It's a bloodbath in Takashi Miike's violent epic 13 Assassins (2010)
In what must be the 1000th remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) (although it's directly credited as a remake of Jûsan-nin no shikaku, Eiichi Kudo, 1963), prolific Japanese auteur Takashi Miike turns his hand to the samurai movie, delivering an epic spectacle of limb lopping violence and coded honour. Comparison with Kurosawa's film is apt too, because for all of the reasons Seven Samurai works, 13 Assassins doesn't. Although the 45-minute set-piece which rounds off the film is relatively impressive, the road getting there is incredibly dull; bland in palette, lacking in character and floundering in politics. Seven Samurai has a 207 minute running time, the last 60 minutes of which showcases the greatest action sequence ever committed to celluloid. But that still leaves 147 minutes devoted to character, and seeing as we're kept to the manageable number of seven samurai they each have equal screen time to develop. Miike crowds his film with thirteen 'characters', some of which have barely a line of dialogue, and two thirds of which we never get a sense of as real people. Roughly 70 minutes is dedicated to exposition posing as development, but through the drab grey/green environments the film just plods on, never really engaging us on an emotional level. Truth be told, I was quite bored, and became impatient for the climax.
Although I've seen a very limited number of his films, largely due to the fact that so few of them get released here in the UK, Miike has never really grabbed me in the way he has many. Audition (1999) was half of a good idea, interestingly framed until it digresses into lazy shock-tactic gore, and Ichi The Killer (2001), while fun, is a largely unsubstantial work. He's a production line filmmaker, and it shows in 13 Assassins, which only really comes alive in the hyper-violent but derivative finale. The problem is that, for such a protracted sequence, it's too sprawling and unfocused to really become exiting. Comparison with Seven Samurai once again proves apt, because the battle in that film was measured in tactics and space. 13 Assassins cares little for such ideas, cramming the action into an incredibly confined environment (which Miike's camera does not utilize sufficiently) and becomes nothing more than a bloody brawl, occasionally touched up with shoddy CGI (the running of the bulls made me cringe). It is not a battle of wit or intelligence, and while it's admirably restrained when compared to Miike's more extreme work, the conflict still trades in blood more than brains. It's also lacking in continuity: the insane peasant picked up by the samurai at the end of the journey seemingly manages more kills than the master swordsmen themselves. How does that work? And I don't know where Miike learned to count, but there are clearly more than 130 adversaries swathed through in the sequence, despite how many times we're told the number our heroes are up against.
So, it may be constructed in a classical mould, but 13 Assassins is far from classic. Critics seem to have fallen all over it but I can't for the life of me see why. It's long, clichéd and shamelessly derivative, lacking any identity of its own. What little there is of character proves uninteresting (best developed is our stock villain, who kills children to demonstrate how evil he is) and I get the sense that most of these critics are just experiencing nostalgia. I recommend they, and you, sit down to watch Seven Samurai again... after all, it's a masterpiece.