It's a tad more grotesque than the greatest examples of the samurai genre, but basically 13 Assassins proceeds in classic Japanese sword-battle mode. There's nothing unexpected in this well-made picture, aside from the name of the director: Takeshi Miike.
That the movie doesn't surprise is a shock in itself: Miike is known for bizarre humor, a short attention span and a disdain for narrative logic. The self-indulgent filmmaker has helmed more than 80 films, and of those released in the U.S., only two hold together all the way to the end: 1999's Audition and this one.
Miike's restraint is evident from the very first scene, an elegantly staged seppuku sequence. The director doesn't show the sword enter the man's stomach, the resulting wounds, or any internal organs tumbling out. The suicidal noble just sinks quietly into a smear of blood, viewed coolly from above.
A remake of an obscure 1963 film, 13 Assassins is sort of a cross between Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and the oft-made The Loyal 47 Ronin. It's about a ragtag band of warriors — including a roughneck who's anything but a samurai — who unite to protect the innocent.
In this tale, the threat is the shogun's decadent half brother, Naritsugu. A man of epicene demeanor and sadistic tastes, he rapes and murders for fun. (The fiend is played by Goro Inagaki of the Japanese boy band SMAP, who attacks the role like a younger, more Japanese David Bowie.) The few short scenes that illustrate Naritsugu's depravities show Miike at his Miike-est: In one, the villain uses a detractor's children as bow-and-arrow targets.
The movie is set in 1844, near the end of an age of peace in which few samurai have a noble purpose, much less the skills to pursue one should it happen to arise. "These days, swords are only good for cutting radishes," a bystander sniffs.
That's why the samurai recruited to lead the 13 assassins has dedicated his life to fishing. Shinzaemon (Japanese superstar Koji Yakusho) uses the wisdom of that sport to bait the hook for Naritsugu and the soldiers who accompany him on a journey through the mountains.
In those mountains, the dozen killers meet their last recruit, a peasant (Yusuke Iseya) who's outfitted with a slingshot and an irreverent sense of humor. Since he doesn't wield a sword, he's easily identifiable. Most of the other heroes, however, are interchangeable. Even at its full length — 15 minutes have been cut for American release — the movie wouldn't have time for anything more than quick sketches of the subsidiary swordsmen.
Shinzaemon plans to lure Naritsugu and his 200 bodyguards into an elaborately booby-trapped "town of death." Using barricades and explosives, the 13 might be able to kill their prey. Victory and survival are different things, of course. We're told more than once that a noble death is the samurai's goal.
The final battle lasts some 45 minutes, and is skillfully composed and edited. Miike shows unprecedented discipline in directing this sustained battle, which is gripping and dynamic, yet more mucky than magnificent. Having signed on to make a classic samurai battle film, the director delivers in full.
But perhaps the movie would have been more interesting if Miike had indulged himself further. The story is familiar, and its questions of duty and honor are the usual stuff of samurai cinema, without the deeper probing of Japan's best sword-and-sacrifice films. 13 Assassins is reliably entertaining, but ultimately it's too traditional to be a classic. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.