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Korean pop star Rain is Raizo in Ninja Assassin.

courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture/© 2009 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

2 out of 4 stars


Ninja Assassin

  • Directed by James McTeigue
  • Written by Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski
  • Starring Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Rick Yune and Sho Kosugi
  • Classification: 18A

The Matrix was famous for introducing the bullet cam. Time slowed. Characters moved as if struggling under water. Then the slowly rotating bullets came, chasing down intended receivers. The special effect became so popular that before long, all action movies were equipped with National Football League-style slow-motion playlets.

The big deal in Ninja Assassin is deadly, swooshing five-point stars. They travel much faster than Matrix bullets, and when these sheriff-badge thingies connect, look out! Grown men are reassembled into haphazard columns of hamburger meat.

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Assassin blades are the ultimate silent weapon. So you might figure a ninja gang knocking off a pair of victims shouldn't take more than five minutes.

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You'd be wrong. That's because one victim, Raizo (Korean pop star Rain), is so nimble that he doesn't need an umbrella in a thunderstorm.

Raizo gained his skills the hard way. As a child, he was kidnapped by a secret society of ninja assassins - the Ozunu clan. Eventually, he ran away, swearing revenge against the depraved Lord Ozunu who had his sweetheart killed. Years later, in Berlin, he gets his chance, befriending a gorgeous Interpol agent, Mika (Naomie Harris).

Mika has discovered that Ozunu ninjas are behind a wave of political assassinations. Now, they're coming for her. Will Raizo lose another woman to the Ozunu clan?

Ninja Assassin is a convincing, reasonably co-ordinated action movie. Nothing special, but lovers of the genre will enjoy the workouts, especially if they bring night-vision glasses. On the plus side, Harris is an intriguing damsel in distress. And our action hero moves well, although he's more Mist than Rain when delivering dialogue.

Still, the question arises: Why is the film getting the VIP treatment, opening on the eve of the American Thanksgiving weekend? The answer lies in Ninja Assassin 's credits. The film is produced by Andy and Larry Wachowski, creators of the Matrix trilogy (1999-2003), a $1.6-billion (U.S.) global franchise.

Warner Bros. is hoping that a devoted fan base will want to know what the oppressive Lord Ozunu (Sho Kosugi) has to do with the calculating schemers who, 10 years ago now, attempted to domesticate the world with a virtual-reality matrix. All of the Wachowski films, even Bound and V for Vendetta , are concerned with oppression and rebellion. Is Ninja Assassin an elaboration on the brothers' most pressing theme?

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The answer is yes, of course, and not really. On one hand, the film, which is directed by James McTeigue, who also did V for Vendetta , is all about the battered victims rising up against their oppressors.

And for those who have been following Larry Wachowski's stormy voyage (Rolling Stone magazine has reported that he has taken up with L.A.'s most infamous dominatrix), the film offers grist for the tabloid mill. Ninja Assassin takes an unhealthy interest in the swooning of battered victims, especially in the ninja training camp, where little kids are twisted and torn for their own good.

"Cut him, failure must be sewn in blood," is one of Lord Ozunu's frequently hissed commands.

On the other hand, Ninja Assassin lacks the finesse and epic scope of The Matrix , an action film with an overheated brain - a scavenger hunt for religious and cultural references, from the Bible to spaghetti westerns, that made the eventual trilogy the sci-fi series of choice for Generation Special F/X.

This one is simply a diverting, uncommonly violent action flick. No need for an extended critical postmortem. Except to say the Wachowski brothers' trademark seems to have turned into a designer brand dedicated to producing inexpensive knockoffs.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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