13 Assassins

You are currently browsing articles tagged 13 Assassins.

I wrote this mini-essay ages ago – it was intended for publication elsewhere, but that never happened. To be honest, I’d forgotten about it but then the trailer for the re-make of The Magnificent Seven came out and … well, why it reminded me of this will be obvious once you read on!

It’s timely for another reason, mind you. It’s mostly about The Free, my most recently published novel, and some of the specific influences on that book. As I might have mentioned here, The Free is getting some companion e-novellas now. The first, Corsair, is out now everywhere e-books are sold, ready for your downloading and reading pleasure. So seems like a sensible time to revisit this discussion about what was going on in my head when I wrote The Free in the first place …

I’ve always got little movies playing in my head when I’m writing, especially action scenes. Not the details, but things like movement, its pattern and rhythm, and – bizarrely – lighting. So basically, my little mental movies are kind of blurry but full of movement and very well-lit.

When it came to writing The Free, though, things got a whole lot more specific. Once I had the basic story in my head I realised it had a lot on common with particular movies that I really like, and I decided to dig around in those commonalities and see what popped up. It was a first for me; usually (I think) my influences are a bit more subterranean and a good deal less conscious. This time, for better or worse, I was paying close attention.

The movies in question are Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and to an extent 13 Assassins. Not enough people have seen the last of those: it’s kind of a modern, streamlined version of Seven Samurai, turned up to a violent eleven. It’s beautiful, brutal and clever stuff.

So, I thought, what do I like about these movies, and what would a novel that tried to achieve a similar effect look like? Not all of the answers I came up with actually made it into The Free, but some did. It wound up being a book that’s deliberately reminiscent of those movies, but not a slavish retread – it has its own story to tell. Some of the similarities are pretty obvious (if you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean), others maybe not so much, and it’s a couple of the latter I wanted to discuss here.

Exhibit One: Endings. All four of the films I’ve name-dropped are to a greater or lesser extent about endings in particular ways and combinations that I reckon are interesting. They share an elegiac tone, and underneath their narrative skin are positively thick with the notion of ending, or passing. The end of the age of gunslingers or samurai, the age of the individual man of violence (women of violence too, in The Free). The ending of specific lives; lives of which we see only the final few days, but they’re days that seem to sum up the years that have preceded them. I like that model. Beginning a story right near its end appeals to me.

The other thing about these movies and endings is that in all of them, from early on, the plot’s end-point is made very, very clear. In three of the four movies, you even know where the climax is going to take place, who the antagonists will be, what the specific numerical odds against the protagonists will be, within the first … I don’t know, twenty minutes maybe?

On some level, all of this is back to front. You might even call it spoilerific. I don’t go quite that far in The Free, because I couldn’t resist putting in one or two twists, but the sustained action of the last 80+ pages of the book is in a sense the obviously intended destination, and I assume – want, even – the reader to recognise that from pretty early on.

The thing about having what you might call a ‘flagged climax’ like this is that it pulls the plot and narrative towards it. It exerts a sort of gravitational tug that by its nature puts a bit of momentum and energy and tension into the tale. The fact that you know the shape, if not the detail, of Seven Samurai’s ending from very near the start imbues the whole movie with a rich cocktail of meaning and foreboding and questioning.

Exhibit Two: Otherness and violence. Much of the distinctive magic and tone of all these movies resides in the otherness of their central characters. They exist in tightly defined ‘bands of brothers’ socially and psychologically isolated from everyone else – but I reckon their otherness is also fundamentally about their relationship to violence. How they in particular use violence, how they view its purpose, and how its application has shaped, bonded and isolated them.

The thing that struck me, though, was that in the case of the movies with seven in the title, many different views (and consequences) of violence are represented both within and without the central band of brothers. Violence is what defines many of these characters, but it does it in radically different ways. I don’t make a big thing of it in The Free – it’s supposed to be entertainment, not meditation – but nevertheless it’s there; everyone in the book, consciously or unconsciously, has their own particular reason for enacting violence, and feels its effects and consequences in different ways. The central characters are mercenaries, but simple greed is not one of the reasons. Because that would be kind of dull, right?

And the other thing about violence, of course, is that it’s exciting. The movies I’m talking about are all, in their different ways, steeped in the horrible beauty of violence on the screen. They’re not celebrating it exactly, but they undeniably embrace its visceral, choreographed appeal when presented as spectacle. It’s an abiding puzzle to me why something that most of us, if confronted with it in real life, would find horrible and traumatizing is so exciting and engaging to watch in a cinema.

To make violence both cruel and exciting, horrible and fascinating, folly and triumph, that’s clever. Embodying mutual contradictions without breaking the narrative vessel they’re contained within can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth trying, particularly in the case of violence. And in that I’ve always thought Seven Samurai is the champion. Its final battle scenes, amidst mud and teeming rain, are so loaded with contradictory beauty and horror, tragedy and triumph, it’s a wonder the thing doesn’t fall apart. But it doesn’t, because it’s a masterpiece.

The Free gave me an excuse to think about it and those other films – not masterpieces perhaps, the other three, but well worth a wee think – and that if nothing else made the writing process fun.

Tags: , , , , ,

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.

Tags: ,