Is Ninja Assassin the Wachowskis' most balanced film yet?

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Jul 4, 2015, 12:36 PM EDT

If there's a single theme that runs through all of the movies that the Wachowski brothers are involved with, it's a constant inability to stage action scenes and drive a plot forward at the same time. Even as a fan of the first two Matrix films and, yes, Speed Racer, it's impossible for me to ignore the fact that for some reason they just can't synthesize storytelling with set pieces.

Thankfully, they seem to be improving at the very least in managing the appropriate proportions between excitement and exposition. The Matrix Revolutions was one long and boring conversation about what everything means, occasionally broken up by dudes punching each other, but there was much more racing than recapping in Speed Racer, and in Ninja Assassin, their latest producing effort, there are thankfully only one or two sequences where characters stop to set the scene.

Unfortunately, those sequences are still as clunky and ham-fisted as their predecessors, but on the whole, Ninja Assassin is a tight-lipped, tightly wound adventure that mostly satisfies audience demand for throwing stars, swinging swords and disemboweled bodies, at least when you can see them getting disemboweled.

The film stars Speed Racer alumnus Rain as Raizo, a rogue ninja who teams up with a Europol researcher named Mika (Naomie Harris) in order to uncover a secret society of assassins that has existed for centuries. And, uh, that's it. The rest of the film is essentially one long fight, interrupted only by Mika's explanatory speeches, or the defeat of a previously feared adversary: Raizo squares off against dozens of his black-clad compatriots in every location from corner laundromats to his apartment to nearby freeways, before squaring off against his "brother" Takeshi (Rick Yune), and eventually his former master Ozunu (Sho Kosugi).

Personally speaking, ninja movies badly need an update; the genre is especially rife with opportunities for a filmmaker with any familiarity with contemporary special effects. In the opening sequence of Ninja Assassin, one mysterious figure lays waste to an entire group of loud-mouthed, gun-toting yakuza, and the combination of physical prowess and CGI enhancement sets the stage for an exciting, albeit fairly ridiculous, universe of gloriously gory showdowns and, inevitably, deaths. Director James McTeigue thankfully understands how to balance the bloodletting with a sense of, well, silliness, giving audiences a feeling of visceral gratification that transcends what would otherwise be torture-porn-style gratuitousness.

At the same time, however, McTeigue's commitment to showcasing ninjas' ability to navigate darkness frequently undermines the need for the film to show viewers what's going on. In an early scene, Raizo fights an assailant as Mika tries to follow the pair with a handheld flashlight, and hers is the only light in the room; as intriguing as each glimmer of their confrontation is, the rest of the film never finds a comfortable style that really reveals what's going on in that darkness, and as a result some martial-arts fans will come away disappointed by the lack of clearly discernible action.

Thankfully, Rain is himself something of a perfect physical specimen, and appears to be doing most of the stunts that a human would be capable of in the physical world (including, reportedly, a series of handstand pushups). Even with only a tenuous grasp of the inflections of the English language—which is an observation, not a criticism—he manages to exude a charisma that exceeds what the character appears to have been given on the page. Meanwhile, he wields what is now officially my favorite weapon in the martial-arts world, a long chain with a knife attached to one end, and decimates enemies with an efficiency and, it must be said, a panache that prove positively invigorating.

Ultimately, however, it's disappointing that by accident or design the film otherwise succumbs to this same action-exposition structure to which other Wachowski films fall prey; when Mika begins recapping what we've seen and what it all means about 45 minutes in, you're disappointed that the filmmakers either couldn't have worked that information into the previous sequences or just found a better way than a pure, straightforward monologue to reveal it. And further, that even if the goal was to do real justice to the ninja's dark arts, they might have simply opted for a day-for-night or Terminator-blue-style night in order to both conceal and showcase their physical dexterity.

Given the real dearth of remotely interesting or original action movies released recently, however, Ninja Assassin feels like a modest success, because it re-opens the door to a genre that has either been absorbed into conventional action movies via pilfered fight choreography or completely forgotten as a viable, creative foundation for interesting stories. After all, not only does it celebrate such genre staples as training sequences, forbidden romances and tortured origin stories, it turns over a few other action-movie conventions, boasting the only car chase I can remember that also features ninjas darting in between the moving vehicles.

Meanwhile, one can only hope that someday soon McTeigue and his benefactors, the Wachowskis, will learn how to integrate the intellectual with the visceral; but until then at least there's a small comfort in knowing that their films will always feature opportunities for bathroom breaks.

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