In Japan, where the blades are shiny and sharp and if the fake blood isn't staining the lens, you're not trying hard enough, there's a rich tradition of sword-and-splatter pictures. That's the tradition Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" leaned on, and it's the foundation of "Ninja Assassin," a more run-of-the-mill Hollywood ninja movie with "Matrix" ties.
For a thousand years, "The Nine Clans" have taken in orphans from around the world and have forged -- OK, literally beaten -- them into cold-blooded killing machines, lightning-quick shadow warriors who move too quickly to see and have supernatural abilities to recover from all the cuts inflicted by their samurai swords, throwing stars and neato dagger-chains. Meet their price -- and it hasn't changed in a millennium, "100 pounds of gold" -- and they'll kill anybody you say.
Ozuno (Sho Kosugi) trains his clan to kill without mercy -- orphans beating and killing other orphans -- and ignore their blood and their own agony because "pain breeds weakness. Suffering exists because weakness exists!"
Raizo (the Korean actor Rain of "Speed Racer") remembers this brutal training in flashbacks. He wears the scars of those years on that mountaintop hideout. But he got out. Now hiding in Berlin, he tries to help those whom the clan has marked for death.
Naomie Harris ("Pirates of the Caribbean") is a Euro-police researcher who has learned too much about these secret societies. As she digs deeper, shadows shift and move into place to slice and dice her. Will Raizo awaken from his endless flashbacks in time to save her?
The action is dark and savage in this Wachowskis-produced film from their "Matrix" protégé James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta" was his, too). The brawls, beginning with an opening slaughter in which we can't even see the killers, are graphic in the extreme -- the most realistic decapitations and dismemberments ever filmed, if that matters to you. There aren't many surprises in the story, but "Ninja Assassin" has some cool touches -- the death warning to the doomed is a wax-sealed envelope with dark black (volcanic?) sand in it.
However, since "cool" was the goal here, I have to say "Ninja" just isn't cool enough. Rain makes a charismatic coiled spring of a hero. But there's more to making sword-and-splatter work than just shiny blades and blood. It has to have an edge, and the one on "Ninja Assassin" is as dull as a butter knife.