Magnolia Pictures // 2010 // 125 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // July 11th, 2011
"Kill! Kill them all!"
My favorite movie of 2011. The best movie of 2011.
As Japan's feudal era comes to a close and the samurai find themselves ebbing away, a new challenge emerges that will require the attention of the few remaining followers of the Bushido code. A deranged, evil lord is perched to join the Shogun's council and if he takes that seat, he threatens to plunge all of Japan into a period of war and suffering. Their hands tied politically, the other members of the council approach an aging, legendary samurai and ask him to gather an elite squad of assassins to take out the lord before he joins the council.
After some creative recruitment, thirteen assassins are gathered. They are of various ages, experience and expertise; all bound by one purpose: to lay down their lives for the good of all.
Typically, when I look back at a year's worth of film viewing, I end up with a "favorite film" and a "best film," the former I flat-out enjoyed the most, the latter I put on my stuffy critic's hat and objectively proclaim as the finest piece of cinema. It is rare for both criteria to intersect with one film, but so far 2011 has seen 13 Assassins unify the title belt.
What an accomplishment. Takashi Miike, infamous for over-the-top exploitation flicks, comes through in a big way with a film that is both epic and intimate, daring and traditional, meditative and exciting. 13 Assassins is a samurai film consistent with the best in the proud genre, yet it feels fresh and exhilarating. The themes of brotherhood, duty and sacrifice resonate deeply and while we've seen these "small-group-of-badasses-versus-overwhelming-odds" films any times before, rarely has the game plan been implemented with such thrill and precision as it has been here.
In an interview found in the bonus features, Miike claims that 13 Assassins is not an action film, but rather a drama, populated by compelling characters driven by a common goal. I would agree with that characterization. It's not a film that has action sequences shoe-horned in throughout. The first hour is set-up, an examination of the men who join the group, the political wheeling and dealing to assemble this strike force and the preparation for the assassination attempt. Meanwhile, the target is cultivated as one of the most detestable villains you will come across in any movie.
But that second hour? Hoo boy. Friends, you are looking at 50 minutes of sustained action, an unbelievable stretch of frantic swordplay, desperate pugilism, big set-pieces featuring exploding buildings, massive booby-traps and flaming bulls. The 13's plan is to trap the lord and his 200 bodyguards in the middle of a town, the entirety of which has been transformed, through lethal engineering, into a killzone. Simply put: this one of the most exciting action undertakings I've ever seen and the fact that it actually means something -- the stakes are the highest, we're attached to the heroes, the villain is a premium heavy -- every sword swing resonates.
Lastly, considering this was Miike, I was expecting buckets of gore. Make no mistake, there is much violence and the by the end blood covers everyone and everything...but I was surprised by the restrain Miike employed. He could have easily poured it on for the gore, yet he opted to pull back some and that helps him. The violence doesn't overshadow the characters or their motives. If there's a way to subtly film a man on fire getting cut in half, Miike found it.
Magnet's Blu-ray is unsurprisingly a top performer. The studio consistently outputs high-end discs and 13 Assassins continues the trend. The picture is flawless, an eye-popping 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that pushes razor-sharp resolution from start to finish. The finale is especially awesome, with the visual fidelity transmitting the non-stop action to perfection. A crystal clear, well-mapped 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio pushes out the sound mix, again exhibited wonderfully in that finale; you will be part of the fight. Two extras: a lengthy, informative interview with Miike (in HD) and a handful of interesting deleted scenes, including an alternate ending that was wisely cut.
I'm getting chills just writing the review of this movie, which I've seen twice already. 13 Assassins is spectacular.
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Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Films: #84
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Japanese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes