It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a decent ninja flick. When the Golden Age of Ninja Cinema (also known as the Dudikoff Era) ebbed at the close of the ‘80s the black-clad martial artists retreated to the shadows. This week director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) aims to resurrect them with Ninja Assassin a hyperkinetic gorefest starring Korean pop star Rain.
But these ain’t your daddy’s ninjas. Though they boast the familiar wardrobe (black on black) and weapons (swords throwing stars etc.) the ninjas in this flick are thoroughly nasty buggers. Members of a super-secret international syndicate of assassins-for-hire they can dodge bullets turn invisible heal wounds and communicate telepathically. And for the low low price of 100 lbs of gold they’ll kill anyone you want no questions asked.
It’s that latter aspect that draws the scrutiny of law enforcement — specifically agents Mika Coretti (Naomi Harris) and Ryan Maslow (Ben Miles) of Europol (which appears to be a division of Interpol staffed exclusively with imbeciles). Fortunately for these hapless twits they find a potent ally in Raizo (Rain) a renegade ninja of unsurpassed ability who nurses a nasty grudge against his cruel former master Lord Ozunu (Sho Kosugi).
Fueled by childhood memories of the abuse he suffered while at Lord Ozunu’s ninja sleepaway camp Raizo will stop at nothing to bring the entire operation down. Which is good because his former chums are a persistent lot arriving in ever greater numbers to snuff out the powerful apostate.
McTeigue’s dizzying shaky-cam combined with the identical appearance of most of the ninja combatants makes the action difficult to follow at times in Ninja Assassin. It’s probably why he felt compelled to accentuate every fight scene with exaggerated bursts of CGI blood. Still as disembodied heads limbs and torsos fly across the screen in quantities not seen since Kill Bill it’s nigh impossible to determine who they belong(ed) to. Much easier to pinpoint are the glistening six-pack abs of Raizo a fighter so badass he can ward off his pursuers while wearing little more than a thin layer of baby oil.
It’s a pity Raizo couldn’t have applied his blade to the Ninja Assassin script which encumbers the first half of the movie with endless flashbacks gratuitous training sequences and pointless political squabbling. Or perhaps he could have imparted some of his skills at deception to McTeigue who exhibits all of the subtlety and unpredictability of a kamikaze pilot.
This is one ninja flick that should have remained in the shadows.
Go ahead and throw logic out the window on this one folks. A mysterious Tibetan monk with no name (Chow Yun-Fat) has spent a lifetime protecting an ancient document known as the Scroll of the Ultimate--a parchment that will yield unlimited power to anyone who reads it. After running around the globe for 60 years the Monk knows it's time to hang up his robes and find a new guardian but spotting a successor isn't easy in the hustle bustle of the 21st century where Tibetan traditions and rituals are almost non-existent. Maybe the next protector should be the crafty rebellious pickpocket Kar (Seann William Scott) who learned martial arts from watching kung-fu movies; after all Kar helps the Monk escape from the scroll's most avid pursuer Strucker (Karel Roden) a sadistic old Nazi who wants to use the its power to rid the planet of inferior races. Or maybe the Monk's successor is the elusive but beautiful bad girl Jade (James King) whose skills are numerous and who seems to pop up to help Kar whenever he gets in a jam. Whomever the Monk eventually chooses they must first unite to battle the ultimate enemy--and keep the scroll safe.
If it weren't for Yun-Fat Bulletproof Monk would be pretty hopeless. The charismatic actor finds a nice balance no matter what he does and in this case he resists the obvious temptation to play the Monk as a fish out of water in the big city. Since he's long been one of Chinese cinema's most well-known action heroes he's definitely in his element in Monk standing on top of a car with guns blazing and the Zen master persona he discovered in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon serves him well here too. The script requires him to spout off fortune-cookie mumbo jumbo but he manages to do it without sounding ridiculous. The petite King actually holds her own as the brawny-yet-brainy tough chick but the wisecracking Scott is completely out of his element for the first time in his career. He handles the little comedic tidbits well but in no way is it possible to believe that the "Dude" who couldn't find his car and the jackass who drank someone else's bodily fluids in American Pie can be a martial arts hero who saves the planet. It just isn't going to happen.
Bulletproof Monk relies on the ghosts of movies past including Crouching Tiger and the 1986 Eddie Murphy stinker The Golden Child for its plot which results in a film that's chock full of cliches especially the evil Nazi who has spent 60 years chasing after the scroll using his tow-headed granddaughter whose cover is an organization for human rights to do the dirty work. A few bright moments with Yun-Fat coupled with director Paul Hunter's good use of fast-paced martial arts action make the rest of this unimaginative movie somewhat palatable--even novices Williams and King look good doing the moves--but all in all Bulletproof Monk is shooting blanks.
December 21, 2001 8:07am EST
Jamal (Redman) and Silas (Method Man) have spent the last six years attending a two-year community college and smoking way too much marijuana. When their friend Ivory (Chuck Davis) dies after falling asleep with a lit joint loosely dangling from his lip and catching on fire Silas uses his ashes to fertilize one of his plants. Now it seems that whenever the two smoke weed from the special plant they get a visit from the ghost of their dead friend. When the time comes to take their THCs (that's Testing for Higher Credentials) Jamal and Silas light up and enlist Ivory's help to pass the tests. The plan works and the twosome's perfect test scores get them admitted into Harvard University. But the high times quickly take a nosedive when an on-campus security guard steals the spiritual plant. The two must now figure out how to stay at the highbrow institution and fulfill their dreams of developing pot in a real lab.
Method Man plays Silas a pot dealer with big dreams with Redman as his best friend Jamal. Because the roles are practically tailor-made with them in mind they are able to play their characters as written and bring much of their public persona to the screen. They also have great chemistry and literally light up any scene they are in together. With a shaky script to stand on these two easily carry the film. Lark Voorhies (Saved by the Bell) is convincingly sweet and natural as the poor but really smart girl and Silas' object of affection but Essence Atkins is too over-the-top and contrived as the U.S. vice president's daughter with eyes on Jamal. Obba Babatunde had some good scenes as the uptight but underdeveloped character of Dean Cain and there are some great notable cameo appearances by Spalding Gray as a professor of African-American history and rappers Cypress Hill as party deejays.
How High was produced by Danny DeVito's Jersey Films and marks Jesse Dylan's feature directorial debut. The movie has some extremely funny moments like the overly dramatic slow motion shot of Jamal's cheese doodle dropping onto Dean Cain's imported handmade rug and some great references that aren't too obscure to catch (does "Pass the dutchy from the left hand side" sound familiar?) But while the film has its creative moments it is marred by a superficial script complete with a not-so-funny pimp his sidekick and some stereotypical "hos." The story becomes a little too formulaic and lacks the sophistication of Ice Cube's Friday and the intricacies of Tamra Davis' Half-Baked. But as far as this comedies go How High--thanks mostly in part to Redman and Method Man--is entertaining enough to join the ranks of classic pot comedies like Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke.