Given the current style of Hollywood action movies, it's nice to have a film like '13 Assassins,' a film that knows there's fluidity to action and knows that the kinetic movements of people and objects don't stop and start randomly, but continues through a certain space until they connect with their target. Thank you Takashi Miike for reminding us what simple, wide tracking shots can do for a movie featuring bad-ass samurais hacking each other up.
The action isn't the only reason to love '13 Assassins'. Miike understands that a good action movie comes with well-rounded characters. After all, if we don't care about the people in peril, what's the point in caring about anything the movie has to offer?
The time is 1844. A wicked lord has risen up. He's not only evil, he's malevolence personified. It's important that he's such a wicked guy, because we want him to get his comeuppance. So many other movies try to create a terrible (in a good way) villain and end up failing miserably. It's not enough that the villain shoots innocent people and laughs manically. He has to do it with no sense of purpose. Like shooting or killing someone doesn't affect him in the least. If he tortures people with that mindset, then he's even worse. Here's a villain who cut off a peasant's limbs just for fun. A man who will kill entire families without thinking about it. Needless to say, he's got to go.
There's a class system at work here though. No one dares stand up to Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki). His loyal army is willing to die to defend him. Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) is the only one who plans to stand up to him, but he needs some help. He recruits samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho). Shimada then recruits enough lone samurais for a group of 12 assassins (the 13th assassin isn't added until halfway through the movie for a bit of comic relief). Understanding the great risk that this group of samurais is taking is of the utmost importance. Thirteen going up against 200. It's a suicide mission in their eyes, but they're willing to do it if it means they have a chance to rid the country of evil.
Samurais are becoming extinct, and '13 Assassins' understands what that means to a group of men who have devoted their lives to servitude and warring. These men not only look at this as being a time where they can better their society, they also see this as one last hurrah for real samurais. A testament of what they are capable of.
The last 30 to 40 minutes are not only a testament to skilled samurais, but also to talented filmmakers. Lord Naritsugu and his army of 200 find themselves face to face with the 13 assassins in a rundown village. The assassins have had time to rig the city with all sorts of traps, explosives, and walls of giant branches and sticks that slide into place cutting the army off from itself. Divide and conquer is their strategy. They attack with a deadly ferocity. Groups of men stand and watch as these seasoned samurais chop their friends to bits. Its fierce, ferocious, and eye-opening. This is what a good action movie is like. You don't need endless amounts of expensive CGI or an infinite array of incomprehensible shots of feet and fists. All you need is a talented director who knows where to place his camera. Actors who can pull of the strenuous choreography, and above all a story with characters that matter.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'13 Assassins' comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Magnolia. They've packaged this in a set that includes the BD-50 Blu-ray Disc and a code for you to access your own Digital Copy. It's housed in a standard Blu-ray case, and comes with a slipcover that has the same cover art as the case does. This release states that it's for region A only.
The movie's sound is presented with a Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. English subtitles are included. With the movie framed at a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the subtitles never creep into the black bar below. This will be good news for projector owners.
'13 Assassins' features a 1080p image buoyed up by an AVC encode. The movie, like its strong subject matter, takes on a more drab and dreary look. Blacks, grays, and mud-soaked browns fill the entire screen for much of the movie's runtime. Lush greens, while the assassins traipse through the forest, are one of the only big splashes of vibrant color you'll see in the movie.
Clarity is top-notch with edges appearing defined. Close ups offers an extraordinary amount of detail. The entire movie has a gritty, filmic look to it that helps serve the overall dour demeanor of the people and what they're going through. Textures, from tightly woven robes to shiny speckled helmets, are concise and clear.
Blacks are deep and never crush detail. Shadow delineation, even during daylight scenes, works wonders; creating a picture with a wonderful sense of depth and dimension. '13 Assassins' won't blow you away with lucid eye-candy visuals, but it will impress you with its unflinching portrayal of the horrors and dreariness of war.
The Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound packs a real punch. This is a mix that will slice right through your home theater system, leaving you with a room that you'll swear was bloodied and broken. Like these samurais took their war to your living room.
LFE is constant and thunderous, from the heavy beats of horse hooves to a gigantic rumbling explosion that takes out a city bridge. The LFE travels well through the sound field as huge makeshift wooden walls come crashing closed separating the army. It isn't just the low end that makes this mix demo-worthy. It's the nuanced sound that you hear up front. Swords slicing through flesh, distant echoes of samurai blades clanging against an enemies armor, screams of men as they meet their end. The entire mix surrounds you with the sounds of war, and they aren't pretty. It's hectic, maddening at times, but it's war.
If I have one complaint it's that the dialogue sounded a tad too low. Other than that this is a mix that you should pick up if you want a demo-worthy addition to your library, and a great movie to boot.
I think we've become desensitized into thinking we're actually getting action movies from Hollywood, nowadays. Then we see something like '13 Assassins' and wonder why we can't be getting movies like that instead of bloated Michael Bay movies that assault our eyes (and intelligence) and replace real action with boneheaded CG that does nothing but make you think you're watching a cartoon. This is a real action movie. The fine video and audio presentations just add fuel to the highly recommended fire. Pick this one up. You won't be sorry.