Ninja Assassin Directed By: James McTeigue Starring: Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Rick Yune, Sho Kosugi, Randall Duk Kim, Sung Kang Studio: Warner Bros. Year: 2009 Rated: R Film Length: 99 minutes Aspect Ratio: 2.4:1 Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish Release Date: March 16, 2010 The Film **½ In Ninja Assassin, Rain plays Raizo, a man raised since childhood to be an elite Ninja assassin who has recently risked his life to part ways with his clan, led by the imperious Ozunu (Kosugi). The existence of clans of ninja assassins is a closely guarded secret, so much so that when Berlin-based Europol agent Mika (Harris) stumbles upon evidence of their existence, she and her supervisor Maslow (Miles) find themselves pressured to drop their activities from channels both official and potentially lethal. Mika's insistence on pressing forward with her investigation eventually brings her into contact with Raizo, who protects her and seeks to aid her efforts to bring down his former clan. While on the run from a group of Ninja's led by Ozunu's top assassin, Takeshi (Yune), we learn via flashback of Raizo's harsh tutelage and the events that led to his turning his back on Ozuno. The story of Ninja Assassin is so familiar and formal that accusing it of trading in cliches is essentially pointless. The basic plot about a highly trained assassin who finds himself at odds with the people who made him what he is has been the subject of countless action films. Sometimes filmmakers try to garnish the plot with a novel twist, such as the amnesia element in the recent series of "Bourne" films. More frequently, it is presented in an almost stubbornly straightforward way like countless martial arts revenge dramas and the 2007 movie Hitman. Films of this sort are not so much about what they are about as how they go about it. If viewers approach the film as an exercise in almost pure stylization, they are much more likely to be entertained than if they are looking for groundbreaking storytelling. Questions of relative quality in such cases come down to how effective and engrossing the stylization is relative to previous such formally plotted entries in the genre. In the case of Ninja Assassin, director James McTeigue's approach to the material mixes stylized martial arts action with Grand Guignol blood and severed extremities. The martial arts sequences are staged in visually clever ways that feature Ninjas moving in and out of shadows in a manner that adds an element of suspense to what would otherwise be pretty straightforward fight scenes using relatively modest amounts of wire work and CGI enhancement. Fans of gory violence will be entertained by just about as much such material as one can get away with in a modern R-rated film. Aside from those two novel elements, the film does not have much to offer. The cast, top-lined by Korean pop-star Rain and Naomie Harris, is modestly charismatic, but are not given much to do. At this stage in his acting career, Rain is not particularly skilled at delivering convincing English dialog, but since he is playing a taciturn antihero who is more interesting the less he speaks, the part is ideally suited for him. Harris plays her role with a very convincing if unnecessary American accent, and has decent chemistry with Ben Miles who plays her superior. Unfortunately, neither of their characters is developed into anything more than a vehicle to move the plot along. The villains are given even shorter shrift, with Sho Kosugi playing a one-note evil head of the ninja clan and Rick Yune barely even registering as a ninja who is supposed to be Raizo's key rival. While I enjoyed Ninja Assassin much more than the aforementioned Hitman, it does not achieve the operatic grandeur necessary to elevate its overly familiar plot the way, for instance, Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films did. The Video ***½ I have recently been critical of the video presentations of a number of Warner theatrical new release titles on SD DVD due to the presence of frequent and annoying digital video artifacts. The 16:9 enhanced 2.4:1 transfer of Ninja Assassin is a marked improvement over most recent Warner SD DVD releases, with excellent black levels, no significant video noise in its all important shadows, and little to no ringing along high contrast edges. The only significant shortcoming is a tendency for digital video noise to get heavy during detailed shots such as wide exteriors with zooms, panning, or moving cameras. During the instances where this happens, it will be noticeable on even modest size displays. The Audio ****½ The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track encoded at 384 kbps nicely compliments the film's visual style with the surrounds used to enhance the sense of ninjas moving through the shadows and weapons being thrown from all directions by invisible assailants. Fidelity is generally decent, but could have benefitted from a higher bitrate encoding, which becomes especially evident during scenes where all 5.1 channels are being driven with significant audio information. French and Spanish dubs are also presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The Extras ** The only extras offered on this DVD are a collection of Deleted Scenes (7:44 w/"Play All"). They are presented with 16:9 enhanced video (usually with superimposed timecode information) and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound. They are not selectable individually from the disc's menu, but they are chapter encoded so that the viewer may skip through them with a remote. Brief descriptions follow: Additional Flashback to Raizo's youth during laundromat scene (:32) Extended scene of Mika reviewing evidence and an angry Maslow arriving and expressing distress about the amount of official pressure/heat brought down on their office due to her use of his security clearance code to access evidence of Ninja activities(3:21) Scene between Mika and Maslow in a parking lot in which Maslow talks more about official pressures being brought to stop their investigation(1:20) Brief scene with Mika and Raizo where Raizo disposes of evidence and steals a car using an electronic device.(:40) Deleted sequence with Mika and a badly injured Raizo where they go to a shop to purchase some herbal remedies to treat him. (1:47) The scenes that feature Mika and Maslow were likely truncated for purposes of moving the plot along and keeping Maslow's intentions more ambiguous in the finished film. The extra flashback and car theft bits were likely easy cuts since they disrupted the pacing of the film's opening and climax respectively. The last scene with Raizo treating his injuries helps to fill a small plot hole, but it takes up a lot of time doing so and ends with a pretty corny punch line. When the disc is first played, the viewer is greeted with the following series of skippable promos, all presented in 4:3 video, letterboxed when appropriate, with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound unless otherwise indicated: Anti-smoking PSA that parodies energy drink commercials (:32) Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths DTV trailer (1:17) Clash of the Titans Theatrical Teaser (1:02) Sherlock Holmes BD/DVD Trailer (2:17) Ninja Assassin iPhone/IPod Touch Game(:53) Invictus DVD/BD Trailer (2:25) A Nightmare on Elm Street Theatrical Trailer (16:9 enhanced - 2:04) Halo Legends DTV Trailer (2:08) Packaging The DVD is enclosed in a standard Amaray-sized Eco-Box case with no inserts. The contents are contained on a dual-layer DVD-9. Menus are straightforward although there is an unnecessary "Features" page since it contains only one item (Deleted Scenes) that could just as easily been added to the main menu. Summary **½ Ninja Assassin features lots of cleverly-staged stylized gory martial arts action, but due to the underdevelopment of its characters, does not achieve the operatic levels of drama to which its stubbornly formal plotting seems to suggest it is reaching. It is presented on SD DVD with a video transfer featuring excellent shadow detail that is marred only by bursts of compression artifacts during highly detailed shots. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track makes inventive use of the full surround field to support the stylized ninja action sequences. Extras consist of a set of rightly deleted scenes that are worth at least a single viewing for fans of the film.