Mortal combat on an epic scale
By Sean O'Connell
Friday, May 27, 2011
Does Guinness World Records have an entry for longest on-screen fight? If it doesn’t, Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins” just set it. And if a record actually exists, Miike’s film just broke it.
A proper “Assassins” review needs to begin with the battle Miike uses to conclude his historical epic. Occupying somewhere between 40 and 45 minutes of the film’s 141-minute run time, the relentless conflict pits the 13 samurai warriors of the title against their target, the sadistic Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) and his loyal forces.
But where the baker’s dozen of dedicated heroes expect to stare down roughly 70 sword-wielding soldiers, they instead must slice and dice their way through more than 200 combatants in one of the most brutal, physical, artistic and exhaustive fight sequences ever choreographed on film. Spoiler alert: Only two men are left standing by battle’s end (though you won’t hear from me which two survive the bloody melee).
If pounding blockbusters unleashed during the summer season have taught us anything, though, it’s that any old hack can stage a bombastic combat sequence. Miike’s “13 Assassins” transcends the usual, hollow mayhem because the director is less interested in the carnage and bloodshed of conflict (though there’s plenty) and more intrigued with exploring why men fight. He ends up with an open-ended conclusion, however, that raises more questions than answers. Where most of the samurai in Miike’s story fight for honor, others wrestle for power, for fun, or for the attention of a woman. In the worst possible scenario, the story’s desensitized villain enters the lethal fray just to finally feel something in his otherwise meaningless existence.
Oh, that villain. Miike’s “13 Assassins” actually has one of cinema’s most memorably vile antagonists. In Feudal Japan in the year 1844, the tyrant Naritsugu abuses the powers that come with advising the Shogun. The rapist and murderer leaves a trail of devastation across his native land, even as he grows bored by the disgusting travesties he commits. Realizing something must be done to end this oppressor’s reign, veteran samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) recruits 12 additional warriors and plots what amounts to a political assassination.
Yet it’s the deliberate events of the film’s first two acts that justify the need for violence in the third. Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan reaffirm the spiritual strength of their 13 chosen warriors as they map out the path to nobility a samurai must follow. They explain that certain fighters were forced to choose sides in this escalating conflict and then illustrate how those decisions brought them either glory or shame. Also, the men tapped for Shinzaemon’s mission aren’t flawless or pure of heart. Some are too young; others too old. All, however, are compelled to fight in what amounts to a suicide mission because for a samurai, nothing is more noble than dying in battle.
Enough about the majestic things Miike includes in “Assassins.” Let’s celebrate a few things he leaves out, always to the benefit of the film. There’s no wire-fu, the exaggerated, gravity-defying stunt trick employed by every Asian epic set after “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” There’s also no hyper-stylized kung-fu choreography. Leave that nonsense to Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Sammo Hung.
By meticulously grounding “Assassins” in reality, and by constructing all of his warriors from relatable character traits, Miike ensures that once grace gives way to fury, every drop of blood spilt in defense of an honorable principle matters to the audience as much as it matters to the heroes losing their lives on-screen.
Contains sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity.