Reviews of your favourite k-pop stars in Korean dramas? No, not on this site. Reviews of your favourite k-pop stars in feature films? Yes… eventually! Come with Kpopalypse on a highly unfashionable journey into Rain’s martial arts movie past!
Many years ago a very kind (and exceptionally patient) reader sent me a copy of “Ninja Assassin”, a movie staring k-pop star Rain, for me to enjoy and review. Sadly my schedule has permitted me to watch about 0.25 films per year, but I finally got around to checking it out recently. Was it any good? Is “Ninja Assassin” worth your time? More importantly, is it better than “Gang“?
Running time: 99 minutes
I’m not sure how Rain landed this particular acting gig, but it apparently wasn’t part of JYP’s multi-pronged plan to establish a foothold in the American market, as Rain had left the confines of JYP two years before this film was released. In my opinion, just the fact that he was cast in a leading role for a film like this at all is a seriously big achievement in itself. We should remember that Rain was a minor success in America many years before a lot of your favourite groups, and someone who truly did “pave the way” for the likes of BTS and Blackpink to make further inroads into that particular country, because apparently the USA is the only important country in the world and we care about this a whole lot, or something. What I do care about however, is writing about k-pop people in my films. My pre-film research revealed that “Ninja Assassin” was released in 2009 with a $40 million budget, the film apparently grossed about $61 million in sales, but also received a fairly poor critical reception. It stars Rain and… a bunch of other people I’ve never heard of, although maybe you have, because I don’t really watch a lot of films these days that aren’t JAV. Anyway let’s get on with it.
Plot synopsis: Rain plays Raizo, who is, predictably, a ninja assassin, and the film jumps around a fair bit between past and present as it straddles the line between keeping the action flowing and giving you the backstory required for you to supposedly give a fuck. In the flashback footage we trace Raizo’s origins as an orphan growing up in some “nine clans” evil ninja clubhouse (although they all look like the same clan to me but anyway) where he is trained to be the bestest ninja that ever ninja’ed. The training philosophy is pretty much “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” with lots of emotional blackmail about “being true to the ninja family” or somesuch whenever anyone tries to do anything normal like the trimming trees or doing the Roly Poly hand dance instead of violently honing their ninja skills. In these scenes Raizo is played by two other actors, one as a child and another as a teenager, neither of whom really resemble Rain as an adult which is potentially a little confusing, but since he’s the only “good person” and everyone else (who is male) is a cardboard-cutout ninja loyalist it’s not too hard to follow who is who. The ninja clubhouse only has one female member, and you can pretty much write the rest of the plot from here yourself – girl obviously has the hots for Raizo, which teaches her the value of compassion, this rubs against the whole “slice and dice, ninja fam above all” thing, so she tries to escape to a better life, is caught, gets punished, Raizo gets upset because she’s the only female in the club so there goes his chance of getting any (he can’t even fap in privacy as all the ninja buddies sleep together on the same floor in the same room like a Halloween-themed sleepover party), he starts to feel like maybe this whole ninja thing is cramping his mojo and that’s the conflict that basically drives the entire “Raizo the good ninja vs the other bad ninjas” plot. The present day stuff involves what the special ninja club actually does to earn their special ninja coin, apparently they’re hired by governments to do assassinations of important people or something, and I know I sound a bit vague here but that’s because it’s never really explained properly who is hiring them and why, you’d think that the political motivations driving all this ninja activity might be a key element of a story like this but nope not really, let’s just go after the hired guns instead of the real enemies I guess, oh well. So we have a very keen forensic scientist (played by Naomie Harris, the only other actor besides Rain in this who really has much to even do) investigating the ninjas and it’s not made entirely clear why she even gives so much of a crap, but she pokes her nose into ancient secret ninja dogecoin trading too far which attracts the attention of the mystical baddies (who can track her by smell alone, or something – I’m not making this up) and she eventually works out (by having her life saved about 57 times in 5 minutes) that Raizo is “the good ninja” and not the bad ninja like the other guys. From here the modern day story essentially converges with the flashback stuff and we have showdowns and fights galore, plus all the usual plot outcomes that you would expect from a story like this.
