Venice (In Competition) – Lights... camera... action! And then some, as director Takashi Miike puts his unique spin on a 1963 samurai saga. With the blood flowing a mountain river, Paul Martin is on hand with tissues and band-aids.
Quentin Tarantino, who is of course serving as this year's Venice jury president, does not strike one as being the most self-aware of individuals. This is not uncommon amongst major directors, with them basically spending their entire professional lives being looked to for instruction by dozens of actors and hundreds of crew members, all of whom are merely there in order that the creative impulses of the former be realised as successfully as possible. It is therefore hardly surprising that famous filmmakers tend to think of themselves as being the gaseous body around which the rest of the universe revolves.
If however, we were to imagine that Tarantino did feel the lacerations of doubt and humility with the same pain and frequency as the rest of us mere mortals, then it's possible to imagine him shifting uncomfortably in his seat as he watched 13 Assassins, the Golden Lion contender from the Pulp Fiction man's one-time director (on 2007's Sukiyaki Western Django), Takashi Miike. Because this new magnum opus from the hugely prolific Japanese demonstrates how Inglourious Basterds should have been done – the tediously long-winded yakking of Aldo Raines and company being substituted for the kind of driven narrative and kick-ass ensemble action you wish QT had served up last year.
13 Assassins, a remake of a near-50-year-old Eiichi Kudo movie, can be divided into three basic sections; motive, planning, and execution. The first of these familiarises we viewers with the imperative behind the titular killers' mission, as we see the havoc wrought in 1844 Japan by Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki). A screen scumbag to make Basterds' Hans Landa look as sweet and innocent as a Care Bear, the nobleman is shown carrying out acts of rape, murder and dismemberment, yet he remains safe from justice thanks to his fraternal ties to the reigning Shogun. Legal avenues closed to him, the Shogun's trusted minister, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), is left to seek alternate means of surreptitiously disposing of this menace to society. To this end he recruits legendary samurai, Shinzaewon (Koji Yakusho), who in turn sets to work assembling a (mostly) crack unit of swordsmen in order to strike at Naritsugu as he journeys from the capital, Edo, to the territory of his clan, the Akashi.
Gang duly gathered – the not so unlucky thirteenth being the effervescent tatterdemalion Koyata, played by Yusuke Iseya – the next stage revolves around the dirty baker's dozen hatching the scheme that will at least give them some tiny hope of overcoming Naritsugu's numerically superior forces, they taking up occupation of the entire village of Ochiai in order to spring their trap. By this point, just over an hour or so into his movie, Miike has been sparing with his fight sequences, restricting the katana-swishing to a pair of minor skirmishes. However once Naritsugu and his 200-strong guard ride into the ambush laid by Shinzaewon's samurai squad, the swords remain drawn on both sides till the last man is left standing. The epic conflict is intense, it is dirty, it is often outrageous (a makeshift bomb sending a tidal wave of blood washing over the roof of a hut; powerful ronin Hirayama slicing an ablaze foe in two – a slightly less lurid take on the mutilating antics seen in Miike's gruesome Ichi the Killer), and it is unrelentingly exciting.
The characters are crisply defined; from the earnest, dedicated Hirayami (Tsuyoshi Ihara), to the aimless, hedonistic Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada), to the young, hungry Oguru (Masataka Kubota), to the black hole of morality that is Naritsugu himself, a warped sadist left almost orgasmic by the immensity of the pain and carnage he witnesses during the final battle. Just as fascinating as the latter figure is the rivalry between Shinzaewon and Naritsugu's chief lieutenant, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), this boiling down to a clash of fundamental philosophies over whether it is more honourable for the samurai to act for the greater good of the people or to unquestioningly serve their master, no matter how repulsive they may personally find his actions to be.
Tiny faults manifest – a brief sequence featuring some laughably wonky CG cows, the inevitability that when the assassins start falling they fall in order of their importance to the story – without doing anything to dim the huge levels of enjoyment generated by this almighty action extravaganza.
Rating on a scale of 5 flashing blades: 4.5
Release date: TBC
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Screenplay by: Daisuke Tengan, based on the screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami
Cast: Koji Yakusho, Masachika Ichimura, Goro Inagaki, Yuseke Iseya
Running Time: 126 minutes