Tuesday, April 10, 2012

13 Assassins (2010)

You have every right to be afraid of a Takashi Miike movie. He can be ferocious—as in, to name a very few, Three ... Extremes, Gozu, Ichi the Killer, and the infamous Audition.  But 13 Assassins feels more like Kurosawa, or any one of countless samurai pictures that ennobles defeat as only high-minded Japanese action pictures can.

After an almost leisurely set-up—leisurely for Miike, who along the way still provides some queasy dips and rough jolts to establish the depths of his evil protagonist, an honor-less tyrant who tortures and oppresses the innocent—the movie becomes a monumental, meticulously staged battle sequence—no, more a bloody ballet of strategy and stratagem, as his 13 assassins plow through a horde of henchmen through the streets of a village transformed into one big trap by the wily assassins—all of whom, Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven-style, are introduced and established—but this time it's thirteen, each a separate personality, each tuned like a Stradivarius meant only for bashing over the heads of evildoers.

And while Roger Ebert's advance word on The Raid: Redemption signals that new-school action is sheer spectacle, 13 Assassins is devoted to more than nonstop mayhem. Don't get me wrong, though: the final third of the film is indeed an extended action set-piece, as the thirteen assassins do all they can to destroy the tyrant's men.  But by the time the battle begins, we understand the players, the stakes, and the rules; and so the game itself—as bloody as it certainly gets—has weight and depth.  Miike often plays with genre to uncork his splashy moral sensibility; this time, he too plays by the rules, and directs a precise, plotted melee of exceptional grace and satisfying melancholy.  After all, it wouldn't be a classic Japanese action picture if, like Lao-tzu's Master (yes, I know he's Chinese, but bear with me), the hero does not "enter a battle gravely, / with sorrow and with great compassion, / as if he were attending a funeral." And while Miike's assassins infrequently show compassion as they flood the village with a crimson tide, they certainly find no "delight in the slaughter of men"—well, not too much.

The Dead Zone (1983)

The list of Stephen King novels, novellas, short stories, stray thoughts, and refrigerator notes that have been made into movies is long and almost as varied as the quality of the source material.  In other words, for every decent King adaptation there's a terrible one—and for every terrible one there's a great one, just about.  Of course, The Shining may stand at the top of the list—ironic, of course, given King's famous rejection of Kubrick's take on his novel.  But a number of other fine films have crawled out of King's It/Id, from Misery to The Shawshank Redemption, from Stand By Me to Christine--and surprisingly the list goes on.

In my top five, if I had one, would be David Cronenberg's version of The Dead Zone.  Released in the same year as Videodrome, The Dead Zone also benefited from its lead, Christopher Walken (while James Woods goes all the way in the media-nightmare Videodrome).  Walken gives Johnny Smith a haunted look and shambling gait that reflects the tragic decline Smith suffers in the novel.  I can remember reading the book and thinking of Frankenstein's creation, who learns what it means to be human and is ruined by the knowledge.  Johnny also gets a long hard look—and while it contains light, sometimes it's harsh and unforgiving and more than a little insane.  The book is a melancholy thing, and the movie shows us Johnny as a Thing, standing alone in the place where evil works its black magic in "the bleak midwinter," cold and true.  Walken takes full advantage of Cronenberg's chilly vision, and lurches across the frame in exhausted wisdom. Sad, sad, sad.