Reviewer: Vadim Rizov
Rating (out of 5): **½
Takashi Miike chooses the strangest times to assert himself. By IMDB's count, since 1991 he's directed or is wrapping up some 85 titles; if he's no longer cranking out five films a year, inconsistency is still his hallmark. Miike's best known for both Audition — Ozu meets torture porn — and a series of films that alternate between inspiration and filler with very little warning. If Miike was a band, he'd have an awesome greatest-hits disc that would make you get rid of all the albums proper.
13 Assassins is Miike's first film to see American release since 2008's Sukiyaki Western Django, a bizarre but amusing exercise in reconstructing the spaghetti western with Japanese people speaking phonetic English. Aside from that minor twist, Miike basically played the genre straight, showing his love for patchy action films with great set-pieces by making one of his own. 13 Assassins is similarly devoted to the conventions of Japanese samurai cinema: if you enjoy watching shogun rulers greet visitors with ceremonious bows and robe re-arranging, you've come to the right place. The international cut's shorn of 16 minutes, mostly having to do with the titular warriors hitting up a brothel the night before the big battle, a three-reel stunner that effectively comprises the entire third act; the international cut is a strictly all-male affair.
Before the final battle royale, Assassins is mostly talk, punctuated by brief moments of savage brutality. Some of what Miike pulls out could never have made it into a classic-era samurai film. The 13 assassins must kill Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), an evil warlord who takes pleasure in torturing, raping, and generally giving the feudal system a bad name. Miike keeps most of the violence off-screen, save for the horrifying introduction of a girl whose limbs and tongue have been cut off; her squirmy appearance is a reminder of how shocking Miike can be when he really feels like it. Otherwise, violence is mostly just out of the frame's gaze, reinforced by convincingly juicy sound effects. The trick is that the men's honorable/suicidal bloodlust is closer to Lord Naritsugu's homicidal whims than any of them would like to admit; he's looking for excitement, they're looking for an honorable way to (prematurely) die.
In the last act, words cease and oxen are set on fire as part of a coordinated effort to transform a small town into a deathtrap reminiscent of nothing so much as Home Alone on a larger scale. Like the first two acts, which hum with the soothing efficiency of ritualistic samurai conventions, the finale makes time fly without doing anything particularly outstanding. The action emphasizes killing en masse ("30 down! Another 170 to go!") rather than highlighting choreography or outstanding fight moments.
It's crisp fun, but the coda is what makes the film special. Aside from filming pretty much every interior scene with flickering candle-light and amping up the occasional violence, Miike's done little up to this point to subvert a genre he obviously loves. For all its occasional weird moments, Assassins is a much more conventional genre update than, for example, Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi, which delighted in perpetual oddity for its own sake. But the ending here is all Miike's innovation. The battle's been won, of course, and most of the men are dead, per convention. The discussion two survivors have, though, is different: after being told by his dying uncle Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) that being a samurai is a burden and to just do whatever he wants, (specifically, "Go to America, make love to women.") Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada) talks to peasant Kiga (Yusuke Iseya) and says he's going to do just that.
13 Assassins ends by tipping its hat to a fun genre that nonetheless serves as a breeding ground for toxic male self-assertiveness and basically says "nah, time to move on." This is trying to have it both ways, but it's funny too. If you've ever been ambivalent about taking pleasure from watching a stoic man mow down 10 people with a sword without ever blinking, this is the movie for you.
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