Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
What was life like in 19th-century Japan? If we're to believe Takashi Miike's 2009 film 13 Assassins, it meant a royal black sheep who killed entire families for fun. It meant nobles willing to commit hara-kiri just to complain about said thrill-killer. It meant a naked woman, with her arms and legs cut off (and her tongue cut out), clamping a paintbrush in her mouth to tell a samurai warrior what happened to her family—"TOTAL MASSACRE"—before the shogun's brother took her as a weird-sex slave. Point being: Be glad you weren't around, and be glad this movie exists to show you why.
13 Assassins is an expertly conceived and executed action movie, brutal and simple and mythic. Its last 45 minutes are one epic, gripping, drawn-out sword-battle, sort of like the legendary hospital gun battle from John Woo's Hard-Boiled except without any actual guns. There are so many great moments in that battle: The trickling stream that turns cherry Kool-Aid red, the severed head kicked like a soccer ball, the flaming bulls. And yet the movie's greatest moment comes long before the fight.
Instead, it's when the movie's samurai hero, Shinzaemon, meets that unfortunate quadruple-amputee. After he learns of the unimaginable horror this woman has faced, after he's heard her wordless soul-rattling anguish-wail, his face remains stony for a long second. And then: a smile. It's only a slight smile, but he can't repress it. "How fate smiles upon me," he muses. Shinzaemon has suffered the sad-if-you're-a-samurai fate of living through peaceful times, never having been given the chance to die valiantly in battle. And when he learns that he's been asked to kill the shogun's sociopathic shitstain half-brother, it's goddam Christmas morning.
(Seriously though: flaming bulls!)
A word about the villain: As the beyond-evil Lord Naritsugu, Goro Inagaki plays one of the most effortlessly detestable bad guys ever to slime up a screen. Naritsugu is a total Nero figure: bloodthirsty, effete, utterly convinced that it should be an honor for random subjects to die for his amusement. Even when shooting a little kid full of arrows, he keeps the same dainty, haughty, bored expression on his face. And when battle does erupt all around him, when his bodyguards are dying by the dozen, he finally lights up: "You think the age of war was like this? It's magnificent." If you felt like Joffrey from Game of Thrones was too kind and forgiving, this is your guy.
Before 13 Assassins, Miike had earned his reputation as Japan's greatest purveyor of freaky bugshit violence. (If you've seen his 1999 horror-thriller Audition, you might shudder involuntarily at the thought of it.) 13 Assassins was a sort of mainstream move for the director, his shot at Japan's great tradition of samurai movies, a genre that goes way beyond Kurosawa and Lone Wolf and Cub. (In fact, the movie is a remake of an Eiichi Kudo film from 1963.) And though Miike throws himself full-on into establishing Naritsugu's evilness, he mostly plays the movie straight-faced: tough and honest performances, sharp and clear staging, badass moments so grand and resonant that they'll stick with you for years. Before watching 13 Assassins, I had no idea Miike had something like this in him. It's like if Harmony Korine woke up tomorrow and decided to make a classic Western, and then somehow pulled it off.
The movie is structured as a Dirty Dozen-style men-on-a-mission story: Shinzaemon (an awesomely stoic and grizzled Koji Yakuso) learns what's at stake, assembles his team, and plots out his impossible mission. The various samurai get maybe one scene to establish their characters, bond with each other, and accept their fates. And then almost everyone dies, just as you know they inevitably will. But even during the endless battle scene, we learn more about these guys—their relationships, the ways they work together, the ways they react at seeing each other get hacked to pieces. The movie sets the 13 of them up against 200 enemy samurai, and it even gives those enemies chances to be real people, even if all you see is their facial expressions right before getting stabbed. The whole thing is an absolute unmitigated triumph of badass filmmaking, a movie that already feels like a classic even though it's only four years old.