The blood starts flowing just moments after Ninja Assassin begins, and doesn’t stop until the final credits start rolling. There’s also heavy slashing, slicing and lots of body parts that go flying, so that spurting arteries and chopped limbs quickly go from gory to mundane by sheer force of repetition.
While the gross-out factor fades fast, Ninja Assassin also features a smattering of self-aware one-liners to make sure we know that the filmmakers are in on the joke. The film, which opens Wednesday, is based on a video game that apparently was not a gold mine of storytelling fodder. The movie adaptation follows Raizo (Rain), a ninja who was kidnapped as a child by an ancient clan that trained him and other orphans to become highly skilled killers. Tired of the clan’s ruthless executions, he eventually escapes and hides out in Berlin as a normal, single ninja guy, doing sexy training montages and loads of laundry until he can take revenge.
Across town, intrepid Europol agent Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) discovers a link between recent political assassinations and a mythical clan of ancient killers. Suddenly, her agency is trying to shut down her investigation and the secretive assassins are ready to slice her fingers off faster than she can Google “ninja.” Raizo swoops in to save her from everyone, and thus begins their blood-soaked run for survival, pitting groups of well-armed men against each other everywhere from seedy motels to the middle of traffic, where the bad guys expertly leap and weave around German cars.
However fragile the premise, it justifies the non-stop, comic-book style killing fiesta just enough to be acceptably entertaining. Ninja also boasts some incredible choreography and set design, plus slashing sounds that punctuate innumerable fight scenes and create a cadence for otherwise monotonous sequences. When Raizo finally faces his nemesis for a classic mentor-protege face-off, for example, one segment unfolds in silhouette, behind a paper scrim that burns down to the frame. The scene continues, but now their death dance is illuminated with tiny, floor-to-ceiling flames.
Yet, the polished production and adequate premise can’t amply support every component of Ninja Assassin. Raizo’s flashbacks to child brutality and graphic abuse in the clan’s training center are largely unwatchable, no matter how unrealistic — or how cute it’s supposed to be when the girl ninja tends to young Raizo’s little, bloody feet with a secret stash of ointment. Slightly more realistic is teen Raizo’s experimentation with inter-ninja smooching, as is his seething anger toward his childhood kidnapper/trainer, who extracts loyalty at any price.
While nothing can redeem such gratuitous abuse, Raizo develops a healthy rebellious side and strives for freedom from the shackles of his youth. Fortunately, he finds that inner rage just in time for the holiday movie season, and his final redemption offers a little bit to be thankful for when the film finally ends.