Sunday, May 1, 2011
13 Assassins Plus Two
In transit mode, so posts have been sparse. Apologies. I have caught a few flicks worth reflecting on, the most impactful being Takeshi Miike's 13 Assassins, but Limitless and Fast Five are worth your indulgence, too.
13 Assassins is a solid samurai epic with a golden heart. Like The Wild Bunch and Seven Samurai, it is is about friendship and believing in a cause that overrides the survival instinct. In this instance, a group of experienced and not so experienced warriors share a collective compulsion to erase a particularly reckless individual from the face of the earth. The movie comprises the intricate planning and hazardous execution of this erasure.
I wasn't looking too forward to this film. After the digital excess of John Woo's Red Cliff and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, I'm fed up with impersonal fight sequences that go on forever, become boring in their sameness, and signify little but technical achievement. Would 13 Assassins be another one of those?
The film begins well in that it echoes Kurosawa with its adroit conveying of political unrest and personal anxiety. It doesn't open with the traditional action splash or telegraph the nature of its ultimate conflict. On the contrary, it opens with a quiet but disturbing act of ritual suicide that is also an expression of anger towards the same enemy the 13 Assassins will focus on. In this case, that expression is muted. For the band of killers, it will not be.
As is typical for a Miike movie, genre conventions are adhered to, but boundaries are pushed. I loved the revelation that the film's villain has punished a woman by lopping her limbs off. Now a living torso incapable of speech, this snippet of grotesquerie underlines the terrifying reality of absolute power, and gives us a hapless human symbol of it.
The central battle sequence, recalling Wang Yu's Beach of the War Gods for me, is long, but it doesn't feel repetitive. The warriors feel real, not computer created, and blood flows with admirable restraint. At first, it bothered me that the slashing swords were not launching geysers of crimson, but I came around slowly to the more theatrical style, and appreciated the gore when it accompanied particularly important kills.
13 Assassins' greatest achievement is emotional. Its action, though furious, does not trample its heart. It is a film of intense feelings, feelings of anger and injustice that drive positive action. The result is a rewarding, powerful experience. Highly recommended for men, women, and tall children.
In Limitless, a would-be writer whose personal and professional life is in ruins, ingests a pill that enables him to use 100% of his brain's capacity. The results are predictable but visually engaging. Like the recent The Invention of Lying, this is a movie based on a single behavioral concept. The former failed because it didn't take the concept to another level. It was happy being a series of comedy bits in which Ricky Gervais said funny things to clueless people. Little else was explored. Limitless does explore the downside of being a brainiac amongst non-brainiacs. Like 13 Assassins, it doesn't allow its premise to trample its heart. Protagonist Bradley Cooper is likable. He's honest. He's flawed. When good things happen to him, we're happy for him and amused. When his world begins to decay, we experience his ups and downs beside him, not above or below him. Things are resolved in a clever way, too.
Fast Five, the fifth entry in The Fast and the Furious franchise, is a pretty pure action flick. As car stunt movies go, it's the best I've seen in years. That's because director Jason Lin allows us to see the action clearly. He doesn't rattle our vision with quick cuts, ADD-ridden camera moves, and souped-up transitions. Stylistically, the film has plenty in common with George Miller's The Road Warrior, the textbook on how to do auto ballet right. Why utter crap like Gone in Sixty Seconds wasn't more like this is beyond me. Some people just don't get it.
Unlike The Road Warrior, the action logic here is preposterous, but the makers know it, and they provide two hours of gleefully blistering entertainment.