NOTE: Throughout this review, there will be mentions of specific scenes and happenings that some film purists may consider spoilers. While I will try my best to avoid specific plot points, I realize that some matters cannot be helped and so I have directed attention to paragraphs that may contain spoilers with red indicators. Hover over these sections to make the text more readable.
Let's get some things cleared away. This is a ninja movie. Did anyone else forget what they paid for when they walked into the theater? Many other critics seemed to expect a thought-provoking plot and eloquent dialogue scenes. This is a little baffling. It's as if some critics were complaining about the lack of explosions in a romantic comedy.
As a last disclaimer before we really start talking about the movie, you could slap the Wachowski name on just about anything and I'll love every second of it that much more. I still maintain that The Matrix trilogy is a phenomenal cinematic masterpiece that is far too often dismissed. So just be aware that some aspects of my review may be much more glowing than others.
If there is one thing that most every critic agrees upon, it's the opening scene to the movie. Dazzling, dark, ominous and it really sets the bar high for the rest of the film.
The first nod of many to previous Wachowski works came in this scene where we see Randall Duk Kim as a tattoo artist for some largely unimportant thugs. For those that don't recognize the name, Randall Duk Kim was The Keymaker in The Matrix Reloaded. And, true to all his other notable work, his character suffers through a rather painful death. This man knows how to sell a death scene.
After an incredible display of bloodshed and helpless gunfire, the expectation of what's to come will leave you leaning on the edge of your seat. At least until we're introduced to the Europol agents.
After an action-packed opening you'd probably be ready to dive headlong into a ninja dojo. Alas, you'll have to put up with some dreary Europol agents discuss the ridiculousness of thousand year old ninja clans that carry out assassinations.
The purpose of these characters is somewhat lost on me. The movie plot could be just as solid without them; Orphan ninja betrays his clan and is hunted down for revenge while he seeks his own vengeance on the clan. Simple, but very effective for the genre.
Unfortunately, we have Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris), a Europol agent, who ends up caught in the middle of the fight between Raizo (Rain) and his clan members. This could almost be perceived as an attempt to humanize an otherwise heartless ninja warrior, but the awkward romance in the midst of Raizo's back story would solve that just as well on it's own.
I really could have done without the Europol story. It doesn't add much more than a helpless girl scared out of her wits who relies on a deadly assassin to save her life.
Ninjas and Weapons
One aspect of the movie that simply does not disappoint. Let's face it, we're all there to see some bad-ass ninjas wield swords, kusarigamas (chain-sickle), ninja stars and the occasional kung-fu. Every actor on-screen absolutely delivers this in a quality you'd expect from a Wachowski film and an unexpected quality from Rain.
The Wachowski's are possibly the only American film producers that can bring eastern culture to North American film while remaining respectful and still keep things awe-inspiringly cool. If you're at all a fan of ninjas, this film will certainly be a treat for you.
This is just a quick gripe of mine that you can feel free to skip over, but many critics are complaining about the copious amounts of unrealistic CGI blood. The fake blood didn't bother me at all. I could tell there was something off about it, but certainly not enough to take me out of the moment. After all, this is a ninja film. I'm here to suspend my disbelief in favour of a damn good time.
Oddly enough, not one film critic had a problem with the fact that the ninjas could heal themselves with weird hand gestures and the bizarre looking effects that result. Though I've never seen rapid healing done well.
The ninja backstory wasn't all that bad, save for an out-of-place love story. Granted, this love story sets up our characters motivation and drives much of his actions, but it needed a lot of work. The Europol agents, on the other hand, could have been scrapped entirely. These characters are a waste of film and slow down the pace of an otherwise very entertaining action flick.
Some dark action scenes are sometimes tough to decipher, though there's light where it counts and I never felt lost in the frenzy of clanging swords and piercing ninja stars. The movie shows you exactly what you need to see to understand the scene. If things are tough to see sometimes, it's because they're gorram ninjas! There's no lack of lighting and flair when the time is right to show off an epic duel.
The sound design is superb. Ninja stars whiz by your head and swords and kusarigamas clash and slice with a terrific clarity. The only downfall in my eyes was the poor soundtrack and unremarkable score.
Certainly of the genre and it knows who the audience is and what to sell. Still, the cliché dialogue and whispery ninja voices got old after a while. However the raw skill and ability demonstrated by Rain and the rest of the cast of ninjas was more than enough to make up for those minor annoyances.
See this movie if you've got a couple hours to kill and want a good time. Don't try to look for deeper meanings or a greatly fulfilling story. This is a movie for action flick fans (and Wachowski brothers followers). Anyone seeking anything else from this movie should steer clear.