It’s always a shame when a film’s financial failings eclipse the product itself. Worse still is the notion many people have that box office success equals a good film, a theory that has been disproven time and time again by things like the Transformers sequels. 47 Ronin is probably best known for bombing at the box office and costing Universal megabucks when it failed to attract both Eastern and Western audiences. Having not caught it at the cinema (like everyone else), I relished the opportunity to perhaps discover a hidden gem or a future cult classic. Unfortunately, it’s neither, but perhaps more interesting than it may first appear.
The film is based on a Japanese legend, telling the tale of a samurai army who lose their master and become lordless samurai, or ronin, and get involved in a revenge plot that would come to embody the samurai code of honour, bushidō. We follow Kai (Keanu Reeves), a “half-breed” man adopted, but not accepted into Lord Asano’s (Min Tanaka) domain of Ako. Ako is preparing for a visit from the powerful Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and the various other lords of the surrounding territories, including the scheming Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and his shape-shifting witch companion Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi). During the ceremonies, shit hits the fan and Asano takes the blame, resorting to seppuku (ritualistic suicide) to bring honour back to his province, leaving the army and their leader, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), masterless and banished from Ako. The cast are fine, but Reeves does nothing to answer his acting critics. Personally, I love the guy, but non-fans won’t have their opinions swayed by his performance as Kai, who becomes another sullen, barely vocal, disconnected character to add to Reeves’ IMDB page. I really enjoyed Hiroyuki Sanada as Oishi and the awesome Rinko Kikuchi (Mako Mori from Pacific Rim) gets to ham things up a little and give her best bastardly stuff as Mizuki.
Not being familiar with the legend, I looked it up as soon as the credits rolled and found the Wikipedia page more entertaining and informative. Many have criticised 47 Ronin for its inclusion of supernatural powers and mythical beasts into an historical event, but that didn’t bother me. It reminded me slightly of Zack Snyder’s 300, a film that also mixed the real with the fantastical to give the whole thing an exaggerated “story around the campfire” feel. What did bother me was the lack of any kind of pacing. Had I not known that the film had its problems in development including delays, an overblown budget and studio interference I would have been able to guess the hastily inserted scenes. They don’t gel with what’s come before and as a result, you can practically see the joins where a little moment here or a scene there have been carelessly stapled in. Apparently the film went through a lot of changes and reshoots. Reeves’ character wasn’t meant to be the lead, with Oishi being the primary focus. Looking at it, this makes perfect sense. He’s the one with the compelling arc. Instead we’re stuck with boring ol’ Kai who has (supposedly studio insisted) insipid love story to unemote his way through.
47 Ronin is a frustrating film because I really get the feeling there’s a great film in there somewhere buried underneath all the plodding pace and generic script additions. For one, it’s visually a stunner. Gorgeous vistas and glorious colours saturate the film and it certainly looks the part. The aesthetics are top notch with some amazing costumes on display. The effects aren’t bad either. Secondly, despite all the superfluous crap going on, the story is a properly compelling one. Had the film focused on Oishi, we’d be talking about a completely different film.
As it is, 47 Ronin isn’t good. It’s not utterly terrible as sites like Rotten Tomatoes would have you believe (at one point it was scoring less than Grown Ups 2, I mean, seriously- come on!) but it’s a mediocre plod. I was left rather embittered by the whole experience and therefore can’t recommend to many people.
Action, Adventure, Fantasy
BD/DVD Release Date:
12th May 2014(UK)
Keanu Reeves, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi, Hiroyuki Sanada, Mako Mori