Film Review: ‘47 Ronin’

47 Ronin Review

Keanu Reeves is the draw but not the star of this visually dazzling but thoroughly bogus update of one of Japan's greatest legends.

In Japan, the story of the 47 ronin is so central to the country’s national identity that a special word exists for the act of retelling it: Chushingura. But despite this long tradition of flexible reinterpretation, the Hollywood-backed “47 Ronin” takes such liberties with the underlying legend that a different term comes to mind, one better suited to American actor Keanu Reeves’ involvement: “bogus.” So far, Japanese audiences have been slow to embrace a CG-heavy version of the story that offers Keanu as a previously unsung “half-breed” accomplice. Meanwhile, domestic crowds are being deliberately misled to think he’s the star — a high-stakes bait-and-switch sure to backfire on this narratively stiff but compositionally dazzling production when it opens Dec. 25 in the U.S.

In theory, director Carl Rinsch’s considerable visual talents should have been the draw, with the expectation that the first-time director would deliver on the promise of his dazzling short film “The Gift.” Sure enough, in his hands, “47 Ronin” rivals the epic martial-arts films of Tsui Hark or Zhang Yimou in terms of sheer spectacle, bringing a dark, almost gothic feel to the Eastern environments: The look suggests “Hero” as crossed with Tim Burton, or perhaps a fresh, image-driven auteur to pick up where Tarsem has stumbled.

But as the budget crept ever skyward, reportedly reaching as high as $225 million, Universal’s marketing department shifted into panic mode, opting to disguise the fact that the true heroes of this epic Japanese legend were themselves Japanese, and positioning Reeves’ character — described as the shameful “love of one night” between an English sailor and a local peasant girl — as a superficial ploy to attract international crowds.

And so, the actual star of the film, the great Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (recently afforded widespread exposure alongside Hugh Jackman in “The Wolverine”), is entirely absent from U.S. posters. The public is thus encouraged to consider this most fundamental of Japanese stories from the point of view of a side character, whose presence introduces a fresh theme of racial tolerance along with the more classical aspects of self-sacrifice and honor.

Like all Chushingura, “47 Ronin” recounts the tragic Ako incident (spoilers ahead), during which Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) was forced to commit seppuku after illegally striking an unarmed royal guest, leaving the 47 samurai who had been under his command without a master. After more than a year adrift, these ronin (as disgraced samurai are known) returned, staging a daring night raid in which they took their revenge, vindicated their master and were ultimately forced to sacrifice their own lives in punishment.

Sanada plays Oishi, leader of the desperate group of ronin, who turns to mysterious stranger Kai (Reeves) for help when planning his coup. With three writers credited (Chris Morgan and Walter Hamada for story, “Drive” scribe Hossein Amini and Morgan for the script itself), the project resists easy reverse-engineering, though given Reeves’ international profile, it’s no surprise that he was given the film’s romantic subplot. Kai’s love is star-crossed for multiple reasons — not least of which that nearly all the male leads end up dead, either in battle or by ritual suicide — though it doesn’t help matters that the object of his affection is Asano’s daughter, Mika (an unremarkable Kou Shibasaki), already promised to Oishi.

Perhaps it is this connection that inspires Kai, whose lowly class separates him from the esteemed samurai, to repeatedly risk his life for Asano’s honor. Though Rinsch shows no great strength in working with actors, he can build a setpiece on par with those of directors decades more experienced, and long before Asano has been given the chance to publicly disembowel himself (an act that, like so much of the bloodletting, is “tastefully” left offscreen), Kai has already slain a rampaging CG monstrosity and faced off against a 10-foot silver-armored samurai.

The key difference between most Chushingura comes in the speculated motives behind Asano’s initial attack upon his rival in the palace — the act that sets the entire tragedy in motion. To this fantasy-infused telling, Rinsch introduces the notion of witchcraft, casting Rinko Kikuchi as a deliciously evil witch with ambiguous powers. Basically, anything that might look cool when rendered by the industry’s finest effects houses is fair game, whether that means the witch conjuring iridescent spiders out of thin air or transforming herself into a three-dimensional dragon. As impressive as these visual elements prove to be, the film struggles to grab and maintain audiences’ interest, whether or not they know the underlying legend by heart.

