'13 Assassins': Thrilling warrior epic with killer battle scenes

'Your samurai brawls are crazy fun!" exclaims the 13th assassin, a nutty guy who lives in the forest in Takashi Miike's sublime sword fest, 13 Assassins.

And while this tale of a band of 12 noble fighters (plus that goofball in the woods) who set out to kill a sadistic lord with designs on the throne is full of wild action, there's dignity and beauty and poetry here, too. Set in feudal Japan, during the waning of the samurai era, Miike's movie offers not over-the-top, Hong Kong-style martial arts, but rather is a throwback to wide-screen warrior epics where men steered their horses through verdant woods, and where ritual and rules of law were not broken lightly.

That said, there are some killer battle scenes - like the film's entire final 45 minutes!

Things begin slowly, and hauntingly, with the hara-kiri death of a lord who can no longer abide the horrific violence of the demented despot. Although it defies the social order to go after Naritsugu (a terrifically twisted Goro Inagaki), whose vast legion of soldiers remains loyal despite his abuse of the citizenry, the samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho, a veteran of many Kurosawa films) agrees to lead a group of assassins. There's no doubt about the justness of the cause once they encounter a woman who was Naritsugu's plaything: He has cut off her limbs, cut out her tongue.

A film, like so many samurai stories (and American westerns) about brotherhood, justice and sacrifice, 13 Assassins is, at turns, thrilling and funny, visually exquisite and emotionally charged.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.


13 Assassins

Directed by Takashi Miike. With Yûsuke Iseya, Masachika Ichimura, Gorô Inagaki, Takayuki Yamada, Kôji Yakusho. Distributed by Magnet Releasing.

Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity).