It takes cajones to deadpan a movie about a pop culture joke. You may recall, if you’re old enough, that ninjas were among the earliest internet memes, back a decade ago along with “All Your Base Are Belong to Us.” The internet joke proclaimed that ninjas could be characterized in three key ways: 1. Ninjas are mammals. 2. Ninjas fight ALL the time. 3. The purpose of a ninja is to flip out and kill people. (This, by the way, was what metastasized into the more recent “Chuck Norris facts” craze.) Now, the Wachowski Brothers, along with their V for Vendetta collaborator James McTeigue, have gone and wholeheartedly embraced precisely this ridiculous conception of ninja as clandestine, indestructible black-clad bad-ass.
In theory, I of course find this thrilling. Treating absurdities like serious business is among the most unique and rewarding pleasures of genre cinema. And for a while, it looks like precisely what McTeigue’s Ninja Assassin is going to offer. Co-written by J. Michael Straczynski, who mastered intricate, poker-faced kitsch with Babylon 5, the movie starts with a tatooed old Asian man holding forth forebodingly on the legend of the ninja — once they send you an envelope full of black sand, you’re apparently toast — and then launches into a propulsive, surprisingly plot-heavy first act that’s as solemn as it is ridiculous. Spending equal time in flashback and the present day, the movie connects two Europol agents investigating a series of mysterious killings with a backstory involving a talented but obstinate youngster who clashes with his brutal instructor in an East Asian assassin training camp.
Ninja Assassin mercifully has no voiceover, and — for a while — proceeds confidently with impressive narrative economy. There’s even a hint of subtext: Raizo (Korean pop star Rain), the titular ninja, is haunted by memories of what seems uncomfortably like child abuse. For forty minutes or so, the movie seems to be as ambitious and complex as it is silly; better yet, it seems to trust us enough not to waste time spoon-feeding us pointless exposition.
Then, maybe 50 minutes into the 96-minute running time, the film goes south as quickly and decisively (if not quite as badly) as any I’ve ever seen. First, it becomes apparent that Ninja Assassin is not going to deliver on the promise of kick-ass ninja action. Rain, a dancer by trade, seems game, but the movie confines him to murky, chopped-up fight scenes, and clutters the screen with lots of flying CGI ninja implements. Some of this may have to do with the premise of the ninja as an ultra-stealthy, almost ghost-like creature who strikes from the darkness, which admittedly doesn’t lend itself well to action set pieces, but Ninja Assassin doesn’t generate much suspense either. The nadir is a literally incomprehensible nighttime shoot-out at the bad guys’ compound, a scene so amazingly bad that I suspect it was simply botched, but was too critical to the story to be edited out.
That’s the other thing, though: at a certain point, the story just stalls. For a good hour, the plot unfolds so deliberately that I was convinced it would end up some place interesting — the construction seemed painstaking. I was stunned to see the movie simply stop and resolve with a few bursts of ho-hum action. If I didn’t know better (which I do, since the Wachowskis are not known for giving up creative control), I would think that this was a classic case of studio interference; I still can’t think of any other plausible explanation.
I still give Ninja Assassin credit for doing ninjas with a straight face. But once it took its inexplicable turn for the awful, I started wishing it would crack a smile.