That said, while “47 Ronin” may have cost a fortune, at least the money found its way up on the screen. Though the film teeters on the verge of bad-movie damnation (it’s confusing without quite being inscrutable, and arch without succumbing to camp), it redeems its existence by supplying dozens of striking original compositions, especially during the climactic night raid, timed to coincide with Mika’s wedding to the man (Tadanobu Asano) responsible for her father’s death.

Still, there’s something undeniably old-fashioned about the entire experience — like the matte-painted fantasy-scapes of early sound cinema. Even though nearly all the scenes take place outdoors, there’s the closed-in feel of actors performing against greenscreens, to the extent that even group shots of the 47 ronin tend to feature no more than five or six of them together at once.

Film Review: ‘47 Ronin’

Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, Dec. 19, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 119 MIN.

Production

A Universal release presented in association with Relativity Media. Produced by Pamela Abdy, Eric McLeod. Executive producers, Scott Stuber, Chris Fenton, Walter Hamada.

Crew

Directed by Carl Rinsch. Screenplay, Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini; story, Morgan, Walter Hamada. Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen, 3D), John Mathieson; editor, Stuart Baird; music, Ilan Eshkeri; production designer, Jan Roelfs; supervising art director, Gary Freeman; art directors, John Chichester, Robert Cowper, Faye Green; set decorator, Elli Griff; costume designer, Penny Rose; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/Datasat), John Midgley; supervising sound editor, Tim Nielsen; re-recording mixers, Frank A. Montano, Jon Taylor; special effects supervisor, Paul Corbould; visual effects supervisor, Christian Manz; visual effects producer, Garv Thorp; visual effects, MPC, Digital Domain, Baseblack, Milk Visual Effects, Halon Entertainment; assistant director, Simon Warnock; second unit director, Phil Neilson; second unit camera, Fraser Taggart; casting, Denise Chamian, Priscilla John, Yoko Narahashi.

With

Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi, Ko Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

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  1. Our american audience likes the clean version of the hero’s journey. Hero gets pulled into or creates a war, hero says some inspiring speech, hero destroys town and all its people. Unfortunately, before the Industrial Revolution wars were long and were fought without bombs.

    I agree with the direction this movie took on the “spirit” of the legend. Adding and taking away from the original story to hook people that might have just come to watch Keanu. Let’s be honest, people do that sort of thing. It also provided just enough of the original story to maybe please people that are familiar with the heroic 47.

    I think the movie was good it had some parts that weren’t quite clean enough for the story to keep rolling. It wasn’t a disaster film and all the clever quips about ritual suicide are really an american audience lost on the ways of another culture. Open your mind a little and you’ll come off less ignorant.

  2. No name says:

    Mika was not promised to Oishi, he already had a wife he loved very much and a son. Did you not actually see the film?

    I think critics got it wrong with this film overall and some just jump on the bandwagon of hating it. I personally did see it and enjoyed it very much. They never did say it was a true recounting of historical events, so just enjoy it for what it is.

  3. Edith says:

    I enjoyed it Keanu Reeves is such an amazing actor this film didn’t give him a good chance to show his talent but over all worth watching

  4. Edith says:

    I went to see this movie the day after Christmas. I really enjoyed it! I do however wish a better director had done it instead… Keanu Reeves is an amazing actore love all his films this film doesn’t even give him a chance to show that still worth it

  5. Patrick Brown says:

    Saw the movie today and enjoyed it. Is it “great cinema”, no. I’m miffed at the venom dished out to actors and movies these days. Some people act as if it’s a personal affront if the movie isn’t Oscar material. I pay to get away from my life for 2 hours. If the film does that, it’s a good one to me. If I’m thinking about what I need to do afterwards, it’s a bad one. This one wasn’t a bad one in my book.

