Friday, June 3, 2011
The best summer action movie has arrived and it is Takashi Miike's "13 Assassins" (opening June 3 at Landmark's Ken Cinema).
Technically, "13 Assassins" is a 2010 release but it's only arriving in San Diego theaters now so I will bestow the award of Best Summer Action Film on it anyway. It's kick-ass action and you never have to check your brain at the door to revel in its excitement.
Takashi Miike is one of Japan's most prolific and stylistically diverse filmmakers. He's made kiddie films as well as Asian extreme. With his new film "13 Assassins," he delivers a beautiful melding of classic samurai tale and over-the-top Asian extreme, with maybe a touch of the American "Dirty Dozen" thrown in for good measure. The film serves up a remake of Eichi Kudo’s 1963 black-and-white movie, "Jûsan-nin no shikaku." Set at the end of Japan's feudal era, it focuses on a group of ronins or unemployed samurai that are enlisted to bring down a sadistic lord and prevent him from ascending to power and plunging the country into violence after a period of relative peace. But in order to take the evil lord down, a mere 12 samurai (and one crazy peasant) must take down an army of 200. Essentially it's a suicide mission.
"13 Assassins" delivers a slow burning build up to a massive and brutal battle that may leave viewers as exhausted as the combatants. The slow build involves a lot of political maneuvering and jockeying for power, all with a cautious eye on how it will all look to outsiders. Honor and social hierarchy are not airy notions here but hard facts that must always be taken into consideration when action of any kind is considered. Some of these scenes may leave you feeling a little lost as you try to follow some of the politics and codes of conduct. But let these scenes wash over you. All you need to glean from the opening scenes is the idea that these samurai must secretly take on this task and assassinate their target or there will be dire consequences for their country.
Once the samurai hit the road, it becomes a game of strategy as they try to make maximum use of their small numbers by outthinking their enemy. They decide to make their stand in a small village that they booby trap and restructure to allow them as much advantage as they can gain. Then once the army arrives, the action heats up to an insane level and Miike lets the blood flow to the point that you really understand Shakespeare's line, " “I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” These samurai are steeped in blood and in honor. So while Shakespeare's line painted a vivid picture of Macbeth's utter weariness in regards to his bloody crimes, Miike's film conveys a weariness coupled with a sense of duty that will not allow any of these samurais to walk away from their task while there is still blood left in their veins.
The film calls to mind Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" in the way the samurais take on a seemingly impossible task and end up making a peasant village the site of the final showdown. The two films are also similar in the way the characters are presented to us, and the types of personalities they have. We even have a crazy peasant who lays claim to samurai ancestry in much the same way that Toshiro Mifune's would be samurai is presented to us in "Seven Samurai." The referencing back to such Japanese classics feels right in Miike's hands. He's not making cute in-jokes or merely imitating films of the past. Instead, he gives a knowing nod to films and filmmakers he obviously respects.
But in the end, Miike makes this "13 Assassins" all his own. Once the battle begins, the action never stops. By the end we feel how heavy those swords must feel and how hard it is to raise them up yet one more time. Without resorting to the Hollywood shakycam and fast cutting, Miike conveys a sense of the chaos and confusion of battle. His style reflects the determination and resolve of his characters. The fighting may be brutal and crazy but these samurai always keep their heads and attempt to always control the action even when severely outnumbered.
In the press materials, Miike says, "There is no hard historical proof to back up this legendary battle in '13 Assassins.' However, I do believe it’s true that samurai did not fear risking their lives, and they fought against their enemies regardless how many they were." That feeling dominates the final action. The fighting is choreographed in a manner that reflects the characters. The samurai are meticulous, relentless, and ruthless. It also means that the crazy peasant fights in a fittingly erratic manner with stones, slingshots, and branches whereas one of the samurai cleverly lines an alley with dozens of swords so he can grab a new weapon whenever he needs one as he mows down an onslaught of soldiers. We know something about each man by the way he chooses to fight and sometimes by the way he chooses to die.
"13 Assassins" (in Japanese with English subtitles and rated R for sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity) has a brutal beauty and undeniable elegance to its bloody action. It's not as extreme as Miike's "Ichi the Killer" or "Dead or Alive" movies but it is impressively excessive and equally riveting. If you love action or samurai movies you cannot miss this film. To adapt "Spinal Tap's" line, this one turns it up to 13.
Companion viewing: "Seven Samurai," "Shadows in the Palace," "Battle of Wits," "The Dirty Dozen"