Thursday, January 2, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: 47 Ronin

47 Ronin was directed by Carl Erik Rinsch and written by Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini. Morgan was the screen writer of five of the Fast & Furious movies. Talk about strange bedfellows!

The film had a very long and tortuous journey to the screen, which is never a good sign. It was first announced way back in 2008, but due to various delays, filming didn't begin until 2011. Then reshoots were ordered in August 2012 to increase Keaunu Reeve's starring role. The release was then postponed twice, as Universal kept tinkering with the film, changing the direction of the storyline and calling in multiple editors to work on it. It finally premiered on Christmas day, 2013.  

The film reportedly cost a whopping $175 million, an amount due in part to the boneheaded decision to shoot it in detestable 3D.  So far the movie has only grossed around $25 million. Yikes!

The movie is based on the true story of Japan's 47 Ronin, which happened in the early 1700s. Every year on December 14 there's a festival to commemorate the event, held at the Sengaku-ji Buddhist temple where the Ronin are buried.

What's that? You didn't know this was a true story? Well, I can understand that, seeing as how this version is long on fantasy elements and peppered with ki-rin, tengu and witches.

The filmmakers obviously wanted a Lord Of The Rings style fantasy set in Feudal Japan, which is a pretty cool idea. Maybe they should have written an original story though instead of trying to graft monsters onto an event that actually happened. It's a bit jarring at times as the director never quite found the right balance between realism and fantasy.

47 (or fewer) SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Plot:
A half Japanese, half British outcast named Kai (Keaunu Reeves) is taken in and raised by Lord Asano. A ruthless leader named Lord Kira kills Asano and banishes his army of now leaderless samurai (or Ronin). 

The 47 Ronin, along with Kai, vow to seek vengeance on Lord Kira for the unjust death of their master. They succeed, but according to the strict code of the samurai, must commit ritual suicide for their actions.

• I bet every single special effects scene in the film is in the movie's trailer. When I first saw the preview I thought the movie was going to be a Tolkein-esque fantasy, packed wall to wall with fantastical creatures and magical characters. Nope! There are some monsters and magic scattered throughout the film, but far less than the trailer would have you believe. False advertising!

• I'm impressed that the majority of the cast (except for Keanu Reeves of course) is actually Japanese. 

• That said, I wish they'd have hired actors who were fluent in English or better yet, let them speak Japanese and then subtitled them. 

Many of the Japanese actors didn't speak English at all and had to learn their lines phonetically, which is never a good thing. It was extremely difficult (for me anyway) to understand what some of the characters were saying.

• I fully understand that any time a story features 47 (or in this case, more) characters, there's no way you're going to be able to develop them all. But c'mon! We never get to know anyone in this movie. 

Pretty much all of the characters can be reduced to a one or two word descriptions. There's Keanu, Main Guy, Main Guy's Wife, Fat Guy, Witch Lady, Old Guy With Headband… and those are the main characters! The rest of the 47 Ronin are little more than set decoration.

If we don't know the characters, then we can't care about them, and if we don't care about them-- why should be be concerned when they die?

• Why is Keanu Reeves in this film? I don't remember any mystical half breed outcast in any version of the 47 Ronin that I've read. Plus last time I checked he's not Japanese. 

The answer? Because he's the "American gateway" to the story. If it's just a bunch of Japanese people running around, Americans won't go see it. But if you graft a "half-breed" English character into the story, now they'll pay attention. At least that's what Universal would have you believe.

• See that guy on the right hand side of the poster with the skull-head tattoos? Are you intrigued by his character and somewhat sinister look? Well, that's too damned bad. He's in the movie for literally fifteen seconds. That's more than enough time to be featured prominently on the advertising materials, right?

By the way, Skull-Head Guy is played by Rick Genest, and he's not wearing any makeup. Those are real tattoos and he looks like that in real life. I'm guessing they probably had to cover up the large "biohazard" logo in the middle of his chest, since that likely didn't exist in 1700s Feudal Japan.

• I was already familiar with the story of the 47 Ronin and knew that it ends with everyone killing themselves. All through the movie I kept thinking, "There's no way they're gonna go through with it, they're gonna chicken out and change the ending." This is Hollywood after all, the place that doesn't believe in downer endings. The Hollywood that infamously changed the ending of the Demi Moore version of The Scarlett Letter to give it a happy ending.

So I was very, very surprised when the film actually did end with the ritual suicide of the 47 Ronin. Even Keanu Reeves' grafted-on character 

Well done, Hollywood. I'm impressed that you had the guts (heh) to go through with the proper ending.

• At the end of the film the 47 Ronin are all kneeling on blankets on the palace lawn, ready to commit seppuku. Um... so who's gonna cut off all their heads? That's a big part of the ceremony. 

See, when you commit seppuku you plunge a blade into your gut, slide it from left to right to disembowel yourself, then you lean forward so your pal can decapitate you before you suffer too much.

There are no, um, decapitators anywhere to be seen here, so I guess the 47 Ronin had to painfully die over a period of hours (or days!) as they slowly bled out from their belly wounds. Grisly!

A fantasy-fueled retelling of a real-life tale, the 47 Ronin suffers from the intrusion of an English character, nonexistent characterization and a muddled tone. I give it a B-.

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