  6. John Hart says:

    What a strange place Hollywood is! Am I the only one to recall the magnificent Toho Company production of “Cushingura” done in the 1960s?
    That film made sense of the story. The payoff for this knock-off copy is deserved. I hope that Universal loses the corporate shirt.
    The whole production team should commit ritual seppuku out of shame that they dishonoured such a wonderful story with their schlock film.

  7. Mike Robinson says:

    This movie was absolutely abysmal! Given how aesthetically rich 1700 century Japan was, and important the story of the Chushingura (The Loyal 47 Retainers) to Japanese cultural identity, I was amazed at how little apparent historical reseach the costume, set designers and writers did. The film looked cheap despite the huge budget! The fatastical changes that the writers pasted into the traditional telling of the story were never integrated in any cohearent way. For the first 30 minutes, all I could think was that the movie had to have been made in the Peoples Republic of China, and was some sort of politcal effort to discredit Japan given their longstanding enmity. I admit to being a consperacist.

    As I walked out, I was left with the following questions:

    1.) Who was the Giant Slver Samurai?
    2.) Why did the Witch work for the Northern Lord
    3.) How could they have spent so much money on such a poor outcome (was this a money laundering scheme for the Yakuza? Another conspiracy theory.)
    4.) What was with Sanada’s son in the movie…the only one of the 47 to survive.

    Redeeming scenes: The fight on the Dutch ships, The assault on the Northern Castle, The final fate of the 47.

    Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada provide serviceable performances.

    The rest, all was all crap!

    If you want to know more about the the 47 Ronin, then rent or buy the 1962 Toho product: Chushingura, distributed by Image Entertainment. Its long, and dated, but it does depict what really happened in March of 1701. Well worth a watch.

  8. Wm Fred Baty says:

    Who, in their right mind, would ever cast Keanu Reeves in any project expected to generate a profit? This guy is a no-talent on a par with Michael Pare. “B” movies for SyFy and other chewing gum for the mind are all either of these can muster.

  9. Ken says:

    I saw the movie opening day. This could have been a great movie, but, its not…. Its just off, missed the mark. You could delete all of K. Reeve’s scenes and still have a decent movie, possibly a better movie. Maybe if they had just followed the original story of The 47 Ronin it might have been a better movie.
    And as far as it being a Fantasy/Action movie it is lacking in both Fantasy and Action. Its just not a big screen movie, more like a big screen TV movie.

    There must be a boat load of deleted scenes that have the rest of the story in it.

    All in all not a horrible movie, just not worth the $8.00 or more spent to see it. $1.00 rental sure. Late night cable movie? perfect.

  10. Mika was NOT “already promised to Oishi”. Did you watch this film all the way through? Oishi was married ( I loved the tender moments between him and his adoring supportive wife who he tells is “the joy of his life”!) and has a son, Chikara who joins his father in the 47 Ronin.

  11. tlsnyder42 says:

    Who cares about the real legend? This is a movie, for God’s sake! Besides, the samurai philosophy behind the real legend of the 47 Ronin led to the militaristic fascism of Shinto Buddhism of the totalitarian Japanese state in the 1930s and World War II. It’s an abhorrent philosophy, so it’s too bad they didn’t make even further drastic changes in the story.

    • Shinto and Buddhism are not the same thing. Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan, Buddhism was brought to Japan from China in or about the 14th century.

    • paul lane says:

      It’s a central myth of Japan doofus. It’s like the indians at Custer’s Last Stand beig armed with Machine guns. (Sigh, I hope I’m not giving M. Bay any free ideas).

  12. Paul Lane says:

    Most Americans (especially executives) have as much knowledge of Japan and history as can be held in a gnats bunghole.. which isn’t so much.

  13. Les says:

    Keanu Reeves is Canadian.

  14. Glenn C. says:

    Sorry, never heard of Gloria. Why are you mentioning this under this article and review?

  15. Silvana says:

    Paulina Garcia has to be nominated to Academy Award for her amazing and superb performance in Gloria. She is wonderful in the film and Academy must recognize her talent.

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