Sunday, December 8, 2013

13 Assassins

Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins is an excellent samurai movie filled with loads of swordplay and action. Samurai movies aren't my usual cup of tea, because I prefer weaponless hand-to-hand combat. However, I was fully able to enjoy this movie thanks to the direct nature of the battles. Unlike many large-scale battle scenes where individual combatants are like ants on the screen, this movie places you right in the midst of the battle with specific characters. This has a lot to do with how well-shot 13 Assassins is. There is nothing low-budget or amateur about the look or cinematography of the film (although a few CGI scenes are off). Despite the polish, the movie never gets in the way of showing us action and plenty of it. Miike struck a near-perfect balance there.

While I typically do not demand character development to enjoy a martial arts movie, I certainly don't think it's a bad thing when it is well-integrated in the story. In this case, characterization is definitely thin, and 'development' is not on the menu. Given that we have thirteen assassins, that means some of them get lost or seem the same. However, I felt I could distinguish them enough for the movie's purposes, and their comradeship and interaction - such as it was - was compelling enough for me. If the movie had spent a little more time with them, yes it would have been a better movie for sure. However, the movie was not harmed by the lack of focus on characterization.

The movie is really in three acts: 1) assembling the assassins for the battle, 2) traveling to and preparing for the battle, and 3) the battle. In order to drive deeper characterization, the movie would have had to pump up acts one or two, and I think this would have made the movie take too long to get to the pay-off. And make no mistake, the pay-off is the battle at the end. It's a long, amazing battle that totally delivers! Best of all, I don't recall any use of wires, gravity defying superhumanism, or poetic beauty shots. This made everything much more exciting, in the moment, and rendered the swordplay much more impressive to me.

The only exception to the realism was when the vagrant character, Kiga, reappears at the end alive and well. He was obviously killed earlier in the movie, and I did not understand why/how he came back to life. However, the movie is so strong, that I attributed this to me missing something related to samurai culture/folklore rather than the movie doing something goofy. And it certainly didn't hurt my enjoyment; I just went with it.

13 Assassins was a thrilling ride, and I would definitely watch it again. Recommended!

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