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Japan 2011
Directed by
Takashi Miike
126 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
3.5 stars

13 Assassins

Synopsis: In 18th Century Japan, the half brother of the Shogun is a crazed and bloodthirsty madman protected by position. A group of samurai, determined to defends the nation’s interests, join together to kill him.

When it comes to the samurai film, seven seems like the perfect number. Thirteen feels like overkill, but then again, it depends on what you want to achieve. With seven, you have room to give each character a distinct identity and let each breathe. With thirteen, you have a confused mess where one or two distinct characters rise above the rest who are marked for the body count. If you doubt this, name all the members of the Dirty Dozen, and then consider that 13 Assassins goes one further.

With so many characters crowding the story, it’s pointless discussing the motivations, intersecting rivalries and so on of the fairly basic plot. There’s a bad guy who happens to have done terrible things to a lot of the samurai involved in the plot to kill him, but they’re not motivated by revenge, they want to restore honour to their nation and protect their Shogun from having to harbour such a vicious and disgraceful individual. The first hour of the film is entertaining enough, but kind of a drudge all the same, since you know it’s treading water while we wait for the confrontation.

And then we get to the action. Suddenly that first hour of set-up evaporates from your memory as the thirteen samurai face off against an army of bodyguards in a village they’ve transformed into a death-trap. Battle after battle is fought on the streets, the rooftops, and through cunningly designed kill boxes as the village runs knee deep in blood and fire. It’s one of the most amazing sustained action set-pieces in action cinema. You have to go back to a film like John Woo’s 1992 action masterpiece, Hard Boiled, to find a similarly intense and sustained battle waged with such élan.

That’s all 13 Assassins really is: an hour of setup leading to one of the longest action set-pieces in cinema history. As a samurai film it’s fairly derivative, but as an action movie it’s unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon. If you like the humanism, wit and intelligence of a Kurosawa samurai film, you’ll be disappointed by Takashi Miike’s film. But if you want to see elegantly orchestrated carnage on an improbably epic scale, this is the film for you. It’s deeply flawed in many respects, but holds a singular focus for its final hour that delivers thrill upon thrill upon thrill.

 

 

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