It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"13 Assassins" has what many action pictures need, a villain who transcends evil and ascends to a realm of barbaric madness. Against this creature and his private army, a band of samurai is mustered to end his terror. Their heroism against impossible odds is a last hurrah for the samurai code; the film is set in 1844, toward the end of the medieval Edo period, when true samurai warriors were growing rare.
The film is terrifically entertaining, an ambitious big-budget epic, directed with great visuals and sound by Takeshi Miike. The last 45 minutes are devoted to an inventive and ingenious battle scene, but it's not the sort of incomprehensible mayhem we often find in recent actioners. It's a lesson to the queasy-cam auteurs, because Miike choreographs the action to make it comprehensible — and, more important, has spent his first two acts establishing the characters. We know who the 13 samurai are, and we understand why many of them behave as they do under threat of death. The care taken with the screenplay and the shot composition deserves comparison with Kurosawa's (even better) "Seven Samurai."
The film opens with stark, bloody simplicity. A man kneels in a courtyard and disembowels himself in protest against Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), the half-brother of the shogun. This seppuku was inspired by Naritsugu's cruelty, which we see demonstrated in appalling detail. He amputates some victims, kicks the severed heads of others across rooms and exercises the right to rape anyone in his domain. He isn't a twisted caricature, but a preening narcissist; the shogun inexplicably plans to promote him.
To correct this evil in the land, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) seeks the samurai Shimada (Koji Yakusho) and finds him peacefully fishing atop a ladder in the sea — but with his sword of course nearby. Shimada then seeks another dozen warriors to join him, and this process is familiar to us from countless other movies. Each of the recruits has his own personality and back story, some more elaborate than others, and of course there must be a little comic relief, although Koyata (Yusuke Iseya) grows more serious in the heat of battle.