"We're still at war, Plissken. We need him alive."

"I don't give a fuck about your war... or your president."

The Great Killing

tn_greatkillingRecently I had a stressful week I knew would be spent largely in hospital waiting rooms, so I thought real hard about what kind of movie I could rent that would be comforting to me if I ever got home to watch it. I could’ve gone for a movie I’ve already seen a million times and love, like DIE HARD or something. For some reason my heart said “old samurai movie.”

I don’t know for sure what it is about these things that they appeal to me so much. In a way they’re difficult: I’m completely ignorant of the historical periods depicted, and I have a hard time keeping track of some of the character names and terminology. But in another sense they’re simple. The heroes are always working from a code. They explain the code and then they struggle to follow it, even though they’re living in a dishonorable world, working in a dishonorable system. For them there’s no choice but to follow the code, because they know anyone who doesn’t is an asshole. And then there’s a big sword fight.

There’s usually alot of quiet moments in these movies, rarely an overbearing score, and there’s the simple black and white imagery. Kinda calming to me. So I chose to soothe my soul with a movie about the great killing, and I’m afraid that’s as in “the huge killing,” not “the really good killing.”

mp_greatkillingI chose THE GREAT KILLING because the director, Eiichi Kudo, did THE THIRTEEN ASSASSINS. Not the Takashi Miike one, that one was done by Takashi Miike. Kudo did the original 1963 version, and followed it the next year with this pretty similar one. The people are fed up with the fucking government and hatch a plot to stop the wicked Sakai from ascending the ranks. There is lots of politics, recruiting and strategy, and then eventually it gets to the big day when the shit goes down, the targets are traveling and the conspirators (some of them working within the government to manipulate the security situation) try to execute their ambush plan.

And then then the shit hits the fan. There’s a big battle with many warriors involved and many swords flying in every possible direction. It’s brutal. Some of our heroes (most? all?) end up dead in piles, covered in sand and flies.

One interesting difference from Kudo’s previous movie: instead of plotting to kill the evil guy their plan is to kill one of his allies, knowing that no one else will give him the promotion he needs to become more powerful. It’s all about who you know, you know? We also see more of the government’s side of things, the raids to find conspirators, the interrogations. But it’s hard to make a samurai talk.

Ironically it’s partly this heavy-handed law enforcement that’s forcing the rebellion in the first place (along with farmers being overtaxed so they can’t afford to live). If you have any honor and you see what’s going on here you’re not gonna be able to stand idly by. Conspirators are being forced to kill themselves, innocents are running in terror trying not to get swept up with them. A man sees his wife get slashed with a sword, and is chased off, doesn’t even know if she survived. Shit is bad.

In a weird way the portrayal of the conspirators reminds me of ’60s radicals. They’re shown to be right in their goals, but also made to seem pretty scary. They can be cold with each other and their fervor for dying for the cause is intense. They recruit people for the revolution and then feel bad for getting them into such danger.

And (like Ving Rhames’s character in PATTY HEARST) there are some total bastards in their ranks. One great scene involves a so-called samurai revealing his opportunistic plan to rat everybody out. He thinks they’ve already lost and decides that saving his ass is more important than sacrificing for the people. That motherfucker gets what’s coming to him. Then there’s the total psycho who becomes a monk, insists God is on his side, and rapes one of the true believers (a very commanding force in the movie and then this prick just crushes her). It’s interesting, we’re used to seeing these type of characters who show the dark side of organized religion, or how bad people can twist religion to get their way, but it’s usually people using Christianity. Here’s what could be seen a damning portrait of a religion generally considered more gentle and innocent than the big ones we have here. Pretty ballsy there, Kudo.

There’s a real palpable feeling of dread about having to die for what’s right. They’re not happy about it. They’d rather not be martyrs, but it’s that damn code. They can’t see it any other way. The most haunting thing in the movie is the gorgeous shot of one samurai walking to the ambush, a tiny robed figure moving toward the foggy horizon and, we’re pretty sure, his death. And he hears the echoes – memories – of his kids calling “Daddy!” We saw these kids earlier, fighting and goofing off when it was time for bed, part of a nice family who gave shelter to another one of the conspirators. And they’ll probly never see either of these men again.

