It’s been a while since a film I knew almost nothing about blew me away. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I watched a film without having first seen so much as a trailer for it (that’s the price you pay for living on the internet). I just happened to notice that this thing called 13 Assassins was on the telly, I vaguely remembered hearing something about it somewhere or other, and the description sounded like my kind of thing. So I set the magic box that sits under the TV to record it, and now here I am a while later having finally watched it and reporting that 13 Assassins is good. Really good.
It’s a 2010 remake, by Takashi Miike, of a 1963 original, of which I know absolutely nothing.
To deprive you of the opportunity of being as surprised as I was, here’s the trailer:
Which rather nicely highlights one or two of the things I found so striking about the movie. The colour palette for one thing, which somehow manages to be not only quite dark and muted, but also very crisp, enormously evocative of realism. All the visuals are great, in fact. There are some beautifully composed and posed single shots, lots of sequences that are visually memorable in a design sense, irrespective of the action they depict.
The sound’s the other technical thing that really wowed me. There’s not much in the way of music until really quite late in the movie. Before that, it’s all sharp, clear ‘realistic’ background noise. The loud rustling of the traditional clothes, birdsong. It made me wish, really quite intensely, that more western movies dispensed with music soundtracks. There’s a wonderful bit, towards the end, when the baddies apparently escape from the death-trap village (we’ll get to the plot in a minute), emerging cautiously to the edge of the countryside. And all you hear – after the tumult of battle that’s assaulted your ears – is birdsong. It’s a small detail but enormously satisfying, that little natural sound symbolising the propsect of escape from the hellish, man-made slaughter that’s behind them.
As for what the film’s actually about, plot-wise, it’s very simple. The eponymous 13 assassins set out to kill a tyrannical noble. They’re recruited, come up with a plan and try to execute it. That’s it. Because their plan revolves around fortifying a village and defending it against the noble’s vastly superior numbers, and for all sorts of other specific plot reasons, the whole thing’s structurally very similar to Seven Samurai and its US progeny, The Magnificent Seven. The miracle is that 13 Assassins doesn’t particularly suffer from the obvious comparison with Seven Samurai, one of the best films ever made (in my opinion, and that of plenty of others), because it is itself a fantastically accomplished bit of film-making.
The film’s essentially divided into two parts. The first, slightly longer, section sets up the plot, demonstrates the baddie’s profound and deranged badness with some really quite unpleasant scenes, assembles the goodies and gets them to the village. The second, far from short, part is wall-to-wall slaughter as the 13 go up against 200+. It’s savage, bloody (really bloody) and beautifully shot. And it’s never dull, which for a single, uninterrupted battle that’s probably the longest I’ve ever seen on the screen is no small acheivement. Especially considering that most of it is samurai fighting with swords. There’s some archery, some explosions, a little bit of spear- and rock-work, but in the main you’re watching the same swordy thing, repeated over and over. But it’s done with such panache, such stirring desperation, that it works brilliantly.
Which is not to say there’s nothing by way of character work, thematic undercurrent, even the odd touch of humour. All those things are there, and done well. I couldn’t help but notice that every single female character is a victim, which grated, and I confess to being a little confused in the first ten or twenty minutes, since to my uneducated eye everyone looked rather similarly dressed and coiffured and it was thus initially tricky to keep track of who was who. But once the set-up’s in place everything runs smoothly. You’re on rails, in fact, moving with the characters towards the inevitable, inescapable massacre.
And when you get to that extended massacre, it’s so visceral, so kinetic and so cleverly filmed and structured that you’re so engrossed you barely notice time passing. I didn’t, anyway. It’s not, though, really a celebration of violence. Clearly, it’s intended to be an exciting, invigorating specactle, but the film sows plenty of seeds for questions about why the characters are doing what they’re doing (honour, morality, politics, madness) and it is uncompromising in showing the cruelty and suffering that’re inevitable when a large number of folk with drawn blades try to settle an argument.
So all in all, I liked it quite a lot. If it sounds like your kind of thing from the above description, I think you probably would too.