Last Samurai meets Wuxia to decent (3D notwithstanding) effect
Almost universally critically derided, and a Box Office bomb not only in the US, but also in Japan – which is particularly worrying for a film where the cast is predominantly Japanese – very few positive words have been said about what is essentially Keanu Reeves’s biggest film since the Matrix saga.Yet there is a lot to enjoy, if you broaden / lower your expectations. Blending a Japanese variant on the Chinese Wuxia-style fantasy, period adventure, and sword-based martial arts combo, with a Last Samurai-esque tale of a foreigner, out of his depth amidst a tightly-knit warrior clan, who have little time for him, and even less respect, but who – when it comes time to fight – are prepared to accept him amongst their numbers, allowing him the opportunity to finally prove his worth, 47 Ronin attempts to have its cake and eat it. And that’s probably its biggest flaw. Almost everything about the production – which was notoriously troubled, pushing the release date back not once, but twice, and undergoing reshoots in the meantime – smacks of compromise.What the film really needed to do is go full tilt and become pure Wuxia fantasy, but it holds back its own characters until the last possible moment, instead throwing ostensibly real-life 18th Century samurai into a fantastical situation. It should have either adapted the tale in the Brotherhood of the Wolf kind-of way, where it’s clearly fictional, but nothing is completely out of the realms of the known world; or, alternatively, gone pure fantasy and had its villains and heroes, painted as larger than life, running-up-walls characters a la Crouching Tiger, who wield magical swords against mystical enemies. Either way would have worked out far more successfully than this, and both ways would have been enhanced by being presented in Japanese rather than English.
That said, if you can accept the fact that this is more of a melting pot of ideas... you might forgive its flaws in favour of the opportunity to watch something a little different.
The fusion is apparent throughout: the very traditionally historical tale of the real 47 ronin has been vastly embellished for the sake of modern Peter Jackson-familiar audiences, and now features CG giants, super-sized Samurai, and witches that can turn into huge fire-breathing dragons. Although the cast is almost exclusively Japanese, with Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine, The Last Samurai) in what is usually the lead role of the 47 Ronin tale, the real star is obviously now the more Western-friendly Reeves; the language is predominately English, and the poster for the movie now involves the giant Samurai, Reeves, a famous US tattooed man named Rick Genest (who is in the film for about 3 seconds), and – as the only token Japanese cast member promoted – the girl from Pacific Rim, Rinko KiKuchi. Hell, these four even have their own separate character posters. I guess nobody thought that US audiences would care for the other 46 samurai. Which is a shame.
The tale posits Reeves’s in the kind of outcast role Toshiro Mifune made famous in Seven Samurai, and it works very well, with him more than happy to stand back and let the other actors – and characters – take centre-stage, which, strangely, only gives him a greater presence. Reeves is on better form than he has been since the first Matrix film (The Man of Tai Chi notwithstanding), and the character construction is actually fairly convincing – certainly enough to allow you to suspend disbelief, and accept that he is involved with this bunch of samurai (the real 47 ronin famously included a 47th member who was reputedly not of the same origin as the others) – and reminds us that he can easily make for a thoroughly engaging lead.
And for those who aren’t so familiar with the tales of the 47 Ronin, this particularly fantastical chapter is a strangely effective introduction, even with its Lord of the Rings embellishments.
Similarly, those who generally eschewed the surge of Chinese Wuxia that spread like wildfire around the Crouching Tiger era back at the turn-of-the-Millennium (which encompassed the likes of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower) might find this considerably more accessible. For starters, it’s English language, but also it’s not in the least bit comedic, something which plenty of other comparable East-meets-West US cross-over productions felt was strangely mandatory. Unfortunately, foreign cinema purists – and, indeed, apparently the population of Japan itself – appear to have, conversely, shunned the film for being far too tepid; too sit-on-the-fence in its construction. Which is fair enough, but the intention was admirable; after all, a wholly Japanese-language production, sans Reeves, may have been far more traditional, and probably considerably better, but it would have also probably alienated wider audiences and distributors alike, and never seen the light of day in Western cinemas beyond limited art-house showings.
What the film certainly needed was a higher rating; this is, after all, a story of masterless samurai and mass seppuku – and yet screen blood-letting is almost non-existent, with most of the violence off-screen or suggested. I know that, these days, it is universally accepted that if you want a decent budget, then you need to comply with the restrictions of a PG-13 rating, but it is truly hard to comply with that and still make an effective samurai tale (even Cruise’s The Last Samurai was R-rated).
