11 January 2010

"You'll never hit me with a bullet that slow."

With the beginning of the new year, as with every year, I am trying to catch up on many of the 2009 movies I've missed so far. I still have not seen Avatar, Up in the Air, Precious, The White Ribbon, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and a host of other heralded cinematic achievements. Furthermore, Film Forum is currently holding a Kurosawa retrospective for the masses featuring everyone's favorite samurai and salarymen. That is why, on my weekend day off, I went to see Ninja Assassin.

This is what assassinating ninjas looks like.

Perhaps some context is required. I met up with a friend of mine for brunch at the Film Center Cafe on Ninth Avenue with the intention of watching a movie after our meal. For better or worse, the restaurant featured a $15.00 unlimited drink option with brunch, of which, dear reader, I confess we took advantage. On top of that, we were armed with a $25 gift certificate to AMC I earned back in November because I knew more movie songs than everyone else at a filmmakers' meeting.

With our meals down and more than enough vodka in our stomachs, my friend and I made our way to the theater on 42nd Street (passing, along the way, the New York City outpost of my beloved Yoshinoya) only to find that the screening for Avatar we were hoping to attend was sold out. That seems to be the par for the course these days, so instead of waiting for the next showtime an hour away, we searched through the other movies, bypassing those we had previously discussed and settling on the one that started the soonest: Ninja Assassin.

It was on the very top floor of the theater, and by God, that is a tall ass theater. Escalator after escalator took us further and further up, with a several-stories-tall Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser watching our progress from the buildings across the street. Later, on the way down, their poster took up the small windows as seen from the escalators, and the isolated faces and designs made me feel like I was stuck in a claustrophobic German Expressionism Hell.

All of this is merely prelude to my actual subject: How I felt about the film. I do not hide my love of Asian cinema, nor outrageous action films; even better is when the two are combined. I believe there are things that I would angrily dismiss in an American film that I would hypocritically embrace in an Asian one. For example, Taegukgi cannot, by any measure, be called a "good" film, but I love it all the same, and will fight anyone to the death who says otherwise. So I felt fairly confident heading into Ninja Assassin that I would at least be entertained. No, it's technically not an Asian film, but it is certainly an homage of sorts to the chop-socky genre and all its brethren. How could it go wrong? As it turns out, it could go very wrong.

The film opens promisingly with the gratuitous slaughter of a bunch of yakuza nobodies. And though the horrors performed on their persons are CGI, it is fairly well done CGI, and - here's the important bit - we see all of it. A semi-decapitation, two hands chopped off, ninjas akimbo; all good stuff. There are not so many people that it devolves into a bunch of shit thrown at the screen punctuated by the odd bit of crimson.

From there, however, that's what the film does become. The plot takes up time between ninja fights, and neither it nor the characters are interesting enough to elevate a genre exercise into something better. Eventually, when blades come out and the gun-toting Europol agents still find themselves at a disadvantage, it's a lot of flashing lights and spurting computer blood filling the screen, moving too fast and too darkly lit to make us care too much whether someone gets torn apart by shurikens or sliced in two by a sword. And then...well, the film just kind of ends.

There's the opening action sequence, a few fights, the mid-way dust-up, and then the closer - sounds like enough to keep the audience occupied, but when the credits roll, there's a feeling of "That's it?" because none of them are epic or put together well enough to sate our violent curiosities. My general feeling when it comes to these sorts of movies is that the filmmakers need to fulfill one of several options, and ideally more:
  1. Forget about the plot, or minimize it as much as you can, to cram in as much crazy action as you can possibly fit (Riki-Oh);
  2. Expand upon the characters and story so that we actually care about them and create a somewhat believable world that can comfortably contain your movie (Kill Bill - note that even other passengers on the flight to Tokyo have katanas);
  3. Make 'em laugh (Versus);
  4. Blood, blood, and more blood. Fill the screen with crimson goodies. Make it outright utterly insane and, perhaps, find your way into the audience's heart (Dead Alive - not an action flick, but I think it's an appropriate example nonetheless).
Ninja Assassin did not do any of these (okay, it was pretty damn bloody, but not in a way that made it fun or audacious). If it had continued in the same vein as the opening scene, it all would have been well and good - a bit with a washing machine comes close - but it becomes - and I hate to write this as I doubt it's applicable to other films - too serious for its own good. After the film, despite the plot being neatly resolved and all the strings tied up, it seemed like we were still owed at least another action sequence, like we hadn't yet gotten to the part that would make us drop our jaws and say "Holy fuck, that's what I paid my money to see."

Sometimes a film can do that and keep going. I remember watching Casino Royale and being perfectly content with the film ending with Bond's recuperation. But it goes on to feature the house battle in Venice and I thought, "Wow, it's like a bonus action scene!" It did what it came to do, then went a little more, ending before it became tiresome. That, perhaps, should be the standard action filmmakers should aspire to. Not "Eh, good enough."

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