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Heads roll quite literally in 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike’s remake of a 1963 Japanese actioner that is as bloody and grotesque as you’d expect from the Audition director. The story, though, is a simple one. The setting is peaceful 1844 Japan, where samurai are becoming increasingly unnecessary. But there’s still one thing terrorizing common folk: Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), half-brother to a shogun. He rapes, tortures, and murders for sport, and a top shogun official, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), makes it his goal to rid the country of Naritsugu before he gains more power. So Doi tasks his go-to guy, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), with gathering a handful of samurai to kill the bastard.
Miike and scripter Daisuke Tengan spend the majority of the film illustrating Naritsugu’s sins (tying up a family of servants and shooting them with arrows; severing a woman’s limbs and tongue) and detailing Shinzaemon’s search for his small army (originally 12, though they pick up a wayward but willing fighter during the mission). We see the samurai training physically and psychologically, with Shinzaemon ensuring that each is willing to fight to the death or, if circumstances call for it, commit harakiri. If the film has a weakness, it’s that the code of the samurai feels a bit piled on, unnecessarily lengthening a somewhat dull midsection.
The final 40-plus minutes, however, are bananas. The 13 freedom fighters intercept Naritsugu and his posse of 200-some bodyguards, setting up an incredible booby trap wherein the ultimate battle takes place. With such wildly outmatched numbers, the samurai must rely on their brains, and they do so beautifully: Their trap is rigged with twig-assembled gates, hidden swords and explosives, and even suicide bulls that charge at the enemies with their backs ablaze. It does become a bit of a mess, a flurry of grunts and yells and the swooshes and clinks of blades—as well as geysers of blood and the tearing of flesh—often without a clear picture of who’s bad and who’s good. But when the 13th assassin whoops, “Your samurai brawls are crazy fun!,” you can’t disagree.