The Japanese action epic 13 Assassins and DreamWorks' chop-sockey comedy Kung Fu Panda 2 have more in common than you might guess, particularly when it comes to evildoers. In Takashi Miike's ultraviolent period piece, the Shogun's dissolute, bloodthirsty half-brother Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) threatens to bring feudal Japan to ruin if he amasses any more power. In DreamWorks' CGI family feature, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) feels cheated from his birthright as heir to glittering Gongmen City and plans to conquer ancient China by force.
Both bad guys reveal a penchant for sadistic target practice. Lord Naritsugu shoots arrows at the trussed-up wife and children of a rebellious samurai. Lord Shen blasts a Gongmen City defender to smithereens with his explosive new weapon. Their main difference is that Lord Shen happens to be an albino peacock with blades in his plumage, while Naritsugu is a human sociopath whose swords are mostly ceremonial.
Both movies trade on long, honorable traditions of Asian action genres. 13 Assassins remakes Jûsan-nin no shikaku, a black-and-white Japanese film from 1963, and shows a deep fondness for the classic Seven Samurai. Free of beheadings, Kung Fu Panda's sequel aims for a broader audience but embraces the dazzling fight moves of wuxia martial arts films that star lethal leading men such as Jackie Chan, who reprises his voice role here as a battling monkey.
Kung Fu Panda 2's script doesn't live up to its predecessor, one of DreamWorks' best animated features. Plush kung fu prodigy Po (Jack Black) is not only charged with stopping Lord Shen, but he also tries to unravel the secret of his birth family, since it's revealed the goose who raised him was not his biological father. Kung Fu Panda 2 delivers repetitive jokes and a perfunctory theme about the importance of "inner peace," and deliberately evokes Pac-Man in aerial shots of Po and company in a parade dragon, "eating" bad guys while rushing through the city streets.
But Kung Fu Panda 2 turns out to be the rare film that's enhanced, rather than diminished, by 3-D effects. The movie builds to splendid battle scenes, including combat between Po's sidekicks and Shen's forces that topple a massive tower. A final battle against Shen's armada evokes the nautical fights in John Woo's Red Cliff. Overall, Kung Fu Panda 2 shows that martial arts choreography can still amaze even when transferred to a computer-generated world of talking animals.
13 Assassins stands as one of the most intoxicatingly thrilling action films to arrive since Woo's Hong Kong heyday. Ironically, the film starts with a series of low-key chamber pieces, as opposed to the usual atrocity or ritual suicide, when retired samurai Shinzaemon (a commanding Koji Yakusho) accepts the necessity of Naritsugu's murder lest he bring death and dishonor upon the entire kingdom. 13 Assassins doesn't always distinguish between the title characters, but articulates the nature of the samurai code. For Naritsugu's head samurai Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), honor demands he protect his mad master to the end, even though Hanbei has far more in common with his old classmate, and new enemy, Shinzaemon.
Shinzaemon ultimately buys out a rural village and sets up a breathtaking ambush: "We'll transform it into a town of death." In 13 Assassins' final 40 minutes, Shinzaemon, his 11 samurai and an earthy hunter use explosives, burn livestock, and employ other booby traps to take on Naritsugu's 200 guards. Miike delivers remarkable stuntwork without lingering too long on the gore. 13 Assassins has already become the stuff of legend among action movie addicts. Today's kids weaned on the Kung Fu Panda films will be all the more appreciative of 13 Assassins — when they're old enough.