I think I’ve learned this the hard way, but you can’t always trust Rottentomatoes. It is not, as I may have previously thought, the be-all and end-all of movie reviews (though it’s often pretty accurate).
One bit of proof I had a while back was the mindfuck Inception. Now don’t get me wrong. I like my mind to get blown on occasion. But not fucked. I guess calling Inception a mindfuck sounds like it might be a compliment, seeing as that’s what it sets out to do – alter your perception of reality, make you re-examine the very fabric of your existence (which The Matrix achieved 11 years prior) – but I mean mindfuck in its most vicious sense. You watch it and come out completely confused about what just happened, and then feel like you have to applaud because it was smart enough to confuse you. And then you pay another $14 to watch it again and enhance your initial interpretations.
But Inception got 86% on the Tomatometer, a sure winner for a website that counts anything higher than 60% as a “fresh” film.
Miike Takeshi’s 13 Assassins, a 2010 Japanese film about samurai coming together to fight a sadistic lord, also did extremely well. The premise is interesting; Japanese culture forbids disobeying a superior except under the most dire circumstances. And what reason do these men have to revolt? For one, Lord Naritsugu is brutally sadistic. One scene near the beginning shows one of his victims, a maimed, tongueless woman drawing with her teeth a sign that tells one of the samurai to help her. Later, Naritsugu practices his archery skills – on a family of lowly villagers who lie helplessly with hands and feet bound. We then understand why in the opening scene, a man is shown performing harakiri, the Japanese art of honourable suicide; he cannot bear his existence under such an awful leader. The samurai come to hate Lord Naritsugu, as do we, and we happily endure the lengthy exposition about each of the characters and their personal backgrounds (only to later find we can’t keep track of each person’s unique story).
About halfway through the film, the action picks up – and doesn’t relent until the end credits. Sound exciting? I thought so too. But it’s hardly original. Naritsugu’s men are led into a room they think is safe, only to find it rigged with explosives. The 13 assassins take on dozens of men each – à la Rambo – and all miraculously prevail. And save for a few rolling heads, you don’t see too many deaths on-screen; you just hear the unsheathing of swords and the clank of battle. One obscured sideswipe and the enemy’s down.
It’s almost as though this film were an homage to the day when these movies were popular, and in a way, I suppose it is. But after watching Kill Bill, my once-per-decade quota of throwback films has been reached. And Kill Bill had a compelling storyline, dazzling visuals and a tongue-in-cheek tone that told us it was laughing at itself with us.
13 Assassins, unfortunately, lacks any of those traits. The plot is much too lacklustre to derive any more than passing interest in it. If they settled for cliché when devising the action scenes, why didn’t they choose to go all out and have the villain kill one of his own men? Why not, at the expense of realism, put a mole as one of the thirteen and have him lead the gang in a trap that they must think their way out of? There are too few twists of plot here to truly engage the audience, and the story ends up more linear than Lord Naritsugu’s arrows.
How many reviews of all the ones Rottentomatoes counted were favourable? 96%. Critics laud its “villain who transcends evil and ascends to a realm of barbaric madness” (Roger Ebert) as well as a “masterful battle sequence inside a deserted town” (J.R. Jones). Masterful? I’ve eaten Fruit Loops more masterful than that. Choreography can be impressive, but only in the context of a compelling narrative, where the end result is unpredictable – and matters.
So added to the list of films-that-shouldn’t-be-critically-acclaimed is Miike Takeshi’s 13 Assassins.
And added to our movie-loving minds is an important piece of advice – never try convincing yourself a tomato is fresh when you know it’s rotten.