The quality of an action film can be gauged by how often you swear to yourself. It’s the thrills, the excitement, and the surprise. 13 Assassins delivered all of that.
After a sluggish beginning explaining all of the political complications of the period, the true conflict emerges. There is a man named Naritsugu who is one of the most vile villains in recent history. Since he is related to the Shogun (feudal sheriff), he can get away with some truly heinous acts. Once he crosses too many lines, the Shogun has to finally take action.
That is done by awakening the samurai. Specifically Shinzaemon. At this time there are plenty of samurai, but not many instances for the samurai to take action. The rules of the society are changing. The code of the samurai is still held in the greatest esteem. All of them serve their masters with all of their will, but are just waiting for the time when they can serve them best and die in battle like true warriors.
This is the mission for them. Shinzaemon gathers eleven men and together they are going to put an end to the horrific Naritsugu. The way he creates his crew is familiar from a lot of con movies like Ocean’s 11 and The Sting as he finds those who will be loyal to the cause and who bring certain elements.
Twelve characters is a lot to keep up with, not counting other families who have been affected and the villains. Director Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan are wise in having them bond over their similarities. They all want to die a true samurai’s death, which entails fighting like you have no wish to die. A few of the characters are spotlighted into more of their history, but they operate best as a group.
With the action, all of their dedication is backed up. There are small teases of swordplay throughout the film, but it isn’t until the final encounter does Miike put all of his cards on the table. The fights are brutal, clever, extreme, astounding, and incredible. What could seem exhausting is brilliantly paced so the ebbs and flows of warlike trickery allow the audience to endure an experience longer than they’re used to.
Aside from just being a whole lot of fun, the film has a lot of fascinating elements to it. The way the samurai are depicted in comparison to a similarly plotted film like The Seven Samurai causes a lot of discussion. Much in the same way of Departures, this film embraces death as a beautiful and deserving finale instead of a moment of fear and confusion like most American films. This approach does not lessen the stakes, but adds new layer in examining what exactly is happening in a fight where is may not be just one stopping the other.
13 Assassins is playing at the Keystone Landmark theatre for an exclusive run. There was a midnight showing Friday night and one more Saturday night. The film will be on DVD this July, but this was the sort of movie that benefited from an excited crowd who—like me—were gleefully murmuring to themselves “Oh sh--….”