Ninja Assassin: Love love love love love. And some more love.
Ninja Assassin is the story of Raizo, an assassin raised from a young age by a ninja clan. It's equally the story of Mika, a researcher who discovers the secret of the clans and is therefore marked for death. As their story unfolds, we meet Ozunu, the leader of the clan; Takeshi, Raizo's chief rival; and Kiriko, Raizo's friend and quite possibly savior.
If you were to click through and check who played all of those characters, keeping a tally, you'd end up with a list of five people of color, including two women of color - Harris being black, of Jamaican background. There is only one other character in this movie who gets much screen time at all, and that's Mika's boss, played by Ben Miles, who is white. So if you want a film that brings some diversity to your action movie queue, this is a great choice.
alianora of SilverSpiral.net is one of my favorite people on the internet. So when she offered to pitch in on a review of this film we both adore, I knew it would be a lot of fun. Thanks alianora!
Skye: So, when was the last time you watched an action movie where it was the man's clothes that couldn't seem to stay on?
alianora: You know, I can't recall a single one. I mean, there are plenty where the guy ends up shirtless once or twice, but that's usually it. But in Ninja Assassin, it seems like Raizo is shirtless almost every other scene. The dvd was worth every penny for that alone.
Even rarer, I can't think of any scene where Mika is gratuitously naked. She showers once, but we don't see much. How often does THAT happen? The guy gets nekkid and the girl reveals nothing more than her shoulders? It's kind of awesome!
Then again, Rain is hilariously awesome when it comes to being shirtless. I'm not sure he can even make it through one of his music videos without ripping a shirt in half at least once.
This a question worthy of deep thought: Where would you most like to lick Rain?
Skye: I suppose I should have expected that, given that we started off this project by emailing each other pictures of the gentleman in question. They're definitely trading on his looks in this movie, and that's okay with me because they also give Raizo abilities and a personality - two things women in action films so often lack. He has a good heart, a quiet sense of humor that I enjoy, and he kicks ass. I can't say that every instance of shirt removal is 100% necessary to the plot, but that's not the only thing he gets to do. And he's not just ripping it off in the middle of making dinner or something.
It's surprising me how nervous I feel discussing someone's hotness in an email that's going to be published on a feminist blog. I spend so much time blogging my ire about gratuitous hypersexualization of women in action movies, I'm sure it looks like I'm the stereotypical feminist anti-sexy police. But I swear I'm not anti-sexy! It's just tiresome to see men idealized as athletes while women are idealized as porn stars (thanks to 1979 Semi-Finalist for that very useful summation), and also tiresome to see the exact same women's body type being held up as perfect over and over again. My frustration with that whole mess doesn't mean I can't appreciate a good-looking person.
I'm not going to answer the licking question, though. That's personal. ;)
alianora: Heh, I did take the feminist blog into account before asking that question. I actually wrote it and deleted it several times, but ultimately, I was entirely too curious as to what you would say to it. I will ask my question about Mika, instead. :)
Skye: It's like you know me!
alianora: If Rain was just trading on his good looks and his abs in this movie, I have to admit I wouldn't have enjoyed it nearly as much as I do. Raizo has a very subtle sense of humor that I really like (I'm thinking of the scene in the warehouse when Mika is trying to unlock his chains), and Mika has snark all of her own. And the movie/Rain isn't afraid to tease about his boybander status. So, yes, there is much more to this than Rain's abs. I do have to point out that the idea of him gratuitously ripping his shirt off in the middle of dinner is a fanfic I need to read.
And yes to the idea that most women in action movies have the exact same body type. I watched Transformers 2, for some reason I don't remember, and there is a scene in a college classroom and I swear all of the girls looked EXACTLY THE SAME. Long straight hair, short shorts and tank tops over a very thin body with big boobs. Couldn't the background girls at least had some diversity?
Skye: When I was thinking about writing this review on my own a while back, I was very focused on Mika and Raizo. When I re-watched the film recently, though, it was Kiriko who really grabbed my attention. What did you think of her role?
alianora: I have to admit that I was disappointed in Kiriko. Not because her actress wasn't engaging or her role wasn't important, but her role was very much as a nurturer. And she was a ninja! I really wanted to see more of her kicking ass and taking names to show us why she was still with the family. I find the idea of her much more interesting than the reality - How did she manage to hide herself for so long in a place that relies on breaking people down? And you know she had to be both fierce and asskicking to get as old as she did without a) dying or b) letting any of her heart show.
I did enjoy her character, don't get me wrong, but I wanted MORE. I wanted to see both her nurturing and her ninja skills. Because the way she was presented was almost "mothering" to Raizo, which was interesting and had a huge impact on him, and goodness knows the boy is fucked up enough emotionally, so let's add in a love interest who has some mother/nurturer qualities. I think I wanted so much more of her backstory. It would have made her defiance so much more effective, I think.
But my girl Mika? My girl Mika is FIERCE, and she shows it. Going in, I was expecting her to end up being the typical damsel in distress who gets rescued by the hero, etc..but I feel that Mika was a character who never was going to wait around to be rescued. She rescues herself and Raizo on more than one occasion, and never becomes the weepy girl who has to be dragged along for her own good. She has some close calls, and yes, Raizo rescues her several times, but she keeps her head in dangerous situations, thinks her way through things, and never loses her bite or her snark.