(In fact, one review I read makes me think this guy actually killed his family off screen before he left. If so I missed the hints.)

Parts of the sword fights are shot handheld, shakycam if you will. But to bring it back to the ’60s comparison this gives it sort of the immediacy of Haskell Wexler ’68 Democratic Convention footage more than BOURNE ULTIMATUM car chases. Since it’s used for certain shots, not across the board, it emphasizes instead of obfuscates.

Because they have a different sort of strategy there’s a different type of result. SPOILER. Instead of seeing the bad guy die we get to see him freak out when he realizes he can never be the shogun. This motherfucker flips out, turns delusional, and his men stare at him uncomfortably, not sure what to do. It’s great.

Apparently this is considered part 2 in Kudo’s “Samurai Revolution Trilogy.” The third one is called ELEVEN SAMURAI. Although I liked this one, I prefer part 1, THIRTEEN ASSASSINS. They’re similar structures, but this one has a more convoluted version of the plot. I liked the elegant simplicity of the first one. Of course, watching this a piece at a time over a week or two between exhausting hospital visits is most likely not how Kudo intended it to be watched. But it might be. I’ll have to do more research but if that wasn’t how he designed it then I might not have seen it under optimal conditions and might’ve enjoyed it more in another situation.

I watched part of 8 MILE on a waiting room TV, realized it was a good inspirational movie but that if I ever come out of a major surgery I’m gonna want to watch HARD TO KILL. The surgery went well, my loved one is slowly recovering, but the experience still weighs heavy on me. I’ve learned my way around a couple different wards, learned which nurses (and restrooms) I like best, taken copious advantage of the complimentary hand sanitizer foam. I’ve seen groups of friends and relatives of other patients camping out for days, because they’re from out of town and have nowhere else to sleep. Unsolicited they gave me advice about which beds were available, how to get blankets, not to try sleeping in a chair. A Mexican nun passed a distraught stranger in the hall, put her hand on her back and said, “God bless you,” and it made me tear up like the end of BABE.

It seemed like most of them got worse news than I did, and it made me feel guilty. I held my head low in an ICU waiting room cubicle trying not to listen as a family was told that their relative most likely would never walk again. I felt like such an intruder. This poor guy had fallen on his head somehow and luckily his brain was okay, but the spine was a bigger problem. The next day I heard them in the hallway talking about how he’d done something they thought he wouldn’t be able to do, so they shouldn’t give up hope no matter what the doctor said.

In THE GREAT KILLING the good guys win, but they all have to die and everything is fucked up. And sometimes that’s how life is too. But you just gotta follow the code and try to do the right thing and keep your head up. Some people will make it through and some things will get better.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 at 12:44 am and is filed under Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

40 Responses to “The Great Killing”

  1. Glad to hear you’re bearing up, Vern. I have a buddy in a bad situation but he’s another country away. Hoping I’ll get to see him during the summer.

  2. That was a great review Vern and I hope everything turns out ok. Keep up the good work.

  3. Shit, man, I hope it’s nothing too bad and everything works out well for you, doesn’t matter what it’s about. *manly hug (which means I just look at you and nod, before I keep walking*)

    Anyway, at one point I really have to catch up on Samurai movies. This might be the only movie genre, where I have seen so few movies, that I’m not even sure if I saw any at all! Not even a ZATOICHI or LONE WOLF & CUB. (I really loved SAMURAI JACK, though. Does that count?)

  4. Hope everything is ok, Vern. Great review too, by the way – I’ve never heard of this one, but might have to check it out now.

  5. Dikembe Mutombo

    April 2nd, 2014 at 8:29 am

    That last paragraph is some real shit. Nice review vern, hope everythings good.

  6. I just visited a friend of mine in the hospital where he’ll be for a month undergoing what he referred to as “the most extensive chemotherapy program in cancer.” He’s in good spirits and making all sorts if weird friends (he’s a documentarian of some success so that’s kind of his gift) but it’s tough to see him like that and know that you get to go home to your own bed and he’s stuck here with a tube coming out of his arm for another month. And he’s just a friend. I can’t imagine how his family feels.