Appeal to average filmgoers: It depends. I didn’t expect an awful lot from this movie but was pleasantly surprised to see that at least the action was very much on point. While a couple scenes with CGI knives and blood-spatters leering close to the camera just look far too “clean” to be convincing, the other 99% of the visual effects are genuinely impressive, and there’s a seriously large amount of Kill Bill style gore here if that’s your thing. The martial arts action probably won’t please people who are specifically into martial arts films as it’s all too fast-edited and flashy to really enjoy from the standpoint of appreciating human movement, but if you just like to see a very gory take on more traditionally Hollywood-style action, with severed limbs flying, guns going off fairly ineffectually as people get viscerally smacked in the face with endless amounts of ninja stars, lots of blood everywhere, a quite large amount of scarification and plenty of random objects being destroyed, then the activity here will definitely satisfy. However if you’re into it more for the story itself, there isn’t much here to get excited about, as absolutely nothing about the overarching plot is anything but completely predictable, and you’ll get super bored especially of the young Raizo having to “prove himself” literally every 30 seconds in the flashback scenes. There’s a few mildly amusing moments (the detective’s car being decorated with ninja stars after she speeds through multiple ambushes was the comedic highlight for me, or maybe I just find that funny because I’m weird) but the general tone and dialogue isn’t that great either, with no really memorable lines or characters that the best action movies all tend to have. The bad guys don’t have much personality and are just generically bad, plus there’s not really much light and shade happening with any of the characterisations in general, so it’s kind of hard to give a fuck in the rare moments when ninja stars and swords on chains aren’t filling up the screen real-estate. This film really does handle the metal-spinning, blood-splattering action very very well, and almost everything else, not so much, which may or may not be just fine depending on your personal film mileage.
Appeal to k-pop fans: Probably quite minimal. Even back in 2009 it’s hard to imagine that fans of Rain’s music would have been lining up around the block to see him in this, as it’s poles apart from the image of him in just about everything else I’ve ever known him to be involved in. There’s zero actual k-pop songs that I noticed, and zero references to anything k-pop related at all apart from one random quip by a (western) captor who says that Raizo “looks like he belongs in a boy band”, which is probably a line that makes more sense now than it did back when the film was released given that Asians being in popular boy bands is a much more prevalent concept in popular western consciousness in 2021 than it was in 2009. We don’t even get a Rain song over the closing credits, instead we have to put up with some dreary rock song from Spiderbait, and I sure didn’t start a k-pop blog to review songs from my own boring country so let’s just forget that even happened. It really doesn’t seem like the best marketing from a k-pop point of view, and it’s odd that given k-pop’s tendency to be generally quite good at slyly pushing themselves into every unwelcome corner, that Rain’s agency isn’t very much on the front foot here. I can only guess that just getting him the acting gig at all was seen as “enough” and anything further was considered to be “pushing it” with this film’s intended audience of “ninjas and swords are cool, man” martial arts film nerd Master Yi/Zed/Yasuo-maining douchebags.
Appeal to Rain fappers: There’s zero scenes here with any kind of direct sexual content beyond a polite peck on the lips, but that doesn’t mean Rain fappers are left out in the cold. In 2009 Rain sure was fit as a fiddle, and the film doesn’t mind letting you know this. He spends probably a good 50% of the film with his shirt off and buff, wiry torso on display, so if vintage Rain is your thing then this film gives you all the objectification material you can handle and then some, as long as you’re not bothered by the fact that for 90% of that 50% of the time he’s also covered in blood and deep scars. This isn’t an action film where the hero emerges unscathed from every battle, so hopefully people walking with a limp while bleeding profusely and groaning a lot forms part of your personal fetish itinerary, otherwise you might just have to loop and freeze frame those moments at the start of the film before he showers in the blood of enough generic ninja baddies to fill all the seats at a Music Core performance. However if your sexual preferences veer more towards the personality direction, Rain doesn’t really offer a lot of charisma here. He’s not terrible in terms of acting convincingly ninja-like, and he certainly doesn’t look stupid or anything, but he doesn’t display the kind of charm that the better action heroes tend to exude either, tending to come off as rather cold and dare I say it, boring. The more interesting actor is definitely his leading lady Naomie, but unfortunately she’s not really given much to do either except shriek as bits of metal repeatedly fly in her face and get annoyed when nobody listens to her. Anyway, enjoy this video for your Rain fapping needs if you don’t have 99 minutes of your time to spare.
Conclusion: I know I sound like I’m dragging this film a lot, and I am, but it’s really not bad at all and I did enjoy watching it. I saw it with my girlfriend and she was equally impressed. I think that because it had a k-pop guy in it and a very generic shitty title, plus I hadn’t exactly talked it up, she probably expected some complete laughable bullshit, but we both agreed that the action scenes were high-budget and impressively put together. Okay, so there’s no outstandingly good characters, writing or acting and if you think about the story too hard it all kind of falls apart, but the film is not really pretending to be anything other than what it is. If you want ninjas, and assassins, and ninjas assassinating, and assassinations being performed by ninjas, then “Ninja Assassin” really does have quite a lot of that, and if a film called “Ninja Assassin” has its ninja assassinations correct and present, then that’s arguably all it really needs to have. It’s pretty much action-by-numbers and it’s not going to be anybody’s favourite film ever but if nothing else I certainly can’t accuse “Ninja Assassin” of false advertising.
Final score: 3 “Gang” leg-drop dance moves out of 5.