Yet debut director Carl Erik Rinsch still does his best with the material, and it must have been a tough ask – for your first film – to take a historical tale as popular as this and inject witches and giants into it. Zack Snyder probably could have pulled it off more assuredly, at least in the style of Miller’s 300 – which is what the 47 Ronin occasionally feels like – but Rinsch was under obligation to instead balance reality with fantasy, and did so as best as he could..
The cast of Japanese actors commit to the film as if it were a more traditional telling of the material.
The cast also commit themselves utterly to their respective roles, which must have similarly been a tough ask – you have to wonder whether they knew precisely what they were getting into when they signed up; originally this was supposed to be just another retelling of the classic 47 tale, before it got pumped full of Tolkein sorcery. Hirokiyu Sanada (Twilight Samurai, The Wolverine, Sunshine) could have easily played it in precisely the same way in a straight period retelling – sans CG giants – i.e. a kind-of English-language 13 Assassins, and he has the presence to have led the other 46, were it not for the requisite Hollywood tinkering. Conversely Tadanobu Asano (Battleship, Thor 1 & 2) slips easily over to the dark side for his villainous turn here, playing it with the same relish that he did opposite Beat Takeshi Kitano in Zatoichi.
Filling out the rest of the Japanese cast are Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Rising Sun, Licence to Kill, Memoirs of a Geisha) brings suitable presence to his role as the Shogun and Ko Shibasaki (who Western audiences may only know from her role as the sadistic schoolgirl killer in Battle Royale) is well chosen as an effective love interest. All of these Japanese actors invest in their parts with dedication and the kind of resolute commitment commensurate to a more traditional telling of the material. Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi also excels as the seductive shape-shifting witch, exuding dark sensuality and understated menace; one has to wonder how audiences would have reacted to her in ‘Rim had 47 Ronin been released first, as was planned.
It’s also great seeing Reeves back in action. Whilst far from the greatest actor, he is engaging nonetheless, and age has only afforded him a more satisfying presence, more assuredness and less noticeable surfer-dude characteristics, which previously invaded even his most famous work as Neo. Here he is much more suitably reserved; remarkably well-chosen for such an important role, but never prone to grandstanding or his more traditional ‘dumb’ acting. Indeed, it’s only a shame that they restrained his character quite so much as, even with magical swords and unspoken powers, we don’t get to see him fully let loose until the film is all-but over. Speaking for a distinct minority, I enjoyed him so much here that it’s a shame we’ll likely never see any kind of a sequel or continuation of the character.
Pointless 3D implementation at least does not adversely affect the film.
Notwithstanding all the Pirates of the Caribbean-esque, or Lord of the Rings-ian nods, there are still plenty of really enjoyable moments, whether it’s in the first act hunt, or the face-off against the super-sized samurai; the over-in-the-blink-of-an-eye five-on-one village take-down; or the excellent little side-quest to obtain weapons – and, of course, the epic conclusion which, whilst never giving the same sense of suicidal sacrifice as you might expect (although, in reality, the 47 planned their attack exquisitely, and suffered few losses as a result, the film may have had more impact if it had detoured from this depiction), has a very satisfying double-ended climax, which centres on delivering effective conclusions both in real combat and a more fantastical clash. Sure, the film has utterly forgettable 3D implementation - and is, shamefully, being promoted in theatres almost exclusively in its 3D guise - but at least the added dimension doesn't detract from the more grand flourishes.
For all its flaws, I find myself surprisingly forgiving towards 47 Ronin’s intentions, perhaps not wholly unlike those who spoke out in support of the box office disaster that was John Carter. It’s a shame that a more experienced hand wasn’t behind the camera, that the production wasn’t mottled by – no doubt – invasive studio exec demands and limitations/expectations set by both rating and the arena that they were hoping that the film would play in (it’s a challenge appealing to the ‘Rings audience with what is, ostensibly, a samurai film, and, conversely, a risk trying to appeal to the samurai audience with a fantasy). But beyond the bad judgment calls and unusual blend of disparate ingredients lies a heart that is most certainly in the right place and, if you’re prepared to accept the unusual mix, a welcome little period fantasy adventure which, at the very least, will hopefully put Reeves back centre-stage, where many have missed him being.
Expect nothing but the unexpected, go along with its potentially jarring shifts from reality to fantasy, and engage with its underlying themes of loyalty, respect, revenge and honourable death.
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