    I hope all our loved ones get better and that we all have our welcome distractions in tough times. I usually pull out GROUNDHOG DAY. Tomorrow’s another chance to get it right, so let today go and try again. Repeat as needed.

  7. Sounds like a solid flick, thanks Vern. And thank you for including your life in your reviews, I’ve thought about and learned a lot from that.

  8. Hope you’re bearing up ok. The whole waiting and hoping in hospitals thing is fucking awful, so now you’re on the other side I hope the recovery is smooth.

    Funny the movies that appeal to us when we’re sick. When my wife was going through Chemo she repeatedly watched The Holiday because she found it soothing. Funnily, it was a movie she thought was just ok when she first watched it, but it really comforted her when she was unwell.

  9. The Original... Paul

    April 3rd, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    The last (and thankfully the only) time I was seriously ill, I watched “Charlie The Unicorn goes to Candy Mountain” about twenty times a day. For seven straight months. While unable to do pretty much anything except cough painfully. That was not a good time.

    Sorry you had to go into hospital Vern. I’ll keep an eye out for the movie though, it sounds great.

  10. Yeah, hospitals suck. I mean, they’re great and they’re full of great people (in this country), but the hospital experience sucks, sorry.

    My bad times comfort movie is probly HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH (2001). Or PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948). Or the John Rambo Saga. Or HAIRSPRAY (2007 version). Lots of friendly, soft shoulders in my movie collection.

    Sometimes my weird work hours and my stress-fueled insomnia (or waiting for an update from a buddy that just had another surgery) cause me to wake up and go into the living room at 4 a.m., which is the perfect setting to watch old foreign films
    (Mizoguchi’s THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUMS is waiting for me on the dvr.)
    or forgotten weepies, like THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993), which was fucking riveting and put me in a trance for 2 days thinking about it afterwards but probably never would have grabbed my attention if I hadn’t watched it at 4 in the morning during that especially lousy week. The sleep-deprived heart wants what it wants.

    And there’s always YouTube to look up old musical starlets, Nicholas Brothers clips, or obscure kung fu.

    This world tries to make escapism easy.

  11. It’s strange, but just the other day I was thinking about a movie-going experience I had years ago. It was about a week after 9/11 and I told my roommate that we needed to get out of the apartment and away from the endless coverage. I suggested going to a movie and picking a comedy, any comedy. There wasn’t a big selection and we chose RAT RACE. It had been out for quite awhile, but the theater was packed. Everyone else must have had the same idea I did. We all laughed. A lot. To this day I still don’t know if it’s a good movie. It could be great or total shit, but because of that experience it will always hold a special place in my heart. It was partly the movie, but it was also the communal experience. I’m so happy to hear that your loved one is recuperating, but if you still feel down I would suggest picking a silly movie that’s going to have a good sized audience, whether you had any intention in watching that movie or not.

  12. Since we’re throwing in sick stories, I was an 11 year old, uncoordinated kid who had regular asthma attacks(partly thanks to a culture and family that didn’t acknowledge the impact of passive cigarette smoke on children – at the time), and I would spend unreasonable amounts of time off school. This was the early 80’s, and boredom would set in after a few days of #trying# to watch the fucking Cricket, or the midday movie, or play DONKEY KONG and OIL SPILL on my Gameboy or whatever they called those things back then.

    Then, One Fine Day, Dad bought home a goddam VHS player.

    Cue – (in random order)

    – THE BLUES BROTHERS
    – RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
    – THE EVIL DEAD ( I was only 11 but my dad leaned towards being an immoral populist, causing much conflict with he and my mother. Thanks(<seriously debatable) to him I also mastered the art, a few years later, of finding hidden porn in his cupboards, opening my eyes to J Holmes starring in Sweet Cheeks, and forever embedding an inferiority complex. Fassbender, you are not helping either.)
    – GLORIA (Cassavetes) – this was my mums contribution. Good choice, heading in the right direction, but not that significant a film for filmatistic reasons.
    – THE GODFATHER 1 & 2. (again, mum, right on track.)

