47 RONIN: I See Only Samurai Before Me

47 Ronin

47 Ronin (2013) – Directed by Carl Rinsch – Starring Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Kou Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Masayoshi Haneda, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

If you’re going to spend $200 million to make a movie, maybe you should hire someone who’s directed a movie before.

There are far more problems with 47 RONIN than Carl Rinsch’s limp direction, and there are no guarantees that an established director will automatically turn in a fantastic movie for your nearly half a billion dollars (see: Superman Returns, Green Lantern), but hiring a proven director has to build confidence with cast, crew, and studio.

While my only real interest is what ends up on the screen, when what ends up on the screen is a mess, it’s open game to go looking for answers. According to The Wrap, writing just after reshoots were finished, “The troubled 3D megaproduction has been taken over by Universal co-chairwoman Donna Langley, who is now overseeing the editing of the movie instead of the director. […] The movie wrapped up a series of reshoots in London about one week ago, the purpose of which was to recapture key close-ups of lead actor Keanu Reeves and put him back in the center of the action in the film’s most climactic scene.”

I have no idea whether Rinsch was “overwhelmed” during the filing of the movie, as the article argues, but if he was removed from the editing process, that shows the production was a mess, whether it was his fault or the studio’s. Clearly, artist and studio were not on the same page. The article states that Reeves’ character was absent during the final battle in the original shoot, and that, to me, seems like a problem that lies at the feet of the studio – why green light a script without its bankable international star present for the big finish? Or did Rinsch go rogue?

For what it’s worth, I thought the focus on Reeves and the love story hurt the film more than it helped it, so perhaps I would prefer a Director’s Cut from Rinsch. The film is called 47 RONIN, but the ronin are little more than background characters in the movie that bears their name, and the love story doesn’t work because the female lead is quickly neutered into a damsel in distress role. It also doesn’t help when the male half of the lead is functionally emotionless (not a fault of Reeves, but the role). Repressed emotions – especially those that are forced to be controlled by cultural restraints – can be a powerful narrative tool (see: Remains of the Day and The Age of Innocence) but they don’t happen on their own, and 47 RONIN (whether the blame lies with Rinsch or Universal) has no idea how to make these restraints work to the film’s advantage.

A simple suggestion: if the film had paired the cultural restraint with the frenetic action, both halves would have been helped by their opposite. We could have seen all of the pent-up emotions that the Japanese culture did not allow to come out to emerge in blazing glory in battle.

Instead, 47 RONIN plods forward like a kid who’s disappointed his parents by his life choices. The film clearly wants to be the story of Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the leader of the samurai turned Ronin after the government-directed suicide of their master, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). Whenever the Oishi narrative is front and center (which doesn’t really kick in until the movie is about 45 minutes old), 47 RONIN is a legitimately good movie. In fact, Sanada’s performance is so good that I’ll probably end up buying 47 RONIN when it hits the bargain bin, and why I’ll keep hoping that a Director’s Cut emerges that puts Oishi in the front of the movie.

Every time the movie starts to build momentum with Oishi, however, the film forces Reeves on us, again. I don’t think Reeves is a bad guy or a terrible actor, and if the film had focused its use of Reeves as the subjugated “half-breed,” his performance would have been a better help to the movie. Reeves tries to imbu Kai with that sense of forced restraint I mentioned earlier. As a child, he is given up by his mother to the forest, where he learns magical fighting skills before running away. He’s found by Lord Asano’s men and while the samurai want to kill him, Asano “sees something in him,” as the narrator tells us (yes, there’s a narrator to help you figure out what’s going on, because Universal thinks you’re in as over-your-head by the narrative as the director was), and he’s raised as a … as a …

Heck, I don’t know what he is. He’s accepted into the household but he lives in a dirty cabin in the woods and dresses like a Jedi and he goes on hunting parties where he’s allowed to track beasts but is otherwise treated as the Samurai’s cabin boy. Kai is the kind of expert tracker who can look at a twig or a leaf and understand where the animal is, what condition he’s in, and what his favorite color is. He also has a magical ability to age twice as fast as anyone around him; we see that he and Mika (Kō Shibasaki) are of similar age as kids, but when they grow up, she looks like she’s 20 and he looks like he’s old enough to have lapped her.

Tough life living in a cabin, one supposes.

There’s a plot involving Lord Kira’s takeover of Lord Asano’s domain, but Kira (Tadanobu Asano) is the kind of villain that is purely functional. He exists so we can watch the 47 Ronin storm the castle and the filmmakers can turn Mika into a damsel in need of rescue. Kira drops Oishi into a pit and sells Kai into slavery, where Oishi eventually finds him as a main attraction in a Dutch ship’s cosplay of Bloodsport. Kai is so out of it or enraged or whatever that he doesn’t recognize Oishi and-

Ugh.

It’s such a shame that the film turned out to be such a mess. There’s magic creatures running around when it’s convenient for them to be around and the story of the 47 Ronin is a powerful tale of honor and revenge in 18th-century Japan. But there’s no life to this film. It’s just ideas placed around each other, with few parts enhancing other parts of the narrative. The Ronin and the magical beasts feel like they’ve been pulled in from two completely different movies, and there’s few visuals that show any kind of style – it is, essentially, point and shoot filmmaking.

Way back in 2008, Variety reported that 47 RONIN “will tell a stylized version of the story, mixing fantasy elements of the sort seen in The Lord of the Rings pics, with gritty battle scenes akin to those in films such as Gladiator. I get that studios and the media like the high concept pitch because it creates a framework for people to understand a project, but why take the fantasy of Lord of the Rings and pair it with the action of Gladiator? Why? What was wrong with the action in Lord of the Rings? What was wrong with the non-action parts of Gladiator?

Of all the films that were released in 2013, I am the most disappointed in 47 RONIN. With such ripe material, the filmmakers botched the narrative, botched the visuals, and botched the movie going experience. This isn’t a movie, at all, but a pastiche of ideas cobbled together by people who don’t know how to tell a story, either in pictures or words.

I’ll likely watch 47 RONIN again, someday, but I bet I have the same reaction then as I did today: I wished I was watching The Man with the Iron Fists, instead.

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One thought on “47 RONIN: I See Only Samurai Before Me

  1. Funny you should say that last line…when I first saw the trailer for 47 RONIN I said to my wife; “It looks like Keanu Reeves watched THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS and said; ‘hey, that looks like fun’.”

    Like

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