– Summary –
Director : Carl Rinsch
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Kou Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, Min Tanaka, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Rinko Kikuchi, Neil Fingleton.
Approx Running Time : 118 Minutes
Synopsis: After the death of their master, a group of former Japanese Samuarai (known as ronin) seek revenge on the man who orchestrated their shame.
What we think : Heavy-handed Japanese-themed fantasy flick is low on action, large on scope, and underwhelming in emotional impact. While production value is high, the films misuses its excellent cast by preventing any of the characters from developing beyond mild stereotypes – the inclusion of White Man Keanu into a thoroughly Japanese mythology smacks of the same arrogance that forced Tom Cruise into The Last Samuarai, and his character offers woefully little reason for even existing. 47 Ronin reeks of misplaced enthusiasm and an overt Hollywood influence that mitigates any “fantasy” the film had working for it.
Just committ sepukku before starting this one, and save yourself some time.
I’m not entirely sure what Hollywood keeps thinking, making films like 47 Ronin, but surely now the time has come to just give it a rest. Universal’s massive commercial failure notwithstanding, this film just plainly rankles the nose of any knowledgeable film fan. I guess as a project it probably sounded like a great idea: take on of Japanese culture’s most revered historical legends, throw Keanu Reeves at it (because he’s hugely popular right now) and spend somewhere in the region of $200 million at it, and see what happens. Surely couldn’t fail, right? Well, the film bombed big time in Japan (where it was expected to trounce all comers, considering the story is so famous in that country), and naturally followed suit in the West, where nobody could quite figure out if it was a Japanese film trying to be American, or an American Japanese film trying to be…. well, whatever it was. The end result of 47 Ronin’s stormy birth onto the big screen is a debacle of fantasy and fiction, a netherworld of unfocused Honor Culture ruminations and half-assed magical allegory that never takes flight.
So the film sees Reeves as some kind of “Half breed” – a white man banged a Japanese prostitute and he was the result – inserted fatuously into the famous story of the 47 ronin, a group of samurai warriors left leaderless after their lord was murdered by a rival. While the mixture of reality (the overall story of the ronin is true, although the intricacies and detail have been lost, embellished, and downright concocted down through the centuries since) and heightened fantasy (the film opens with Keanu and his Samurai masters chasing down a massive creature which looks like James Cameron sharted it out during production on Avatar, while a key antagonist in the film is a shape-shifting witch, so there you go!) never really works for Western culture, it forms the very foundations of Japanese culture, which makes the decision to Americanize the story somewhat baffling. Casting a group of respected Japanese actors in the film goes some way to mitigating the problems the film has, but only in a minor fashion. Having them speak not a single word of Japanese throughout the entire thing? Crucially depressing.
Reeves stars as Kai, a half-breed sold as a slave and who is regarded as lower than snake piss by his Japanese peers, who becomes involved with the ronin after Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) is murdered by rival warlord, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano). The leader of Lord Asano’s guards, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) finds associating with Kai distasteful, even moreso since Kai and Lord Asano’s daughter, Mika (Kou Shibasaki) have fallen in love. A year after Lord Asano’s death, Oishi gathers together the scattered ronin, as well as Kai, to seek out Lord Kira, who intends to marry Mika as a way of controlling her inheritance, and seek revenge for their lord’s murder. Kira, meanwhile, has engaged the assistance of a witch, Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi), whose telling physical trait is odd-colored eyes. Mizuki has the ability to change shape, and is a significant power to thwart should the ronin gain the revenge.
I’ll give this film one thing: the promotional material pre-release was awesome. The trailers for this promised some awesome action and visual effects, but as with most dangled apples, never quite delivers on the promise the way your imagination might have had you think. 47 Ronin is a flat, lifeless, squandered opportunity that is as inertly directed as it is fabulously over-financed. The film looks stunning, I’ll give it that, and does contain a number of visual effects that are quite worthwhile watching (the opening sequence with a massive cow-like beast is worth the price of admission alone), but the story stumbles early and never recovers. For all the self-sacrifice and butchery on display here, the film also has a concerning lack of blood – barely a squirt anywhere to be seen, which is bizarre considering how much sword-play and knife-work there is throughout.
Keanu Reeves looks like he’s wandered into the wrong film, he’s so misplaced as Kai. The film-makers have obviously decided the “less is more” route was the way to go with his role, since he has about six lines in the entire film (none of which immediately spring to mind), but his effort in this film is woefully under-scripted, and inordinately poor even by his usual monosyllabic standards. He’s more than aided by Hiroyuki Sanada’s Oishi, who pretty much takes on the role of leading man in this film; Oishi is the best developed and most empathetic character on the screen, so it’s a bit bizarre seeing somebody like Keanu play second-fiddle to anyone in his own film. Of note too is Tadanobu Asano’s Lord Mika, the chief villain of the piece: he chews the scenery and oozes slimy slap-him-down nastiness throughout, but like most of the rest of the characters has zero back-story and no development whatsoever. Rinko Kikuchi, who we last spotted destroying Kaiju in Pacific Rim, does her best with a silly role as a manipulative witch in Mizuki, but she can’t “do” evil at all, and fails to elicit any emotion whatsoever from the audience.
The film plods along through actionless dialogue, ham-fisted story decisions and a decidedly dull sub-plot about Kai’s former life as a trainee supermonk (you’ll get it when you see it), spends a large amount of time dwelling on the planning and preparation for the “revenge” being sought, and never really does anything with the confusing, incoherent finale – Keanu battles Snake Demon, while Oishi has a horrid three minute fight with Lord Mika, as the rest of the ronin take control of Mika’s forces (an admittedly well mounted sequence) – the entirety of 47 Ronin feels too long by an hour, and not exciting or dramatic enough to mitigate the dramatic turgidity which envelops it. Carl Rinsch, in his debut as director of a feature film, fails utterly to capture either the mythical nature of ancient Japanese warrior class (this film makes the oft-done mistake of assuming that this is the Japan that Western audiences want to see, a symbolic-heavy fantasy Japan that lacks depth, rather than anything approximating reality) or the pseudo-fantasy links with Keanu’s character. Frankly, the gap between the film’s internal “reality” and the fantasy elements is so large, they don’t even bother acknowledging each other. This lack of acknowledgement robs the small fantasy elements of any – and I mean any – inherent story potency.
Seriously though, what the f@ck is Keanu Reeves even doing in this film? He’s useless, a fifth wheel in a film filled with axles! His entire story, from go-to-woah, offers nothing to the overall narrative other than to provide Western audiences with an appreciably indifferent recognizable face. Had they just removed both Keanu, his insipid love-story arc (which borders on vomit-inducing some of the time) and shifted the focus solely to the ronin themselves, and made it as an actual Japanese-language film, I’m damn sure the movie might have not only performed better in the crucial Japanese markets, but also been… you know, a better film. 47 Ronin craps all over the famed legend, takes a dump in audiences eyeballs, and pisses its opportunities up against a wall. A real shame.