The Best Movie Critic + review

13 Assassins

13 Assassins is the simplest kind of revenge story. There are no love interests, no side plots to pad for time. Rather, 13 Assassins is a juggernaut of destiny, hurling its players toward an unavoidable, bloody finale.

In late feudal Japan, an era of peace is threatened when Lord Naritsugu (GorĂ´ Inagaki), the younger brother of the Shogun, steps out of line, raping, murdering, and pillaging at will. Naritsugu is a sociopathic monster who eyes the whole of humanity as a cat would eye a wounded mouse. Because of his rank and relations, Naritsugu is essentially untouchable. 13 Assassins makes it perfectly clear that 19th century Japan is a world of rigid custom and tradition. After the Shogun decides not to take action against his despicable brother, it becomes unmentionable and unthinkable to do so. The weight of honor forbids it. Finally, a confidant of the Shogun can’t take it any longer and secretly orders the formation of a team of samurai for the single purpose of killing the shit out of Naritsugu by whatever means necessary. It’s on!

While I might not go as far as calling 13 Assassins a grindhouse movie, it does share some spirit with that nefarious genre. Director Takashi Miike shapes his movie as an almost unbearable buildup of tension. There is hardly a single action scene in the movie’s first hour and 15 minutes. The gathering of the samurai and planning of the attack are deliberately, methodically paced in a way that reminded me a bit of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Unlike Tarantino’s movie, which works as a series of tensions and releases, 13 Assassins is one monolithic build for over an hour followed by 45 minutes of unstoppable, unadulterated Id splashed all over your eyeballs in an explosion of violence that will leave your nerve ends buzzing. So much time in the movie’s first half is spent talking, hiding, and planning that when the shit goes down, it goes down harder than most movies dare to. 13 Assassins’ finale is shockingly violent, yes, but it also contains the energy, confidence, and clarity that only the most masterful moviemakers are capable of.

The “men on a mission” collection of warriors, the extended battle of the finale, hell even the title 13 Assassins are obvious tips of the hat to Akira Kurosawa’s seminal 7 Samurai, one of the greatest movies ever made. Although Miike is obviously indebted to the master and shows love and knowledge of the genre, don’t mistake 13 Assassins for a straight send up. Whereas Kurosawa characters boil under the surface with Shakespearean pathos and emotion, the samurai in 13 Assassins are cold blooded. There is humor, there is doubt, but these dudes – and this movie – are all business. 13 Assassins is personified by the steely stare of impending death.

Miike has never been one to shy away from controversy. Although 13 Assassins is pretty tame compared to much of his other work, Miike loves making these characters squirm when confronted with their deadly task’s strange confluence of honor and dishonor. On the one hand, these men are sworn protectors of the Shogun, and going against his will forces the conspirators to confront deep-rooted shame. On the flipside, Naritsugu is a horror of a human being, and it’s obvious that the destruction he is reigning down on the kingdom needs to be brought to a speedy end. To complicate matters further, it is suggested that Japan's recent peace Japan has perhaps made the samurai soft and weak. Ironically, by dishonoring themselves these warriors have a chance to defend their reputation as warriors.

13 Assassins has no such lofty ambitions as to expose some buried truth about the human condition. It’s the simple story of 13 bad dudes who decide that one really bad dude gotta get iced, and they get shit done in short order. Simple as that. But although 13 Assassins is of limited scope and palate, it’s an impeccably crafted movie. Miike guides his production like the hand of God: direct, confident, and absolute.

-Ben

13 Assassins is playing at the Denver Film Center Colfax through May 26th.

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