- RatedM18 /GenreAction, Martial Arts
Movie Details | Photo Gallery | Trailer
Rating: 3 out of 5
It's rare for an actor from Asia -- or any minority in the American context -- to make a breakthrough in Hollywood without having to live up to an established stereotype.
It's been no different for arguably Korea's most important cultural export, the 27-year-old singer-actor-heartthrob Rain. Cast as a rookie racer in last year's Speed Racer, directed by the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix trilogy), he impressed so much in fighting scenes there that this vehicle -- and the appropriate stereotype -- for him was quickly approved.
Produced by the Wachowskis, Ninja Assassin has a significantly bulked-up Rain playing Raizo, a former assassin who is on the run from the ninja clan he abandoned. (Never mind that he is Korean, that ninjas were a feature of feudal Japan, or that ninjas tended to rely on stealth, speed and efficiency rather than brute strength.)
The premise isn't bad. An orphan who has endured a cruel childhood filled with violent ninja training, administered by his malevolent master Ozunu (Sho Kosugi), a grown-up Raizo decides to flee the clan after his female clan-mate -- and first love -- is killed for breaking the rules. Before she dies, she convinces him that there is more to life than what Ozunu decrees.
While he is trying to stay out of the clan's grasp, he crosses paths with Mika (Naomie Harris), a Europol agent who happens to have discovered that the legend of ninjas is actually a modern-day reality, and is thus also wanted dead by Ozunu's mercenary killers. The two form a bond and realise they need each other to survive the ninja onslaught.
In his first headlining role in a Hollywood production, Rain would naturally be scrutinised for two things: his acting ability and his ability to speak English lines well.
But is it considered acting if the most outstanding aspects of one's role are his chiselled, chocolate-bar abdominals, and his ability to look good in fighting scenes, too many of which have excessive amounts of CGI blood applied to them?
For Rain fans, these concerns may be of little importance. The fact that may most impact the film's bottom line is that Rain frequently appears shirtless and drenched either in sweat or blood. And his character has lighting-quick reflexes, is able to wield a chained-claw weapon with great dexterity, and can even heal injuries through the power of the mind.
In many ways, Rain is in a can't-lose situation. He can be absolved from the film's many failings, such as a hastily rewritten script that contains an abundance of poor, throwaway lines, and the requirement to speak all his lines in a heavily-rehearsed guttural growl. (Had he taken vocal lessons from Christian Bale as The Dark Knight?)
And he truly isn't required to do much real acting, and as such acquits himself adequately. Perhaps the finger of blame can be pointed at director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) and writers Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski for this rather mediocre, unambitious action flick.
Apart from the limp dialogue, the lack of chemistry between characters, and dimly lit fight scenes which are invariably an indistinguishable blur of arms, legs and sharp weapons, the story spends too much time flashing back to Raizo's past, and fails to exploit the intriguing battle of wills between him and Ozunu.
The biggest thing in the film's favour, however, is that it never pretends to be more than what it is, and it delivers the bare minimum in view of lowered expectations. For what it is, a standard actioner with a kungfu-fighting Asian lead, it could be compared to Thai films like Ong Bak or Raging Phoenix.
This movie stands out because the rock-hard abs it features belong to Rain, who is ostensibly a bigger international draw than others in such roles, though sadly not big enough to escape stereotyping.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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