THE LATEST from unpredictable director Takashi Miike is the definition of a slow burn: Front loaded with portent and exposition, 13 Assassins takes entirely too long to get moving, but once it does, Miike doesn't hold back. He might be trying to make a serious samurai epic, but what it seems like Miike really wants to do is assemble an epic—and epically badass—action flick that just so happens to feature a bunch of pissed-off samurais.
If you don't know Japanese—or hell, even if you do—you're probably gonna have a hard time keeping all the ominous conversations straight at the start of 13 Assassins, but here are the basics: The younger brother of the shogun, Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki), is the worst person in the world. Raping, pillaging, killing, and sneering at will, he exploits his lands with arrogant, aristocratic impunity. After deciding enough's enough—a decision that may or may not happen around the time Lord Naritsugu chops the feet and hands off one of his rapees, also severing her tongue—a fed-up crew of samurai band together. Led by Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho), they set out to end Lord Naritsugu's reign of terror. Their plan? Booby trap an entire village, lure Naritsugu and his men into it, and kick some ass.
There's a lot of setup—even this shortened international version of the film clocks in at two hours, but feels longer—but when Shinzaemon's plans start to come together, about halfway through, Miike goes balls-out. Once 13 Assassins settles into its action-flick groove, everything gets drenched in righteous death and chaos, the uneven pacing straightens out, and Miike hits his stride. He's clearly having a blast making a bloody, muddy, and occasionally depraved action flick—if you can make it to when he gets those samurais' swords swingin', it's pretty hard not to enjoy the ride.