Review: 13 Assassins (2010)

I’ve never been a big fan of Takashi Miike’s films, but I may have to rethink that stance.  13 Assassins is one of the best films I’ve seen in years, and is hands-down the most entertaining modern samurai movie to date.

The premise is a fairly simple one – a sadistic leader, Lord Naritsugu, is about to be promoted to a level that will allow his crazy ass to destroy the peace in Japan with his nuthouse attitudes.  Other leaders agree something must be done, but their oaths of allegiance keep their hands tied.  There’s one loophole, though.  Nothing’s stopping them from ordering a team to take on the mission of assassinating the freak.  That’s where the titular 13 assassins come in.

The movie does such a fine job of making you care about what happens that by the time it gets to the 45+ minute battle scene at the end, it’s action has weight and emotion beyond the images seen onscreen.  Miike’s penchant for over the top violence insures that we really, really want Lord Naritsugu to die in the most painful way possible.  The guy is beyond extreme and we understand exactly why men would give up their lives to insure that their countrymen won’t have to suffer under his thumb any longer.

The leader of the renegade band of mercenaries is Shogun Samurai Shinzaemon Shimada, played to perfection by Koji Yakusho.  He is everything I want to see in a hero.  He is smart, proficient, and most of all, he is driven to achieve his goals.  One of his best scenes includes the moment when he realizes just what he’s been asked to do.  He laughs out loud, overjoyed that he might be able to go out in a blaze of glory that will actually mean something.  It gave me chills.

At some point, the Hollywood machine gave up on simple good vs. evil action and has muddied the waters of even the most banal comic book movie.  The Star Wars prequels, for example, made it extremely difficult to know who was truly “good” given the knowledge of the original films.  Miike’s film brings back extreme evil and combats it with a group of good guys who you just want to root for.  It’s thrilling to see.

As samurai films go, I actually liked this one better than Kurosawa’s films.  Granted, it couldn’t exist without Kurosawa’s work, but this one is truly modern in that every aspect of the production is hyper real.  The sets have detail and depth.  Lighting is subtle and effective.  The orchestral score is as good as anything John Williams has produced in recent years, spare as it is.  All of the elements add up to a very cohesive whole.

The movie isn’t without flaws, though.  There are a couple of CGI moments that are cringe-worthy and fifteen minutes of the film were cut from the international release.  The deleted scenes are on the Blu ray disc as a special feature, and some of them really do alter how I viewed a couple of the characters.  The movie plays well without the scenes, but their omission might make you question how one character in particular is still standing at the end.

I can’t recommend this feature highly enough.  It has the production values of a prestige feature from the Hollywood studios, a villain you love to hate, heroes who are truly heroic,  intense drama, and action scenes that will make you stand up and cheer.  It’s exhilarating.


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