Sunday, December 29, 2013

47 Ronin / ** (PG-13)

Kai: Keanu Reeves
Ôishi: Hiroyuki Sanada
Lord Kira: Tadanobu Asano
Mika: Kô Shibasaki
Witch: Rinko Kikuchi
Lord Asano: Min Tanaka
Chikara: Jin Akanishi

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Carl Rinsh. Written by Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini & Walter Hamada. Running time: 119 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, and thematic elements).

Roger Ebert states in the introduction to his third book of only negative reviews, “A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length: More Movies That Suck”, the second to his joy of writing about a great movie is his joy with writing about terrible movies. He says the movies that are really no fun to write about are the mediocre movies. He’s on to something there. In many ways, that also goes for the experience of watching them. With great movies, it’s almost like you’ve won the lottery. “Wow, that money I spent really paid off.” With a terrible movie there’s a sense of superior satisfaction that you’ve bothered to pay for such misery. “Ha! I saw it and I survived!” But, with a middle of the road movie, it just feels like that money and time could’ve been better spent.

Despite negative reviews and a washout at the box office for the $175 million project, I decided to take pity on the new Keanu Reeves starring “47 Ronin”. I figured on the satisfaction of experiencing a terrible movie or the insight of seeing something great that nobody else had noticed. Unfortunately, I should’ve saved my money and time. It isn’t a terrible movie, but it isn’t any good either.

The movie tells the tale “of all of Japan.” Whatever that means. Taking place in feudal times in the province of Akô under the rule of the benevolent Lord Asano, one day a mysterious “half-breed” boy is found in the province. Asano’s samurai servants hate the boy, Kai; but Asano and his daughter, Mika, take the boy in. The samurais’ hatred is never really explained beyond the fact that half-breeds seem to be looked down upon in general. One samurai identifies him as a daemon. Kai later displays traits of a supernatural creature, but claims not to be a daemon. Although his abilities are eventually explained, it’s never really clarified whether or not he is a so-called daemon.

Years later, the evil Lord Kira has designs on taking Akô from Asano. He works with a Witch to trick Asano into disgracing himself during a gathering of dignitaries for the Emperor at Akô. Asano is sentenced to seppuko—death by his own hand. His samurai are left masterless, giving them the disgraced status of ronin. Mika is promised in marriage to Kira, and Kai is sold into slavery. The ronin swear revenge for their master’s demise and free Kai to help them.

The story of the 47 Ronin is well known in Japanese mythology. It has been told before cinematically in the 1941 Japanese film “The 47 Ronin”. The new Hollywood version tells the tale in a much different way than it has been told before—as a fantasy special effects extravaganza. There are strange creatures, a forest of snake men monks and a giant samurai working for Kira. No explanation of any of these things is ever offered. It’s just accepted that these things exist. These supernatural elements a not merely accepted, they’re given little consideration by the heroes of the film at all, as if they are just as expected as rain and sun. Many of the effects involved in creating these creatures might be awe inspiring if they created any sense of awe in the heroes.

No one seems to have any feeling about each other either beyond those that serve the plot. Kai is in love with Mika and she with him for no apparent reason beyond the fact that they cannot ever act upon these feelings. Much in the same way the samurai hate Kai, there seems no real emotions behind this love. The characters only claim to have these feelings because that’s what the script tells them. Even the villain doesn’t really seem to have much reason to want to rule Akô. He already rules his own province and no reason is ever given for him to desire more power than he already wields. I half expected him to turn to the leader of the ronin during the final battle and say, “It’s OK. I didn’t really want your land anyway. Sorry, about your boss.”

I’m a big fan of samurai movies. Watching this one got me thinking about other movies I’d rather be watching. “13 Assassins” was the last great samurai film I saw. That was a film filled with passion. Even quieter samurai films, like “The Twilight Samurai”, involve a great deal more passion than this one did. In fact, passion seems to be a key element in samurai films, yet it’s utterly lacking here. The samurai are so ruled by their code that their emotions are often kept in check. That inner struggle seems to be the primary basis for any samurai film. This one is more intent to embrace the fantasy elements it has shoehorned into this story. I’d very much like to see this story done without any special effects whatsoever. In this form, however, I’d like my time back.

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