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13 Assassins, a remake of Japanese film from the 60’s, will probably strike samurai movie fans as a slimmed down, action oriented homage to Kurosawa’s classic The Seven Samurai.  Like that film, we follow a noble batch of trusty warriors as they prepare for an epic battle against a massive force that will seemingly crush them.  Their ingenuity and determination are their only hope.  And if you’ve never been wise enough to take in Seven Samurai (for shame!) 13 Assassins may remind you of another, more recent action epic, Transformers 3.  I shall explain.

Set during the earlier half of the 19th century, the way of the samurai has not yet, but almost, passed into history.  Most samurais feel doomed to a life of honorless non-combat.  A fate seemingly worse than death to some.  When a sadistic and untouchable Japanese Lord begins his rise to power, the hierarchy, which may soon be under his insane thumb, decides assassination is the way to go to save their country from his warped malevolence.  A trustworthy samurai is hired to quietly assemble a group of men which will then be responsible for terminating the rising lord as he travels back to his homelands.  The problem at hand though is that the Lord travels with a small army and to dispose of the Lord will require a plan steeped in cunning, ambition and a massive dose of luck.

13 Assassins provides the decades old, well worn samurai genre a thrilling shot in the arm.  Directed by Takashi Miike, a well known and respected commodity in his native Japan, he crafts a thrilling action vehicle that a western audience should be able to grab with just a little effort.  The first act is mostly dedicated to plot and character building and a small amount of confusion isn’t out of the question for the casual viewer.  A few subtitles whip by too quickly, some characters look much too alike one another at first glance, and understanding the hows and whys of the Japanese political machine can be flummoxing.  Though it often involves committing hara kiri, I.E. to disembowel oneself.  But throw all these worries aside.  Before things become any kind of a too tangled topknot 13 Assassins has made its intentions very clear.  These 13 noble warriors have to plow through an army to kill the psychopath in charge.  This brings us to the Transformers comparison.

Assassins spends it’s first hour plus building into a compelling narrative and when all the pieces have been properly alligned, strikes you with a 45 minute epic of action carnage.  The samurais assault on the lord’s army is a thrilling undertaking of action and mayhem.  This kind of ambitious finale struck me as remarkably similar in development to Michael Bay’s most recent bout of robot mayhem.  That film also built into a prolonged action climax that aimed to dazzle the audience with an unparalled stab at sustained insanity.  But to compare the two, Bay’s robot hi jinx feel shallow next to this amazingly constructed samurai battle.  Bay’s much admired destruction of Chicago was neat to look at to be sure but it never actually thrilled.  It was just a lot of loud and shiny nonsense riddled with a stop and start pacing scheme.  The fact that you wanted all the characters to die didn’t help things.  13 Assassins finale is gripping and gruesome and it never lets up.  And it’s not gruesome in an overblown, blood spurting, limbs hacked off, Kill Bill kind of way, but a gritty, grizzly, grimy, put a boot to your gut while wearing cleats kind of way.  Samurais hack and slash their way through scores of willing battle fodder.  Heroes die in agony and pain and their loss is felt.  As scores of men fall for the sake of their viscious lord’s well being, he does little more but stare in bemused fashion.  The movie has guts.  Something most American action films, Bay’s included, seem sorely lacking in.

13 Assassins isn’t groundbreaking or even all that original in the grand scheme of things.  But what it is is exceptionally executed and engrossing to watch.  It uses those classic movie elements, story and character, to its full advantage and the end result is a gripping samurai movie that any action fan should have a great time watching.


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