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Ninja Assassin

To understand the ninja, you must first undergo the ritual of purification, suffering the winds, the blistering heat of the raging fire, the stings and blows of cane that will purge you of your free will and emotions that will get in the way of your achieving perfection. To understand Ninja Assassin, you need to know that he's a ninja. That assassinates other ninja. And that's awesome.

Starring Korean pop sensation Rain, Ninja Assassin really has little more on its mind than mayhem, sweat and CG blood. Under the watchful eyes of the famed Wachowskis, director James McTeigue has framed a dark story of …well, again, pretty much just ninjas attacking for reasons that don't matter much.

What he has really done has turned ninjas into monsters. For the first time, these creatures of myth are practically creatures. In an hilariously over the top opener, young Yakuza laugh when they receive an envelope full of black sand, allegedly the calling card of the ninja. But a terrified old tattoo artist (Randall Duk Kim) tells of the legend that no one will believe, of surviving their onslaught only because he has that rare - but frequent in movies - condition of having his heart on the wrong side of his body.

As the laughter rings out, it's quickly silenced by the ssssshhhhinnnngggg of a blade working its way through bone at high speed. Body parts slide and fly, and soon the work of the ninja has been accomplished.

But somewhere at an international police organization, one woman (Naomie Harris) has put together that the ninja exist! Still killing people for the price of one hundred pounds of gold, as they have for a millennium, the ninja clan are exactly who you want to call when you want to get rid of a world leader. Does the CIA have a ninja budget? Just askin'.

Soon she, too, gets that dreaded envelope of black sand, but luckily there's Rain as Raizo the rogue ninja to save her. To give the guy his due, he wears bruises and welts extremely well. Few people can make that kind of intense pain look good, not even Taylor Lautner. He can even be half-disemboweled, and he still might qualify for the cover of GQ, or at least Men's Fitness.

But he's also laboring under the likely problem that he isn't exactly an actor fluent in English, so Oscar-nominated screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski - hey, so he took the paycheck - has to keep Raizu's dialogue to a minimum. Mostly he says, "hurry up," "come here" and "I'm beginning to like you," though that last one doesn't always come across as sincere.

Yet there's something just a little wrong about featuring an actor so limited that in flashbacks of only a few years previously, you have to use another actor to play the younger version so that we can understand the emotional arc.

Ninja Assassin goes a long way to dispel some popular misconceptions about these black-clad monsters. For example, I always assumed that "silent as a ninja" meant silent. It actually means that they hiss the words "kill" and "ninja" everywhere they go. That would probably make them awkward party guests. It also turns out that they can heal any wound by playing "here is the church, here is the steeple, open the door and see all the people." I tried that and just got a finger cramp.

They also don't spill real blood. Instead, it's a combination of bright red paint and computer graphics, poorly composited so apparently they don't actually have to be in the same room with you as they're trying to kill you. In all seriousness, if it looks that bad on the big screen, McTeigue, it's going to be awful with the unforgiving nature of HDTV.

It's not Shakespeare. It's not meant to be Shakespeare. And god help me, I fear it's so compelling in its inanity that when it shows up on cable, it's going to be one of those movies that you channel flip and find yourself helpless to stop watching. How can you not love a movie with a tagline so pretentious -- "Fear not the weapon but the hand that wields it"?

Yet once upon a time, these movies would sort of slink into theaters on a double or triple bill and then years later Quentin Tarantino would pay homage to them. Something's very wrong when these are getting made by talented filmmakers on purpose.

So ladies, I think I'm going to shut up about The Twilight Saga for at least a week. Or a weekend.

Derek McCaw

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