13 Assassins (2010) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

13 Assassins (2010)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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It's easy to create suspense in a film that has a number in the title. So there's going to be thirteen assassins, right? Well, we start with one. Then we get to two. Then eight, then twelve... wait, where's number thirteen? The audience is gripping their armrests. Is there going to actually be a thirteenth assassin? What if there was a translation problem and they put the wrong number in the title? What if the assassin is only metaphorical, like love or something?

Nah, that doesn't turn out to be true, but it might have been more entertaining. Takashi Miike's latest film takes us all down a path familiar to anyone knowledgeable with samurai convention in 13 Assassins, and boldly doesn't go much further than it needs to. Even its action scenes, when they arrive, are gruesome by most measures, but sanitized for Miike. See his Ichi the Killer or Audition for some truly disquieting brutality.

Or, then again, maybe not.

"Look, I'm covered in blood, I just killed like 50 guys, I think I'm good on violence for today. What, one more? Okay, fine, but after this I'm drinking hot chocolate and picking up a copy of The Da Vinci Code."

The pageantry of the samurai melodrama is in full play here, as we are given a handful of men authorized to eliminate one loathsome official. When I say loathsome, though, I may be selling him short. He's Lord Naritsugu, a privileged young man who sees fit to murder and rape his family's enemies for sport; he's more sadistic than any three random Lethal Weapon villains combined.

Determined to rise against him are the disenfranchised samurai. We end up with a full baker's dozen, and all of them range from placeholders to the quiet solemn type to the comedy relief. Giving detail much beyond that would be futile, though, since each character seems to only exist for their rote passage from marginalized members of society to glorified pariah murderers.

And that's not a bad thing! The thirteen men build their plot from the ground up, and Miike makes the wise move of showing us the training but not the plan. When Naritsugu and his party is caught by surprise, so is the audience: the assassin's audacious trap is a hell of a spectacle, that's for sure.

But 13 Assassins dutifully remains only spectacle. I know it's hard to fault an action film for that, but considering it's modeled on Seven Samurai, Kill!, and their ilk, Miike and company just seem to have neglected to build the characters to pull the audience through. This is especially egregious when we reach the climax of the movie and dramatic character deaths unfold: watching a simple walking cliche die has nowhere near the impact that a melodramatic tale like this requires.

"This is very dull and meandering. When do I get to kill some more children? Perhaps you have a wife that needs raping?"

There is one portion of the film I did find interesting beyond surface level pyrotechnics and that was how Naritsugu meets his end. I'll refrain from spoiling too much, but it's obvious from the exchange here that Miike's political subtext for the film was more ambitious than his narrative one.

Considering what little I know of the modern Japanese political system, and it's recent change in ruling political parties for the first time in five decades, it's unsurprising to watch such a vile individual get his comeuppance from a man who long ago had thought his time had passed. The message of the film is akin to a  pointed reminder: predators upon the people must be destroyed, and those who labor beneath them must be the ones to do it.

13 Assassins is a good film, competently put together and well made. I wish I could have found it as compelling as the movies it lavishly homages, but too often it just serves as a reminder to the vibrancy of yesteryear's samurai films than a testament to their legacy.

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Posted by Danny

Comments (1) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I must agree with your review unfortunately. I agree that the characters could’ve been built up more. They put more dialogue in the bukkakke scenes or whatever it’s called when they commit suicide than in the more interesting characters of the movie. This is definitely a samurai, action-packed, thrilling movie that I definitely would recommend and watch again.

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