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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Ten years ago, the Wachowski brothers were the epitome of Cool when they unleashed The Matrix upon the world. Since that time, they have directed and/or produced two vastly inferior Matrix sequels, the underperforming V For Vendetta and Speed Racer, and now the dim-witted Ninja Assassin. In 2009, the Wachowskis are the epitome of Not Cool. Too bad, because I suspect their unapologetic fanboy qualities still have the capacity to connect with like-minded viewers. The problem is that they either overthink or underthink everything they do. The Matrix sequels, for example, were overthought, to the point where all the fun was sucked right out of them. Ninja Assassin is underthought; it has all the right visuals but also a plot so Dopey that one of the Seven Dwarves ought to sue for intellectual property infringement.

South Korean pop star Rain plays Raizo, a (you guessed it) ninja assassin who decides to exact revenge upon his former master. His beefs: being taken from his family as a child for grueling training, and also for killing his girlfriend. In a parallel storyline, Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) plays Mika Coretti, a Europol agent seeking to bring down ninja clans across the globe. (In this movie's universe, ninjas are a much bigger threat than terrorists.) Under circumstances far too boring to detail here, Mika ends up collaborating with Raizo in tracking down the Ozunu clan. CGI blood spurts everywhere in the process.

Yes indeed, I do believe that Ninja Assassin is the most excessively violent movie I've seen since The Passion of the Christ. People don't just get killed here; they get vivisectioned. Limbs fly, heads are cut in half, bodies are sliced into pieces. The flick is not just a bloodbath, it's a blood monsoon.

In fairness, the fight scenes are pretty good. They're well choreographed and have a sense of energy and momentum that the rest of the picture completely lacks. It is weird, however, how the action is staged. Throwing stars come flying toward the camera. Swords are thrust toward the camera. Blades on chains are swung toward the camera. It's like watching the 2-D version of a movie that's supposed to be in 3-D.

Once you get outside the fighting, there's not much here. Ninja Assassin could just as easily have been called Things That Don't Make Sense. Let me give you some examples. Big chunks of the story take place in Germany, yet none of the characters speak German or have German accents. Heavily armed and armored soldiers are turned into mincemeat by the unseen ninjas, yet the completely unprotected Mika repeatedly escapes without a scratch. The ninjas supposedly adhere slavishly to the concepts of invisibility and stealth, yet think nothing of carrying out one fight in the middle of traffic. You notice these kinds of things when the story just isn't working.

Of course, I don't go into a movie like Ninja Assassin expecting to see the next Best Picture winner. I go in hoping to see something that is stupidly entertaining. That said, I kind of wish the film had been more stupid than it ultimately is. It's bizarre how the screenplay tries to ground all this stuff in some kind of reality. The idea of a Europol agent carrying out a Homeland Security-type of operation is a drastic misstep; you can almost feel the movie striving for some sort of authenticity that is completely at odds with the gonzo quality of the action. Also, Raizo's reasons for wanting revenge are completely hackneyed. (How many martial arts pictures over the years have had the "You killed my _____" plot?) I wish Ninja Assassin had been broader and crazier. Forget Europol, and give Raizo some really over-the-top reason for wanting to dispatch his former master. Pulling out the standard clichés really does nothing to capture our interest at this point.

If you have a total Jones for ninjas and get off on seeing blood spurting in every direction like a geyser, you may well enjoy Ninja Assassin. Personally, I feel it was a wasted opportunity. Sure, it's mindless and reasonably diverting, but the awesomely nutty action scenes deserve to be surrounded by equally nutty stuff, not boring side characters and a routine plot. Coolness is about subverting our expectations or taking them a level beyond what we expect. Ninja Assassin could - and should - have been the Zombieland of martial arts flicks. Instead, it's just totally skip-able.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

Ninja Assassin arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray on March 16 in widescreen format. Although I wasn't overly wild about the film itself, it looks and sounds great on disc.

The only DVD feature is a series of deleted scenes, running seven minutes in length. One has Raizo having a flashback to his childhood while in a laundromat, while another has Mika getting an order not to pursue the ninja clans. Perhaps the most interesting has Mika treating Raizo with some homemade remedies after he's been injured.

Ninja Assassin is rated R for strong bloody stylized violence throughout, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.

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