Ninja Assassin is a pretty entertaining movie about a ninja who is an assassin. If you're seeing this movie for the right reasons, you don't need to know anything beyond that. The movie fulfills every ninja movie directive about putting action before story and beating up everyone in sight, then splashes over all of it a healthy amount of CGI blood and weapons more painful than you can imagine. It's brisk and exciting and exuberantly obvious filmmaking, but it knows how to light up every bloodthirsty pleasure center in your brain, and does so with gusto.
At the center of it all is Korean pop star Rain, making his bid for American stardom with 30 extra pounds of muscle, gorgeous flowing locks and dialogue that doesn't demand much more of him than fierce determination and the occasional one-liner. After a brief prologue that introduces us to the notion of ninjas who move literally as shadows and cut bodies in half with a single blade swipe, director James McTeigue awkwardly grounds us in the real world, introducing us to "Europol" agent Mika (Naomie Harris) and her implacable boss Maslow (Ben Miles) as they uncover the world's secret network of, well, ninja assassins. Turns out Rain's character Raizo started fighting against the ninjas that raised him long ago, and as Mika gets too close to the truth of the ninja way, Rain protects her as ninja forces pursue both of them across Berlin.
In flashbacks we see Raizo's childhood, trained through brute force to defeat any opponent and overcome his most basic physical impulses, and made to betray his first love when she dared to literally escape the walls of their ninja training grounds. Led by the ruthless Lord Ozunu (ninja movie legend Sho Kusugi), the children and teens execute stunts at an astonishing level of difficulty, and McTeigue never shies away from the more brutal aspects-- the bruises, the blood, the sobs-- of the training. At no point do the actions of Ninja Assassin at all begin to resemble reality, but the movie's commitment to the actual suffering involved in becoming such a warrior is remarkable, and makes up a little for the gratuitous CGI blood and weaponry that come later.
The Berlin action sequences, from the initial attack at Mika's house to a showstopper at a traffic circle, rely less heavily on Matrix-level flashy effects (Andy and Larry Wachowksi are producers) than good old-fashioned quick cutting. At times the photography does an injustice to the intense physical skill of the actors, but McTeigue's easy hand with swooping cameras gives everything a kinetic energy, and when he realizes it's time to settle down-- such as Raizo's eventual climactic battle with Ozunu-- the effect is twice as palpable. Raizo fights with a kind of blade on a chain that could never exist in real life, but paired with the outlandish blood and the ninjas who evaporate into shadows, it fights right in.
Whenever the action stops, the movie becomes howlingly bad-- Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski's script relies far too heavily on meager laugh lines about Mika's vanity or Raizo's overconfidence, and it's far more convinced by its serious moments than the audience ever is. But if the drama were better, you might not look forward as much to the action, and that's the whole point of this enterprise anyway. Ninja Assassin provides precisely what the title promises, and expecting more not only is foolish, but it ruins the specific pleasures the movie has to offer to those who believe.