If Ninja Assassin boasted sexual content equivalent to its level of violence, it would be rated NC-17 and repulse even the most dedicated perverts. However, the MPAA is much more accommodating when it comes to wall-to-wall bloodshed than consensual relations between loving adults. So while the ratings board might go into conniptions over an art film in which a woman receives oral sex, it has no problem with a protagonist who spends most of his time vivisecting enemies with a sharp chain that tears through flesh like a knife through butter. Ninja Assassin is ostensibly a vehicle for Korean pop star Rain, but the real star is the blood that gushes and spurts from the wounds of an army of interchangeable bad guys.
Perhaps best known stateside as Stephen Colbert’s faux arch-nemesis on The Colbert Report, Rain plays a ninja whom evil sensei Shô Kosugi trained from an early age to become an unstoppable killing machine. When Rain’s clan kills one of his dearest friends and asks him to murder a woman caught trying to run away, he turns on his former comrades and is targeted for death. Meanwhile, Interpol agent Naomie Harris tries to convince her skeptical bosses that a ninja clan is behind a string of murders.
For all its flaws, V For Vendetta—the previous collaboration between Ninja Assassin director James McTeigue and its producers, Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers—at least boasted admirable ambition. Ninja Assassin, in sharp contrast, feels like a second-rate take on the blood-splattered pulp melodramas of Luc Besson, right down to a peculiar streak of shameless sentiment. Ninja’s torturous script mirrors the convoluted storytelling and elaborate mythologizing that ruined the Matrix sequels. It devotes much, if not most, of its running time to flashback upon flashback upon flashback. How is an action movie that aims for kinetic thrills supposed to develop any forward momentum when it spends so much time looking back?