    These days, if I'm looking for a comfort movie, I sometimes go to FACE/OFF, 80's Arnie, but usually during the day. Sometimes at night I like LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (this movie is not perfect but to me it is the perfect movie to capture the loss of innocence, and the premature, pre-meditated disabling of maturity and growth in a boy who needs to become a man but has fallen into the hands of a predator. Incredibly heartbreaking and it gets through my defences every time.)

    And I have to admit a recent turning to EVIL DEAD 2013 – DARK NIGHT OF THE (scare)CROWBAR for night viewing, usually as I'm going to sleep.

    Of course, comfort movies are subject to change, as we are. Take medication only as prescribed. If symptoms persist, see a fucking shrink.

  13. The Original... Paul

    April 4th, 2014 at 12:39 am

    For me, a comfort movie is just something like, say, “Code Hunters” or “Hackers” or just something silly that I can laugh at but still “get into”. I wouldn’t want to watch something like “Enter the Dragon” or “The Thing” or “Wall-E” while ill. I love those movies – I wouldn’t want to associate them with feeling rotten, I guess.

    A couple of nights ago, I was inspired to go back and rewatch one of my older favorites, the Kaufman version of “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers”, which I’ve obviously been talking about a bit here thanks to films like “The World’s End”. And all I have to say is this: DO NOT watch a Bodysnatchers movie, especially one that good, just before going to bed. Not a good idea guys.

  14. Dammit, way to make a guy tear up first thing Friday morning. Great review, especially that last paragraph. Glad to hear your loved one’s doing better Vern.

  15. HARD TO KILL sure holds up by the way.
    Kinda wish I’d get sick and go to the hospital just so I could watch it with the proper inspirational perspective.

    During the convenience store robbery, the first bad guy to get twist-tossed by Seagal holding the empty shotgun must have incredible arm strength to be able to grab the barrel and be flipped like that.

    I like how Mason Storm is still tan and still has pecs after 6+ bedridden years. The nurse can’t resist that.
    On your best day, you *wish* you had half as much game as a comatose Seagal.

    Also Seagal’s preference for whispered dialogue actually makes sense here, as long as he’s still a medical patient.

    Maybe he kept doing the whispering thing for the ensuing 2+ decades because he developed muscle memories of having hot nurses ogle his junk when he could hardly talk, like how I’ll wear a particular shirt on a Friday night because I convinced myself that that shirt got me laid that one Friday in 2007.

    In conclusion, there’s a 75% chance I’ll continue live-talkbacking my current screening of HARD TO KILL here.

  16. 42 minute mark: Seagal says “herbs” with a hard H.

    44 minute mark: Score’s percussion beats match Seagal’s fingertapping on some Chinese script.

    {Mouth takes break during awesome HARD TO KILL training montage to go put on 45 pound vest
    and do burpees, extreme Carter Chase style}

  17. Having just watched LAST ACTION HERO for the 1st time a couple days ago (I know, I know — How was I even considered a human being until now?),
    perhaps I am today sensitive to the sounds of stereotypical 80s/90s action cinema, but HARD TO KILL is a master class in awesome, jolting music cues.

    One regret: I wish the movie had done more with the Mariachi band around the 73 minute mark, maybe make their tunes bleed into the carjacking & car chase that followed their brief appearance.

    I like how Senator Trent knows Storm is coming for him, but he still considered going to the ballet and still hung out in his [driveway?] jacuzzi with his floozy + champagne.

  18. Senator Trent’s climactic white bathrobe is surely a deliberate contrast — a costume foil, if you will — with Mason Storm’s white training garb.

    Just like the shotgun blast at Trent’s nuts (that missed because his testicles are so small &/or withdrawn) is a contrast with Mason Storm’s large manhood, as established in the hospital at the end of act 1.

    In conclusion, I love HARD TO KILL.

  19. The Original... Paul

    April 4th, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    “HARD TO KILL is a master class in awesome, jolting music cues.”

