Friday, November 27, 2009

Ninja Assassin

"Betrayal begets blood."

Ninja Assassin is an action packed adrenaline fueled adventure if there every was one. As expected it was also big on the blood and action element of the ninja lifestyle. Surprisingly the plot was actually remarkably serviceable for a movie with such a spectacularly cheesy title. 

The movie opens with something of a showcase of the ninjas abilities and something of a taste of things to come. A gang of loudmouth Yakuza are lounging around a bar having fun when an envelope full of black sand is delivered to the head honcho. Seconds later bodies are being sliced in half, limbs are being severed left and right, and copious amounts of blood are being splattered across the walls. Next we cut to the backbone of the story here, in that a couple of investigators working for Europol (of all the multinational investigative services in the world they picked Europol, I am at a loss) have begun to suspect that several assassinations over the past thousand or so years have been conducted by a secret society of ninjas. A little on the cheesy side, but that's acceptable. Interwoven with their investigation are glimpses into the life of Raizo, clearly a ninja, but perhaps not a member of the deadly assassin society. Throughout a series of flashbacks we learn that Raizo was raised by the clan and taught to be a ninja, but after his first real kill decided it wasn't for him and left (in a rather bloody brawl as you may imagine). Raizo wants the head of the clan and he's willing to work with the Europol agents to do it. Will any of them survive this somewhat suicidal mission, will Raizo get his revenge? The answers make for a reasonably entertaining, and rather exciting, 90 minutes.

Usually I would talk a bit about the acting and casting at this point. Well there wasn't much acting on display in the movie, which actually doesn't hurt it all that much. Why? Well because this a movie about ninjas, the quintessential strong silent types. If nothing else the actors all look the part. Especially the leading role of Raizo (played by Rain) who brings the whole movie up a notch with his somewhat withdrawn, but none the less imposing, presence. Naomie Harris and Ben Miles on the other hand, were not all that convincing as Europol agents. Ben Miles in particular comes across more as an accountant than a field agent. Not the best casting choice there I think.

I'm not sure where the concept for the movie comes from. I will, however, say that if you treat this movie as if it is a comic book, you will get much more enjoyment out of it. The excessive amount of blood on display immediately made me think of Punisher: War Zone, not a terribly good movie, but a pretty decent comic book adaptation. Well, the stunts on display in this movie are incredible, and the martial arts look great, but the whole experience is ramped up to the extent that it just doesn't look real anymore. It does look terrific on screen, but there is a sense of detachment from reality, something that can only be resolved by placing the story firmly in the domain of comic-book-land. Is this a bad thing? Depends on your opinion of comic book movies I guess. Personally I rather liked it, I don't imagine I'll be rushing out to see it again, nor will I be adding it to my DVD collection, but overall I thought it was a pretty entertaining 90 minutes and I have no regrets about spending the money to see it.

The only flaw I can really pick with the movie is that our leading man Raizo is made out ot be something of a Terminator, the guy just can't be killed. At various points in the movie he shrugs off wounds that seem to kill every other ninja he comes into contact with. Again though, if you put on your comic book glasses the idea of superhuman heroes is a pretty easy sell.

So to sum up, Ninja Assassin is not winning any awards for best picture anytime soon, nor does it have a great screenplay. What the movie does have is really beautiful martial arts coupled with a plot that actually does make sense. If you have a some time and money to spare, there are far worse movies you could see than Ninja Assassin, give a shot, just be sure to leave the kids at home.

Final Verdict on Ninja Assassin

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

"I'm a Jedi warrior"

This is the kind of movie that the critics love to destroy. Funny that I don't include myself in the term 'the critics' even though, essentially, I am one. The movie is fun, crazy escapism if nothing else, but it goes on the list of movies that reveal too much in the trailer. Note to the studios, when making a comedy it is better if you DON'T put all the best gags in the trailer. Anyway, it's sitting at 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, with a consensus thus: "Though The Men Who Stare at Goats is a mostly entertaining, farcical glimpse of men at war, some may find its satire and dark humor less than edgy." Honestly I can't really bring myself to disagree with that statement (I'll elaborate on that later.)

The plot, such as it is, begins with an aspiring journalist, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor). In a short space of time, Bob discovers that his wife is cheating on him, with his editor no less, and has a rather tough time dealing with it. So he does the thing all guys do, he catches a flight to the middle east with the hope of writing a piece on the war effort. While there he stumbles upon Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) a somewhat unhinged character who is heading into the war zone, Bob seizes the opportunity and offers to join him. From here on out we are given glimpses into Lyn's past as a 'super soldier' as we follow the duo into the desert, in search of Lyn's former commanding officer Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). The whole situation is very similar to that of Spy's Like Us

Clooney delivers a terrific performance, but he does manage to maintain a certain level of consistency in that regard, the only movies that could be called 'iffy' on his part are (I think) Out of Sight, The Peacemaker and Batman and Robin. McGregor delivered his lines brilliantly, especially all the Jedi references, which of course contain a certain level of sub-text. Kevin Spacey is a cut above too, with his campy and over the top 'super villian' style character. It reminded me of his part in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, great stuff. Finally I have to acknowledge Jeff Bridges, who manages to deliver a very Dude like quality to his role. Bridges is one of those actors best known for comedy, that can also pull off really good dramatic work too (don't believe me, watch The Big Lebowski followed by Arlington Road and then we'll' talk.)

Sadly even great performances by the actors involved can't save the movie from a plodding slow pace that really detracts from what could have, and maybe even should have, been a great movie. The pace was somewhat similar to The International (another movie I criticized for its pacing) in that I was surprised to see that only 20 minutes had gone by when it felt like an hour. Things don't happen terribly fast int he movie, which is a bit odd for a 90 minute comedy. Additionally one scene didn't really seem to flow all that well into another, it was all very haphazard, again similar to The International.

The story is fun and the actors are clearly having a good time, but overall I just felt that the movie lacked that spark of greatness that I was hoping for. As a result I couldn't help but feel a little let down. It's not a bad movie, it's just not really all that good either. In regards to the humor, I have to agree with the RT critics in that it is 'less than edgy'. Though that is possibly less the fault of the writers and more a fact of life, the average audience today has been exposed, at times, to excessively dark and sometimes even morbid humor, such that lines that should be cutting close to the bone in this movie, have lost a lot of their impact. After the hilarious gags in the trailer I was hoping for something really fun and off the wall, instead I got a rather vanilla comedy/drama where all the best lines were spoiled in the trailer. Great potential, but sadly poorly realized on screen, I have to advise against spending money on this one, maybe rent the DVD if you're tired of staring at the walls, otherwise skip it.

Final Verdict on The Men Who Stare at Goats: