Netflix Pick: 13 Assassins
Tuesday, February 7, 2012 Leave a comment
I’m about to admit something that may lose me a few points of modern film geek cred… I have never seen a film by Takashi Miike. Everything I’ve heard about “Audition” and “Ichi the Killer” has caused me a bit of hesitation on account of the modicum of squeamishness that still sits within my hardened, grown-up sensibilities. The descriptions of Miike’s “13 Assassins” seemed free of such warnings for the weak of stomach, so I figured that its addition to the Netflix catalog was the perfect opportunity to right that wrong.
“13 Assassins” is a good old fashioned tale of samurai courage and badassery. A remake of the 1963 film by the same name by Eiichi Kudo, the film tells the story of the brutal and cruel brother of a shogun (Goro Inagaki) whose actions become so feared by the people that a skilled samurai named Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) is asked to put together a team of assassins tasked with killing the tyrant as he tries passing into safe territory. As it turns out, he has something in the neighborhood of 200 guards, resulting in a sort of samurai version of the battle at Thermopylae with much smaller numbers on both sides. Nonetheless, the odds are pretty overwhelming.
What results is a third act full of cleverly orchestrated action sequences and wonderful displays of character. The last 45 minutes of this movie are a nonstop parade of courage and skill exhibited by 12 dedicated samurai warriors and one crazy bastard that just likes fighting people. Each of the 13 men has their hero moment, and the action is choreographed in a manner that is exciting and dramatic. The violence serves the story, and never feels gratuitous or shocking.
You may have noticed that I only mentioned the final 45 minutes in that last paragraph. If you’re looking for a movie that’s a wall-to-wall samurai action hootenanny, this isn’t it. This is not, however, a negative. You see, the first hour and fifteen minutes or so is spent setting up character and stakes. The film takes its time making sure you understand just how fucked up the actions of its villain are, and it pays off. You find yourself really rooting for this band of outmatched heroes, and it makes those final 45 minutes all the more dramatic.
Also contributing to that sense of drama are the fantastic performances by the cast. As someone who doesn’t speak Japanese, I spent the entire film reading subtitles and trying to remember characters’ names. Ultimately, the words and names were not important, as the performances transcended such technicalities. There’s the young guy with the spirit of ten men. There’s the older guy who’s doing it to secure a good livelihood for his family. There’s the crazy guy they ran into in the jungle who’s only in it for food and the excitement of fighting samurai. There’s the leader of the group, who is fighting for what he believes in, whatever the cost. These characters come alive through performance and writing, and manage to invest the audience all the more in their mission because of their likable personalities and what they represent.
After seeing “13 Assassins,” I think I may finally be ready to check out Miike’s more controversial films. I’m really not that squeamish, and it’s clear that he’s a very talented filmmaker. This film is an excellent historical drama that becomes and excellent action film. The characters are well drawn and the action sequences are fresh and exciting. If you don’t mind a slow buildup, I can guarantee you that it pays off, both dramatically and in relation to pacing. An easy recommendation to those who can bear to deal with subtitles.
Plus it’s chock full of decapitations.