The new “Pirates of the Caribbean” was due out this weekend and I’d already promised to take the family. So when I flipped open the “Coast Weekly” for movie times, my eyes bugged out of my skull and my heart skipped a happy beat when I saw an ad for “13 Assassins” at the Osio Cinema. Takashi Miike’s latest film was already making the rounds On-Demand, but this was a chance to catch the film on the big screen and bask in the glory of samurai goodness. How? How could I manage this one? I can normally maybe see a single movie if I try, but 2 movies in one weekend? I had rehearsal on Saturday so I would be in town. I had a friend with me who shared my appreciation for Asian Cinema and was familiar with Miike. I needed to check with my wife, make certain that things were alright and I could take a little longer in Monterey than I normally. She said “yes”!!!! So we set out for an afternoon viewing and wound up running into my buddy Shane and his dad on their way out of the theatre. Remo D. had a smile on his face after the film so I was pretty certain I would, too.
This is pure Miike, the man who brought us “Audition”, “Sukiyaki Western: Django” and “Ichi: The Killer”. The mans’ body of work includes family films, samurai epics, horror films, and on and on. He’s a visceral director and goes for shocking imagery, scenes specifically intended to haunt and disturb the viewer. Some reviewers are mistakenly referring to this film as a “Seven Samurai” retread, but the two films actually share very little in common. It is a small number of Samurai against a larger force, we do take time to introduce to thirteen warriors, and some of the characters share traits with the seven archetypes from Kurosawa’s masterpiece. That is where the similarities end, because this is an entirely different story with very different thematic elements. There’s no gang of bandits, there’s no helpless villagers looking for help.
The Shoguns’ half brother is a psychopathic bully whose rapes and murders have driven one retainer to commit Hari-kiri in the films opening scene. The minister of Justice has a dilemma… he cannot ignore the crimes and he cannot pass judgment on the bloodline of the Shogun without condemning the family by extension. With his very existence threatening the peace, the brother must be dealt with quietly and the Chief Justice is forced to call upon the aid of an aging samurai in the twilight of his life. Assassinate the Shoguns half brother as he travels from point A to point B while surrounded by his guard, including their well-trained leader; a classmate and rival to the films’ primary antagonist. And to complete his task, he gathers several men and informs them that going along on this mission means that their lives are his to do with as he pleases.
The preparations from both sides commence as each is very aware of the others final goal, all of this leading up to a brutal and visceral 45 minute battle sequence that pulls no punches and delivers the grue like we all know Miike can. The true horror, however, comes from the personal reactions from the Samurai, their screams and their breakdowns captured in stunning detail. We are given the sights of war, the horrors and the terrors of a battlefield and we’re asked to endure this trial with the characters we’ve become accustomed to. We see some change before our eyes, rising to courage and falling to madness as they endure absolute hell.
I asked a friend of mine we ran into when he came to the theatre what his thoughts were after the film ended. He told me he needed some time to absorb the film and I felt the same way… I was shocked, stunned, thrilled, and horrified by the film. I did not walk out of the theater feeling “good” about life and I didn’t know if a smile was appropriate. The smile wasn’t quite there, but this wasn’t exactly a happy little film. We were dealing with some heavy material throughout this film, including honor, loyalty, responsibility, defiance, and acceptance. But there are two images that continue to haunt me: In one scene there is a woman who has been tortured, used, and discarded by the Shoguns’ brother. When the pull her robe from her we see she’s had all four limbs cut off, we find her tongue has been cut from her mouth, and she takes a brush between her teeth as bloody tears flow from her eyes. “What happened to the rest of your family?” she is asked. She writes and the kanji translates “TOTAL MASSACRE”. Her screams echo in my head now. The opposing image is one where the Shoguns’ brother is surrounded by make-shift walls, having fallen into the Samurai’s trap. The lead Samurai reaches into his armor and draws out a scroll, reveals the rough kanji and bloody-tear soaked words from that same woman and the sub-titles translate “Total Massacre” once again.
5 out of 5.
And now I have to completely change pace… the odd thing is that my two favorite roleplaying games follow this exact same trend. I love Legend of the Five Rings, a roleplaying game set in a mythic world based on Feudal Japan and China. But I go from that game to “7th Sea”, a game based on swashbuckling adventures with pirates and treasures. These are totally different mindsets yet two of my favorite genres. Go figure?
“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”
Based on a novel with no ties to the original series, “On Stranger Tides” feels a little jumbled together and doesn’t quite hit the same notes as the original series. Johnny Depp reprises the iconic role of “Captain Jack Sparrow” for another outing and hits the seas opposite Penelope Cruz. Geoffrey Rush returns as Barbosa (minus a leg), and Mr. Gibbs returns for a few colorful exchanges but the films story seems centered on peripheral characters that never seem to be given the focus they should. As the Spanish and English Navies race to lay claim to the fabled “Fountain of Youth”, Blackbeards’ daughter helps her father to gather a crew and set sail to outpace both nations. We meet a young missionary who has been tied to Blackbeards mast for no greater crime than having faith, he is saved from a death sentence by Blackbeards daughter for no greater reason than a desire to save her fathers’ soul, and Blackbeard is played by Ian McShane for far too little time to develop a truly enthralling villain. Jack’s only real purpose in the story is that he may or may not have already been to the fountain and would, therefore, be capable of leading Blackbeard and his crew to the site.
It’s not a bad movie. It’s chain-food pizza; not quite the best in town but it’ll do in a pinch. I would have preferred to see a story centered more specifically on the character of Sparrow or to have seen some more screen time given to some of the periphery characters; but the film does manage to scratch that “Swashbuckling” itch. Penelope Cruz is great in her role, though she seems to lack any romantic chemistry with Depp. She could make a great addition as foil to Jack if that sub-plot was ignored for future installments but that remains to be seen. So it’s not the next big thing, it’s not the greatest story ever told, and the plot has a lot of holes left over from the butchering of what had been a promising novel by many accounts (I haven’t read it myself, but think I may now). It is, however, a fun little romp with plenty of gags and plenty of action. Depp doesn’t slow down and continues to have fun with his most endearing character to date while Geoffrey Rush adds just enough pomp to Barbosa to provide a few different laughs.
3 out of 5.