A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Machine Guns vs. Throwing Stars

In action on November 20, 2009 at 12:37 pm

I’ve had a pretty steady “love-love” relationship with the filmmakers, Larry and Andy Wachowski. Their first major stab at writing/directing, BOUND, was a magnificent thriller/noir movie that just happened to feature women as both the anti-hero(ine) and the femme fatale. With a great performance from both women (Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly, respectively), and the main villain of the piece, Caesar (played by the irascible Joe Pantoliono, who I have followed and loved through his career, in the similar role of the pimp in RISKY BUSINESS, to the sidekick of Tommy Lee Jones’ Federal Marshall in the THE FUGITIVE movies, and finally to his appearance in the Wachowski’s THE MATRIX.), the movie is stylish, sleek and most of all gave us the introduction to these movie-makers that I don’t know if their previous screen-writing venture did, in ASSASSINS.

Of course, then THE MATRIX, and it’s sequels, came along and changed everything. It changed the state of science fiction movies, the way action was done – either earnestly or as satire, and most of all these two men, sparked another filmic universe; that has really been equalled in my eyes by Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino and Alfred Hitchcock. (I’m sure there’s more, but those are the main ones I could think of.) You can tell a movie made by the Wachowski Brothers, from the way certain things are shot, from dialogue (in the Wachowski’s case, there always tends to be the quasi-zen, bullshit philosophy), and a repeating of certain actors. Whether it’s Pantoliono, Hugo Weaving (MATRIX and V FOR VENDETTA), Randall Duk Kim (MATRIX SEQUELS) and now the Korean pop star Rain, who was featured in SPEED RACER and now is the lead in the Wachowski Brothers’ produced, James McTeigue directed (same setup as V FOR VENDETTA, only the Wachowski’s didn’t write this screenplay) NINJA ASSASSIN.

It’s necessary to mention the V FOR VENDETTA setup, because this gives us our second – or third if you count the apparent refilming of the Nicole Kidman movie THE INVASION, which is a remake of  the tried and true idea of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS – look at the directing chops of McTeigue. V FOR VENDETTA also stands out as the Wachowski’s foray into literal adaptation – as their no arguing that their previous movie were “inspired by” other’s works before, V FOR VENDETTA was based off the great graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. The action moved away from the patented Wachowski-inspired look of bullet time, and instead gave us blade lines. A tradition stooped in comic book art, but something that took what had become played out, and added another level to it. V FOR VENDETTA has become my favorite movie of these filmmakers; despite it’s going astray of the comic book’s intentions; and being more vital than their own work in THE MATRIX universe. (It might be said that the sequels lessened the impact or tainted the work of the original, but I just think that VENDETTA is more about trying to create a new world, and THE MATRIX is more about destroying an old one. And there is a fine line, and possibly a non-sensical viewpoint in that opinion.)

Written from an original story by Matthew Sand, and then gone over again by screen-comic book-television writer J. Michael Straczynski, NINJA ASSASSIN sadly lacks some of the finer points that we’ve gotten in the past from the creative minds behind this movie (and oddly, that even includes Strazcynski’s previous Oscar contender, CHANGELING). There’s certainly the action, the stylized violence – that most closely resembles V FOR VENDETTA – and there’s a little of the dialogue that I’ve come to expect (something about how a tattoo reveals not who the man is, but what kind of man he is…Not completely sure), but the storytelling is off. Even without it being a movie with the creative pedigree it has, there’s a fine action movie here, but there’s just something in the incorporation of the woman government agent out of her depth, the needless training montage of our hero in his apartment alone flinging around throwing stars and blades on chains, and even some of the hackneyed plot devices, that makes the movie less than the sum of it’s parts.

The movie only really works in it’s basest form. The action, and fight scenes between good ninja and bad ninja, ninja against military forces, and the numerous training flashbacks showing us this secret clan that kidnaps children turning them into deadly assassins. The opening five minutes of the movie really are kind of the peak of the piece. The top of a man’s head is chopped off, leaving us to see his lower jaw and tongue flopping, before he falls down dead and a flurry of super-speed throwing stars come through and eviscerate an entire gang of incessant, wannabe gangsters. I thought that this was a setup for a movie that would continue to raise the stakes, and take us even further into the world of, well, ninja assassins. Instead we cut from that to two government agents talking about ninjas; played by the ever watchable – both for talent and for looks – Naomie Harris (who you might not recognize from the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies and Michael Mann’s MIAMI VICE retread) and Ben Miles, who was the television secretary for the government, Dascomb, in V FOR VENDETTA. From there we cut to a scene of Raizo (Rain), doing laundry and a vague fight, that we only see a few moments of and then the vague outcome. Then it’s back to the Europol agents, talking. Then Raizo again, in his apartment, training. Needless to say, I understand that the movie can’t be wall-to-wall ninja mayhem, but this really kind of killed the flow of the movie.

Luckily, we then get the insight into where Raizo came from, the harsh conditions he was trained in – and this movie spares no children the brunt of physical violence – and then finally, it seems the inevitable meeting between Harris’ agent, Mika, and Raizo. When we do get our first glimpses of the ninja, momentarily in the opening scene, and then in the attack on Mika; there’s some awesome cinematic and special effects tricks used to show the stealthiness of how the ninjas move and blend into shadows. There’s a touch of fantasy in the way they turn into blurs and seem to move faster than the camera – or eye – can see; how they can materialize out of shadows that shouldn’t be able to contain a human form, and of course the mass amounts of mayhem.

One thing that came to mind as I watched masses of both ninja and military forced being dismembered and shredded to pieces either by bullets or bladed weapons, was the difference in how I felt about the violence; especially in contrast to say 2012, where we’re basically treated to the obliteration of the human (and I’d dare say all life’s) population. In that movie it was really disconcerting to see all this destruction on a screen (rated PG-13, nonetheless), and the main point of view we followed was the near hijinks of a few – argumentatively undeserving – souls, outrunning earthquakes, falling skyscrapers and big wave surfing aircraft carriers. In NINJA ASSASSIN, we see every person that dies, on-screen, or we see the results of this violence in the form of (barely) survivors being carried away from the battlefield.  It was a strange feeling, and I’m not entirely sure what, or how I feel about it.

But, NINJA ASSASSIN is worth seeing if you love ninjas, oceans of blood and body parts; but if you’re looking for a real story – even one as ham-handed as the Wachowskis can be – probably better to pop in that V FOR VENDETTA dvd again, instead. It’s a far more rewarding experience.

**And as much as one of my favorite moments in the trailer is the ninja being run over by the car, at the end, that whole scene is just ridiculous to think that ninjas wouldn’t think of a better way of catching their prey, than by running through the streets of a major city. Just seemed silly.

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