Sunday, January 5, 2014

47 Ronin ~ Almost Capturing Your Imagination

I am Ōishi Yoshi; you betrayed and murdered my lord.  Prepare to die.

What's up with Keanu Reeves' new action film?  Not a whole lot really.  "47 Ronin" is a mildly entertaining film with a little bit of history, a dash of "The Princess Bride," a pinch of the "Last Samurai" and a healthy dose of "The Lord of the Rings" type of visual effects. 

"47 Ronin" tells the story of a group of men left without a leader after a witch tricks their daimyo, Lord Asano into attacking rival Lord Kira’s while a guest in his house.  As this is an act of dishonor, the Shogun (their military leader) orders their lord to commit seppuku.  The Shogun orders Ōishi and the remaining Ronin to not seek revenge but to disperse and go their separate ways. Without direction, the Ronin spend the next year waiting to seek revenge, as they felt honor bound to do.  The film stars Keanu Reeves ("The Matrix" trilogy, "The Day the Earth Stood Still") as Kai, as a half British, half-Japanese outcast.  Hiroyuki Sanada ("Sunshine," "Ringu," "The Last Samurai") leads the group of 47 loyal and dutiful former samurai in their quest for vengeance and honor.  Lord Kira, the focus of vengeance is played by Tadanobu Asano ("Battleship").Adding additional layers to this traditionally male warrior story are Rinko Kikuchi from Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim," and Kō Sandasaki from 2000's "Battle Royale" making her Hollywood film debut as Kai's (Reeves) love interest.  "47 Ronin" runs just under 2 hours and the MPAA rates it PG - 13.

I think it is wonderful idea to bring historical events from other cultures, particularly Asian stories to Western audiences.  However, I am not sure of the point of interjecting a white guy into an already perfectly good story.  Keanu Reeves whose Sci-Fi apex was "The Matrix," gives a lackluster performance to this film. As the character who is the "outsider," Kai is not only a half-breed, but may also be a demon.  Although the story follows Kai's journey toward acceptance by the Samurai, his character never grows.  Actually, there is very little growth for any of the characters during the story arc.  In fact, Kai's storyline and Asano's daughter Mika, played by Ko Shibasaki will remind one of the Dread Pirate Roberts and Princess Buttercup's as Kai hurries to stop Mika's wedding to Lord Kira.  The usually very good Hiroyuki Sanada plays Ōishi, the leader of the Ronin and who ignored Kai's warning that witchcraft was afoot.  Although the film doesn’t flesh out Ōishi’s character, it turns out he is the Inigo Montoya type.  After spending about a year in a dark pit after his fall from grace, he plots his revenge, gathers the former samurai, and sets off for revenge.  Tadanobu Asano's plays his character, Lord Kira, with a chip on his shoulder and an annoying grin on his face.  Rinko Kikuchi plays the shape-shifting witch who tends to be a bit on the slutty side.  Whereas Mika sits like a proper lady, Kikuchi's witch plays her character as if she was channeling Sharon Stone. Not only is she a seductress, the addition of Japanese mythology, and magic is not only interesting, but the most compelling parts of the film. For me, the real actor who gave the film any sense of dignity was Min Tanaka as Lord Asano, Mika's father, Ōishi's lord and Kai's patron. Tanaka plays Lord Asano as if he truly was a Samurai Warrior.  Tanaka also starred with Hiroyuki Sanada in the critically acclaimed "Twilight Samurai."  Most of the other Samurai/Ronin are pretty much nondescript, however a few of them stand out, like Takato Yonemoto as Basho, the large but friendly warrior. Another warrior that stands out is that of Chikara  played by Japanese pop star Jin Akanishi. He is Ōishi’s son and Kai’s friend.

Disappointment comes quickly when you begin to realize that the best of the story and the best of the special effects are in the trailer.  I had hopes that this, the seventh attempt at bringing this classic Japanese story to the Western audienc, would be not only enjoyable but also interesting.  I am not sure where the fault lays for a lack of drive in "47 Ronin."  I am not sure whether the lack of focus belongs at the feet of director Carl Rinsch, or at the door of screen writers Chris Morgan, who was responsible for writing the "Fast & Furious" franchise films, and the Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy action-thriller, "Wanted."  Or, does the lack of drive and focus belong with screen writer Hossein Amini whose past credits include "Snow White and the Huntsman," "Drive," and "Killshot,” who came in for the rewrites to Reeve’s character.  Is it possible that the executives at Universal, in trying to please both foreign and domestic markets wanted a watered down formula story that they felt would appease the lowest common denominator.

The problem as I see it is that in its attempt to appeal to a Western audience, the focus was neither on story, nor the building of characters, but on some almost impressive special effects that are sparsely scattered throughout the film.  The action was predictable, and Kai's journey was not that of a hero, but that of a man of few words, who knows more than he is given credit for.  The visual effects, along with the action scenes, seem more like smoke and mirrors rather than having some solid purpose in the film other than just dazzle the audience.

A bright spot is John Mathieson’s beautiful cinematography.  Impressively beautiful shots of the landscape, dark and muted warm tones contrasted with cold blues.  The mood is set for an adventure that is bogged down immediately with unnecessary exposition.  Another area of kudos goes to Ilan Eshkeri's musical score.  Known for films such as "Centurion," "Kick-Ass," and “Stardust," Eshkeri brings a sense of soaring grandeur to an essentially mediocre action film.  

As I am not typically a fan of 3D, I cannot comment on the quality of the film in that format. However, I doubt that the introduction of 3D would do anything to improve the story. 
“47 Ronin” is not a bad film, it had potential for much more, but fails to deliver a compelling story.  Many will find it entertaining, but not epic.  Perhaps, like myself, they will feel that “47 Ronin” took itself too seriously in areas and with a loose sense of story and a cinematic direction that spreads itself too thin to keep an audience in that fantasy world where we all want to find ourselves while sitting in a dark theater on a Saturday afternoon.  Perhaps it would have been better to just leave out Keanu Reeves, tell a more literal tale of a historic event, leaving in the magic and witchcraft if you must, and dump the damsel in distress trope, but more importantly, let the Japanese tell us a classic tale of honor in their language with English subtitles.  By doing this, I think this film would’ve been more authentic with a sense of dignity that stories about the legendary Samurai deserve.


Movie Data

Genre: Action, Drama, Fantasy
Year:  2013
Staring: Keanu Reeves, Rinko Kikuchi, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Tadanobu Asano, Kō Shibasaki
Director: Carl Rinsch
Producer(s):  Pamela Abdy,Eric McLeod, Scott Stuber
Writer: Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini, Walter Hamada
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date:  12/25/2013

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