    If I knew how to use that clip from “Scanners” of the guy’s head exploding, I would right now. The bizarre electric guitar sound – I THINK it’s a sample of a real guitar, but for some reason it sounds completely fake, or maybe taken from another song? – accompanied by what sounds like a child learning to play his electronic piano for the first time… it’s so cheesy and lazy-sounding. Unless the UK DVD release had a different soundtrack to the US one, which is always possible. Hell, we have a Bruce Lee movie with a Pink Floyd soundtrack. Or maybe Pink Floyd sampled a Bruce Lee movie, I don’t know. I’d have to look it up.

    I started watching “Mercenary for Justice” the other night by the way. I couldn’t get through it. The first five minutes or so were awesome. Quote: “He’s fluent in nine computer languages!” Yep, he speaks Javascript, Python, and Microsoft Quickbasic. Plus a character is introduced as “CIA dirty deeds man” in a caption onscreen. It was like some fantastic parody of a Seagal movie. Then I got bored because there were basically no characters in it and nobody has any motivation to do anything.

    So I watched another five minutes of it… thought it was awesome, couldn’t get any further, stopped. And another five minutes, and so on. Basically every five minutes of this film is an awesome parody of a Seagal movie, but put together it’s almost unwatchable. I’m sure Vern has reviewed it at some point (I remember him mentioning the titles which show each character’s name and specialty in freeze-frame) but I can’t find the review.

  20. The Original... Paul

    April 4th, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    That specific track I was referring to in “Hard to Kill” is the one that plays during the hospital escape, by the way.

    Sorry for bringing up “Mercenary for Justice” in a review of what sounds like a very good film by the way, Vern.

    *Surreptitiously points at Mouth* He started it.

  21. Sorry, Paul, by “awesome” I meant “cheesy.”

    Can’t tell the difference between Jack Slater’s intro music and Mason Storm’s bonebreaking music cues. Self-parody in this case is a good thing.

  22. The Original... Paul

    April 4th, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    Sorry. I should make allowances for the fact that you and I only nominally belong to the same species, Mouth.

    I can’t believe I forgot to consult “Seagalogy” regarding “Mercenary for Justice” (THAT’S where the thing about the character intros came from! I knew Vern had commented on it somewhere.) It actually sounds as though it gets more interesting later on in the “heist” bits, so I will stick it out a while longer.

  23. The Original... Paul

    April 4th, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Also Mouth, you will love “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. I know this. I can read your brain.

    “Herbs with a hard H”? Don’t you USUALLY pronounce Herbs with a hard H? It’s not French… unless it’s one of those weird American pronunciations.

  24. Knox Harrington

    April 4th, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Vern, have you watched any of the more modern samurai movies like WHEN THE LAST SWORD IS DRAWN or TWILIGHT SAMURAI or THE HIDDEN BLADE?

    They’re pretty decent and a good pick when you’re in the mood for something a bit more grounded and less frenetic than most over-the-top martial arts fare. It feels like these days a lot of people mistakenly associate Hong Kong martial arts movies like CROUCHING TIGER or RED CLIFF with samurai films, which they’re obviously not.

    Kinda tough to find good samurai movies these days. I’ll have to check out this Kudo guy.

  25. Don’t feel bad, Paul. I have personally witnessed Mouth doing one-handed chin-ups in a suit and tie while drunk enough to kill a medium-sized water buffalo. Most of us aren’t in the same species.

  26. Paul – Yeah knowing Mouth, he’ll eat up TWS at the very least for the military bros-4-life chemistry between Cap and Falcon.

  27. Water buffaloes are pussies.

  28. Knox, which would you recommend the most? I know TWILIGHT SAMURAI was a big deal at the time but I never got around to it. Would you say that’s a good one to start with?

  29. Vern, if you haven´t seen it I recommend G.I SAMURAI with Sonny Chiba. It´s modern in the way that an entire battalion of japanese soldiers enters a time vortex and is seent to feodal Japan . They then try to conquer the samurai times with a tank and an attack chopper only to find that ancient times warriors are not to be fucked with. It´s a great movie.

  30. Knox Harrington

    April 6th, 2014 at 7:22 am

    You might as well start with TWILIGHT SAMURAI, Vern. Same director as THE HIDDEN BLADE, but that one came out a few years later. I prefer THE HIDDEN BLADE, though.

    WHEN THE LAST SWORD IS DRAWN is probably the best one of those three, but honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve seen them, so my memories of those three films blur together a bit.

