training. Once one of the clan's most promising if abused pupils, Raizo broke free when his master had fellow student Kiriko (ANNA SAWAI) killed for not following orders.

Now Lord Ozuno and his followers, including Raizo's former rival, Takeshi (RICK YUNE), not only want him dead, but also Mika before her investigation reveals their secret operation.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
I'm certainly no expert about nor a huge fan of martial arts films, but it certainly seems that -- at least for the most part and from my general observation -- that while they have always contained plenty of standard genre violence, they haven't been terribly bloody or graphic in terms of injuries or deaths.

That may have changed forever with the release of the "Kill Bill" films. They were so graphic that one sequence in the first volume was reportedly shown sans color in order to prevent the film from receiving an NC-17 rating, which usually means box office death or at least greatly diminished returns.

While it doesn't contain any sort of similarly desaturated footage, the martial arts action flick "Ninja Assassin" certainly gives that earlier double feature predecessor a run for its money. Sadly, that only applies to blood spilled and other related gore rather than involving direction and good storytelling, for director James McTeigue is clearly no Quentin Tarantino.

Having already adapted the graphic novel that became "V for Vendetta," the filmmaker delivers another comic book style pic, although with even less in the way of interesting plot, compelling characters or engaging storytelling than the last time around.

As written by Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski, the offering follows the standard structure and trajectory of many a martial arts flick. Namely, that's interrupting the current story and action -- here, a Europol agent (Naomi Harris) trying to tie an ancient ninja clan to recent political assassinations, her becoming a target of said clan, and then needing a solid, lone-man defense provided by an ex-ninja (Rain) with an ax to grind against his former mental and rival, while they feel the same way about him -- with a plethora of flashbacks showing the hero's training, abuse and subsequent breaking away, all of which have lead to where we are now.

Due to the complete lack of novelty as well as the filmmakers' way of portraying that, those flashback sequences do nothing for the offering. Then again, nor does any of the present-day footage with its bare bones plot propped up by various fairly boring and less than engaging fight and action sequences.

While some may derive some sort of guilty pleasure from watching the uncharacteristically bloody and graphic mayhem for this sort of genre pic (where body parts fly as fast and furious as the clearly fake and/or computer-generated blood spurts), most everyone else will quickly tire of the visual mayhem (not to mention the shadowy ninjas who somehow defy physics even more than usual by stealthily flitting about from place to place to sneak in but then oddly whisper aloud for all to hear).

In the old days, martial arts flicks were often bad in terms of acting, writing and directing, but at least they were something to behold in terms of the sheer physicality of the onscreen action. Here, all of the editing and often muddled direction neuters even that slim chance at enjoying some part of the flick.

Of course, some of that could stem from South Korean pop star Rain clearly not being a martial arts expert, not to mention a decidedly less than convincing actor when the scene calls for his feet and hands to take a break. Rick Yune isn't much better as his former "school" rival and current adversary, but then again neither the script nor direction does him any favors. Sho Kosugi is the stereotypical mean mentor, while Ben Miles is saddled with playing the stereotypical police agency type boss. Naomi Harris probably fares the best of all the performers as his subordinate and the female investigator character in peril, but that's not saying much.

If you have a hankering for lots of bloodshed with your martial arts punches, kicks and various genre weaponry, I'd suggest taking in either or both of the "Kill Bill" films, not only due to said material being more exciting, but also because Tarantino is a master storyteller while McTeigue would have a hard time just landing an apprentice position in his shop. "Ninja Assassin" does lots of chopping -- both karate and Julienne style -- but the result is decidedly less than appetizing and certainly isn't a cut above the rest. The film rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed November 4, 2009 / Posted November 25, 2009

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