Sunday, December 25, 2011

Slicing and Dicing With 13 ASSASSINS ...!

13 ASSASSINS Review:

- Sometimes, a movie comes around that is quite simply 110% pure and total badassery. And 13 Assassins is one of those movies. This is one that I had intended to see in theaters earlier this year, but somehow never ended up getting to see. Eventually, I spotted the blu-ray on sale on and very quickly ordered myself a copy. Of course, somehow, the movie that I had eagerly waited to see ended up getting lost in the mail ... I was frustrated, but the good folks at Amazon were pretty awesome about the whole thing - they agreed to re-send the blu-ray to me free of charge, with two-day shipping thrown in at no cost. So, finally, 13 ASSASSINS arrived in my mailbox, in glorious HD, and man, it was worth the wait. This is a kickass samurai flick of the highest order.

Directed by prolific Japanese genre-specialist Takashi Miike (best known in America for Ichi the Killer), 13 Assassins tells the tale of the waning days of Japan's feudal system, during the mid 1800's, where the once-proud Samurai had been largely reduced to bureaucratic peace-keepers, either part of the Shogun's army, or else essentially living in early retirement, given that this was a time of relative peace. There was no great war to fight, but there was still a lot of death, violence, and suffering - in this film, largely courtesy of Lord Naritsugu, the sadistic brother of the Shogun, poised to eventually be handed the keys to the kingdom. Given that Naritsugu is prone to wanton murder, rape, pillaging, and general evilness, even his closest advisors worry what would happen to the kingdom should he be allowed to rule. And so, one of his lieutenants, Sir Doi, secretly recruits the famed samurai Shinzaemon to lead an assassination attempt against Naritsugu. Though there is a growing rebel faction in the kingdom, even those who despise Naritsugu are weary that an uprising would lead to all-out war that would tear the country apart. So assassination carried out by a small group of mercenaries is deemed the best way to go. And so Shinzaemon, the legendary warrior, basically unretires after a long period of inaction, and recruits a team of 13 assassins to bring down Naritsugu and his entourage of loyal samurai.

The movie is basically split into two distinct halves. The first part of the film is slower-paced and more character-driven. The threat of Naritsugu is established, and we see Shinzaemon gather his team and plan his strategy. The team-gathering part of the film is a lot of fun though. While we don't necessarily get a lot of insight into all 13 assassins, several of them are given pretty intriguing backstories. There's Shinzaemon's playboy nephew who decides to quit gambling and womanizing so as to follow his uncle's footsteps and become a real samurai. There's Shinzaemon's former student - a master swordsmen - who has now taken on a teenaged student of his own. There's even a non-samurai who joins the team after they save him from a trap - he helps them elude Naritisugu with his tracking skills, and turns out to be handy in a fight as well thanks to his trusty sling. Meanwhile, the movie does great job of building up Naritsugu as one hell of a villain. We see flashbacks to some of his most vile deeds, and, as played by Goro Inagaki, Naritsugu is almost completely devoid of emotion or remorse while committing all manner of horrifying acts. In short, you can't wait to see Shinzaemon and co send him straight to hell. And by the way, actor Koji Yokusho is awesome and super badass as Shinzaemon.

After the slow build of the first half, the second half of the film is just pure, unadulterated samurai mayhem, as the 13 assassins collide with Naritsugu's small army. Holy lord, do things get crazy - it's just one hour of balls-to-the-wall craziness. Insane sword battles, last-minute heroics, dramatic death scenes, and a final mano-e-mano confrontation that just ripples with blood-drenched intensity. Miike doesn't let up for a second, and he gives most of the characters a chance to shine and have their moment of awesomeness.

All the while, however, Miike also uses the carnage to comment on the changing state of Japan at that time. Where once the samurai fought with honor and purpose, now, things were not quite so clear. On one hand, Shinzaemon and his men were fighting against their ruler - a clear violation of the traditional samurai code. On the other hand, those loyal to Naritsugu were putting their lives on the line for a man who was clearly evil and insane. There's definitely some interesting stuff to think about when all is said and done - even if the tropes might be familiar to viewers of other samurai films, there's enough of a fresh twist here to make 13 Assassins stand out.

With so many characters to juggle, it's inevitable that some get the short shrift, and also that some character arcs aren't quite as satisfying as they might have been if the movie had less elements to juggle. Still, Mikke packs in a lot of cool little moments for many of the characters, even if some of the deaths - and the final tally of who's still standing vs. who isn't - at times feels a little bit random.

All in all though, this movie kicked ass like few others I've seen this year. Despite the language barrier, I was still completely caught up in the carnage, and on many occasions my jaw was on the floor in disbelief due to the sheer level of badassery on display. Elegantly brutal and gorgeously violent, 13 Assassins is one sick samurai flick.

My Grade: A-

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