Apart from sporadic efforts like The Hunted (1995), Ninja Assassin is the first major attempt to make a ninja film in well over a decade and probably the first ever Western effort to be made as an A-budget film with a big publicity campaign. Ninja Assassin comes backed by The Wachowski Brothers. It is directed by James McTeigue, a former assistant director to the Wachowskis who previously made V for Vendetta (2006) under their aegis, as well as conducted uncredited reshoots for The Invasion (2007). The Wachowskis themselves have shown a more than passing interest in martial arts films. Their signature film The Matrix (1999), wherein they employed master Hong Kong fight choreographer Woo Ping-yuen, revolutionised the presentation of martial arts on screen through the combination of CGI effects and wire work and subsequently created its own copycat style. (The scenes where Keanu Reeves enters the martial arts simulation in The Matrix contains a list of styles that is a virtual tribute checklist to the Wachowskis favourite martial arts films). Further, they created an absurdist comic-book called Shaolin Cowboy (2004 ), while ninjas also turn up (albeit more comically) in their anime-adapted Speed Racer (2008).
The Wachowski Brothers have found themselves in the unique position of being regarded as intellectual action movie directors, if such is not an oxymoron. The Matrix (and to a lesser extent its sequels) impresses as much for its cool and ideas as it does for its boundary-breaking action moves. The same could be said for Ninja Assassin. The plot, co-written by newcomer Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski, the cult creator of tvs Babylon 5 (1993-8) and screenwriter for the Clint Eastwood film Changeling (2008), Thor (2011), Underworld: Awakening (2012), World War Z (2013) and later co-creator with the Wachowskis of the tv series Sense8 (2015-8), is nothing world-shattering. There are undeniable similarities to the manga adaptation Crying Freeman (1995), which also concerned a Japanese martial arts assassin who is hunted by his clan after going rogue and developing feelings for an ordinary woman who is caught up in the middle of action during the course of the story. The story arcs that both films follow are almost identical.
All the fun of Ninja Assassin comes in the cool of the moves, the way the film is redefining and seeking depth in the accepted iconography of ninja cinema. Where Michael Sand and J. Michael Straczynskis script stands above other ninja films is in their determination to make it a story that delves in and finds the soul of a ninja. The ninja are played for the maximum mystique that they are associated with on screen emotionless, inscrutable, with near-superhuman abilities to move with stealth which are combined with the standard martial arts cliches of brutal training regimes. The film hovers on the borderline of fantasy the ninja have mystical powers of healing and stealth, Sho Kosugi has a move that allows him to reach into someones stomach and cause maximum pain without penetrating the skin, while at the climax he reveals the power to move at an accelerated rate.
With V for Vendetta, James McTeigue was relatively restrained in the action department but more than proves his hand here in a series of superbly enervated visuals that light the film up with actinic flamboyance. Indeed, Ninja Assassin is as visually breathtaking and exciting as it was watching The Matrix for the first time ten years ago. This is no more evident than the opening scene where a brash yakuza acolyte in a tattoo parlour receives an envelope of black sand and is scorn is abruptly silenced as the screen is rapidly and bloodily wiped in a series of severed arms, sword guttings and bodies being beheaded, with the shadowy assailants only being seen in subliminal flashes. It is an incredibly vivid opening that jolts every member of the audience bolt awake like a triple shot of espresso mainlined direct to the veins and presages well for what is to come. Subsequently, there is a stunningly exhilarating sequence with the ninja invading the underground hideout where Rain is being held prisoner, climaxing in Rain eliminating attacking ninja en masse with a whirling blade on the end of a chain and fleeing through the complex from a hail of shuriken that fly like machine-gun fire and finally engaged in a sword fight with an opponent bare-chested amid the flow of oncoming traffic on the street. The film climaxes on an amazing set-piece with Rain and a seemingly supernaturally empowered Sho Kosugi showing down in a fight to the death amid a burning dojo. The pace and exhilaration that McTeigue puts into these scenes has a kinesis that totally leaves any action film of recent memory for dead.
The film features one of the largest casts of Asian actors that one can remember seeing in an English language film in some time, the show being largely dominated by South Korean pop star Rain (who had previously appeared in the Wachowskis Speed Racer). Rain maintains a lethal and incredibly well buffed presence throughout the film. Opposite him is a coldly autocratic Sho Kosugi, the Japanese born, US-resident star of many of the original ninja films of the 1980s. Naomie Harris, who came to attention as the female lead in 28 Days Later (2002) and the voodoo queen in Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End (2007), is passable as Mika, although the role is largely one that requires her to take a passive role to the action.
James McTeigue subsequently went onto make the horror film The Raven (2012), featuring Edgar Allan Poe up against a serial killer, and the non-genre action film Survivor (2015).
(Nominee for Best Director (James McTeigue) at this sites Best of 2009 Awards).