    They’re… uhm… not the same kind of movie as G.I. SAMURAI, though. More Kurosawa, less Sushi Typhoon.

  31. Ok Shoot, you’ve sold me on five little words – ” G.I. SAMURAI with Sonny Chiba.”

    I now have my next mission.

    G.I. SAMURAI, listen to me very carefully. I will find you. And I will watch you. Even though I have no particular set of skills.

  32. Knox – I´m not that familiar with Sushi Typhoon , but G.I SAMURAI is a great movie, whereas most of Sushi Typhoons output seems to be childish CG crapfests

  33. Thanks Shoot.

    I have good news and bad news.

    Bad news – Assmazon want about 40 bucks for G.I. SAMURAI cause it’s part of a box set. So I can’t get it right now.

    Good news – the delightful people at Amazon want 12 bucks for another Chiba one called SHOGUN’S SAMURAI from 1978. This I can get right now. And I got it.

    Thank you very much. I will let you know how it plays out.

    Have you seen this one? It looks pretty awesome. From Kinji Fukasaku, the BATTLE ROYALE dude.

  34. Shit, that´s too bad. Because it´s a good boxset. It has the full version of G.I SAMURAI that is I think almost an hour longer than the american release.

    I hope SHOGUN´S SAMURAI plays out well. I don´t think I´ve seen it, though.

  35. I just read an interview with Darren Aronofsky. Apparently he wants to do a samurai movie next. I am intrigued to say the least! But we just have to see. Wanting and actually doing are two different things.

  36. Knox Harrington

    April 7th, 2014 at 3:00 am

    I know that Aronofsky is a fan of Frank Miller’s Ronin. Years ago he was talking about doing either that or Batman: Year One.

    It probably won’t be Ronin, though. He’s already turned down existing properties like The Wolverine and Robocop. Aronofsky has a way of taking influential stories and turning them into his own original content (much like he did with Perfect Blue and Black Swan).

    That’s the way to do it, in my opinion. Keep and explore the themes and aesthetics that interest you, but tell an original story.

  37. Hey Shoot, my copy of SHOGUNS SAMURAI arrived today! I should get to watch it over the next few days.

    With all the RAID 2 talk going on over on the other thread, I’ve felt like an outsider, since I missed it at the cinema, so, like a Lone Wolf Assassin without the Cub I’ve turned to the mighty Samurai to keep the fire burning.

    I couldn’t find THE GREAT KILLING anywhere over here, so while I was waiting for Sonny Chiba to turn up I revisited Edward Zwicks THE LAST SAMURAI. And I appreciated it more after a few years than I did back then. It holds up as a pretty solid, approaching-epic Samurai story with its honour themes, and a good look into the way the Samurai live in their village. And Ken Watanabe, wow, what a dude. I need to see some more of his movies.

    I think maybe the reason LAST SAMURAI didn’t get a lot of love in these circles is because it was a mainstream Hollywood flick with an A-list actor, Mr Cruise, and nobody thought it SHOULD get attention? Or maybe everyone thought it was crap. Who knows? But I’m putting it on my Samurai shelf for future viewings, right next to Takeshi’s ZATOICHI and SHOGUN ASSASSIN.

  38. Darren – we are both left out of THE RAID 2 debate. I was involuntary left out by powers that are beyond me (no theatrical release in Sweden). It has reinforced my bitter hate toward mainstream tastes, since they are the prevalent one in the cultural backwaters of Scandinavia. The fact that you cannot enjoy an awesome Indonesian martial arts epic even in art-house cinemas is a testament of the current film discourses in Sweden. If it is not arty enough or commercial enough it falls in between. The easier to label a film the better a chance it has of distribution. A very narrow-minded and pitiful way of looking at things.

    I do hope SHOGUNS SAMURAI is a good one and you enjoy it.

  39. Similar story here in Sydney. If I want to see anything outside the multiplex movies I have to do a 2 hour round trip, since I live in the suburbs. On a positive note, the local multiplex have recently started a one-session only weekly screening of a classic film. Movies like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and 2001, so that’s a small consolation.

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