Ninja Assassin: Revamping the Ninja Genre

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"Ninja Assassin," directed by James McTeigue and starring Rain, is about a young ninja who turns against the orphanage that raised him. The film was released November 25 by Warner Bros.

In an attempt to revamp the ninja genre and make it as cinematic as possible, the martial arts performed in the film are a hybrid of several styles. To design the fight sequences, the filmmakers turned to their stunt partners from the "Matrix" films and "V for Vendetta," award-winning stuntmen Chad Stahelski and Dave Leitch, who run their own stunts and training company, 87Eleven. Both served as stunt coordinators as well as second unit directors on "Ninja Assassin."

"Part of the objective in making the film was to take it to another level, beyond what we'd all done before," says McTeigue. "To coalesce all the energies and the disciplines we've had in other movies and bring them into one required a certain level of knowledge and skill, and that's what Chad and Dave deliver every time. They know that stuff inside and out."

"There's definitely a shorthand between Larry, Andy, Joel, James and Chad and Dave," observes Hill. "They each have a broad knowledge of the others' functions, how they think, and a methodology in common that makes it easy to work together. But at the same time, they all have their own strong, creative ideas to bring to the party."

Because the prowess of a ninja fighter should be beyond the skills of any ordinary martial artist, the filmmakers wanted to bring together a unique blend of martial arts and other physical disciplines to take those skills to new heights. Leitch notes, "Ninjutsu, a Japanese style of martial arts, is the main ingredient. However, we incorporated elements of Chinese Wushu, an acrobatic type of kung-fu, as well as Krabi-Krabong, a Thai style of sword fighting. We also used a new acrobatic style of sport karate called tricking, and a Filipino martial art called KALI, taught to us by legendary martial artist Dan Inosanto."

Pointing to various influences such as Chuck Norris in "Good Guys Wear Black" and "Breaker Breaker," Jackie Chan's work with Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon" and, of course, Sho Kosugi and Franco Nero in "Enter the Ninja," Leitch continues, "I don't think we wanted it to be realistic at all. We wanted it to be over the top. One of our biggest influences for this film, conceptually, was "Ninja Scroll," so when you see blood bubbling up out of a guy's chest, well…it's a visual style. That's what we were going for."

Live Action Stunt Work

Once McTeigue, Stahelski and Leitch all agreed that they wanted live action stunt work, with no camera tricks, the choreographers invited a wide variety of "stunt" performers to join in the fun. Says Leitch, "In order to achieve what we wanted, we sought out some younger guys that had really specific skills. Their participation allowed us to get away from the wire-assist standard and to make the stunts about real acrobatics. That was something we always wanted to do."

Stahelski relates, "The wire work is very different on this film from what we did, for example, in 'The Matrix.' Our goal was to remove the supernatural element from the wires, remove all 'float,' and focus on human performance. Most of the wires used in the film were just for safety, or for very slight assist. The stunts and martial arts are real, we hired the best."

Each artist brought extraordinary skills to the film; among them were Damien Walters, a five-time world power tumbling champion from England; Jackson Spidell, famous for his loopkicks and his acrobatic martial arts skills all over America; Jon Valera, a five-time forms champion; Kim Do Nguyen, a World/U.S. forms champion and acrobatic martial arts competitor; Jonathan Eusebio, a former instructor at the Inosanto Academy and one of the better choreographers in Los Angeles; Brad Allan, one of Jackie Chan's lead team members; Peng Zhang, Jet Li's stunt double and an up-and-coming choreographer from China; Hyun Jin Park, another of Chan's team members and one of the better stuntmen in Korea; and Xiang Gao, a member of Donnie Yen's stunt team. "And of course we had our team from 87Eleven, our action design company," says Stahelski, "who are all specifically trained in acrobatic martial art choreography. It was an awesome lineup."?

Leitch adds, "We also had Noon Orsatti as a stunt coordinator on the film. He is one of our mentors in stunt coordinating and we asked him to come on board to help organize everything. And we had Jim Churchman, our rigger who has done a lot of big shows and can do both the simplest rigs as well as be really innovative and progressive."?

Going Beyond Martial Arts

One of the most progressive decisions the filmmakers and stunt choreographers made was to go beyond martial arts. Explains Stahelski, "We incorporated parkour–a discipline of motion, of getting from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible, whether it's under, around or in a direct line over an obstacle like a wall or a fence–and free running, which is the essence of parkour but with more acrobatics and showmanship. Richard King is an L.A. stuntman who started Team Tempest, which is probably the best free running/parkour team in the States. Rich helped us choreograph some of the sequences."

They turned to parkour and free running because "we wanted the ninjas to move a little differently," continues Stahelski. "Not to just run across the shadows, but to swarm or infest whatever location they happened to be in. They were going to be very athletic, very cat-like."

The filmmakers put these newer action arts to the test in a sequence involving a martial arts fight in the middle of traffic. In the scene, shot in a traffic circle in Berlin, they used cars and vehicles as the obstacles coming right at the ninjas, who would then hop, flip or jump over them.

Rain gets Trained

Surrounded by some of the best of the best in the martial arts world as well as top form athletes, Rain also needed to engage in an intense training regimen so he could appear to be a ninja trained from childhood. His performance impressed them. "Rain can mimic the action and then put a little emotion into it–he could act within the action," offers Stahelski. "I think he picked things up faster than anybody we've ever worked with. He had good physical aptitude, but he also had a great mental capacity for the action, which I think is even more important."

"Rain has amazing discipline," admires McTeigue. "You can show him something once, even very complicated choreography, and he remembers it almost immediately. Show it to him a second time and then he's able to add his own style to the choreography you showed him. There were days when he had to learn 25 moves and shoot them in one shot. His performance was well beyond what we even imagined."

Stahelski concurs. "As he went through the training, Rain kept getting better, so we had to keep re-choreographing. What we had designed originally, he outgrew by the time we were ready to shoot. The more Rain's abilities developed, the more our choreography had to evolve."

"I trained for six hours a day for six months," recalls Rain. "Five hours on martial arts and one hour on total body fitness. Their system is amazing. It's not just about lifting weights and cutting out chocolate. It combines a re-growth diet and a lot of core strength building. It's about the entire body, inside and out, not just single muscle building. It was hard, but it was incredibly rewarding."

The actor completely transformed himself. "I'm absolutely sure people won't believe that it's his body on screen. They'll think we digitally altered him," McTeigue laughs, going on to say that during filming his star "joked about the idea that, on the day that we wrapped, he would just eat noodles and drink beer and smoke cigars."