Skye: Kiriko didn't have much of an impact on me the first time I watched the film. What grabbed me this time was how obvious they made it that she's not incapable of succeeding in her environment. She wins her fights. She just absolutely rejects the value system she's being brought up in. Yes, the filmmakers chose to play that in a stereotypically gendered way as far as Kiriko being a nurturer, but she's also not about to sacrifice herself and her own goals to take care of someone else. She could have chosen to stay because she couldn't bear to pull herself away from Raizo. Instead, she didn't even look tempted. He can go with her, or not, but she's going to do what she needs to do.
I felt like Mika could have fallen into a stereotypical role, the sidekick, but like you said, there is no waiting for rescue here. Only awesomeness.
alianora: Ooh, I like your thoughts on Kiriko, and next time I watch, I will be looking for all of that. I definitely see your point about her not waiting around for Raizo but leaving for her own reasons. Nice.
How did you feel about the level and portrayal of violence in the movie? The first fight really had me worried that I was going to end up watching a gore-porn flick with ninjas - a guy is severed at the JAW.
Skye: The spattered blood on the poster was one of the things my husband found most amusing before we'd even seen the movie. I think he was expecting the splatter aspect more than I was. I did cover my face quite a few times on my first viewing. The next couple of times, I knew what to expect, so I was less shocked, but it's still a LOT. The first fight reminded me a lot of John Carpenter's Vampires, honestly, which was one of the goriest films I'd ever seen. In Ninja Assassin, they did seem to calm it down a little after the first fight, but it was still like "spurting blood" was one of the characters in the film. It wasn't as bad as BloodRayne, but for me it was kind of distracting.
I also had a hard time reconciling it with the whole "silent but deadly" ninja mystique. If you cover several square yards in your opponents' blood, does that really count? I know the black outfits hide spatter, but still.
What would you love to see Naomie Harris (Mika) do in the future? Women of color are extremely under-cast in the action genre and in general. And we obviously love Rain in this role, but "ninja" is one of the movie roles that Asian men get stereotyped into pretty often. What other roles would you enjoy seeing Rain take on that would break stereotypes?
alianora: I love love LOVE Naomie Harris as Tia Dalma in the Pirates movies, and love her in Ninja Assassin, so really, I think I'd like to watch her in anything. She's done a good bit I haven't seen, but I can't tell if that's because a lot of it is English or indie films, but I like that she's picked very different roles from the typical female leads and is doing more than chick flick romantic comedies. As much as I like chick flicks, I like that what I've seen of her hasn't been, you know?
I would really like to see Rain do more English speaking movies. He is a very good actor (in my opinion), and I'm saying that as someone who has watched a good bit of his acting in Korean movies and tv shows. It's hard for me to say anything about him acting and breaking stereotypes because I've already seen him in things that break the ninja stereotype. The very first thing I saw him in was a tv show called Full House (no, not with Uncle Jesse), where he played a bratty, immature actor with the worst fashion sense on Earth. This is also the reason that when I hear he's been voted the most influential anything, I laugh and laugh and laugh. (I've attached a gif from the show of him doing "The Three Bears Dance" to show you just why I can't take him seriously. And a screen cap of him in an apron, just because.)
[Skye's note: someone did NOT attach anything even vaguely resembling a Three Bears Dance to the email. I think the apron is plenty, though. Yikes!]
He also has a tendency to wear very shiny clothes and shirts pre-notched for tearing in half in his music videos (my favorite is Love Song, which is a touching video of him in love... and then he's wearing glittery boots and ripping his clothes off and I laugh forever). I do think he would need to get stronger in the English language still. He does well, but (warning, ninja stereotype) ninjas don't have to worry about dialogue. And Speed Racer wasn't exactly challenging in the dialogue department. To see him do other things than action movies or ninja parts in the US, he needs to be stronger in English. Don't get me wrong, I do think he did a great job in Ninja Assassin - Raizo's dry sense of humor cracked me up, but still.
Skye: ARGH, my American is showing. I was totally thinking about American movies when I asked that question about Rain, but I didn't bother to specify. Of course Rain has quite a background in entertainment already. Thank goodness other countries don't follow our stereotypes when making their own movies, or it would be a disaster. I would just love to see some Asian guys becoming leading men in more mainstream American films in a broad range of roles. I was imagining Rain as a doctor. If he needed a certain quota of shirtless scenes in the film, he could be a doctor who goes jogging or something.
For Naomie Harris, as you said, I would love to see her in just about anything. But I would *really* love to see her playing what my three year old would call a Bad Girl. High tech, high evil kind of thing - but without the side of seductress that usually gets stapled onto those roles. She was so tough in 28 Days Later, and there are so few awesome female villain roles.
alianora: Single favorite moment from the movie for you?
Mine is when he's been captured and the guards are staring at the live feed of him standing there chained up, and the guard says, "He doesn't look that tough. He looks like he belongs in a boyband," and then Raizo opens his eyes and looks straight at the camera.
Skye: Mine has to be one of the scenes you mentioned earlier, where Raizo is chained and Mika shows up to free him as the evil ninjas are infiltrating the building. He's not panicking, she's not panicking, even though they're both about to die if she doesn't get those shackles off - and she had the presence of mind to bring him a jacket and a weapon as well as the keys. Girlfriend is PREPARED, and Raizo is so impressed and quiet and funny about it. Her competence and his humanity were on full display, which is the opposite of a typical action movie scene with a man and a woman.
Four stars, obviously.