Review – Not Quite A Cut Above The Rest (“47 Ronin”)

There’s nothing I like more than a kick-ass samurai film. Unfortunately, this one ain’t it.

Rule #17 in making a big Hollywood budget film: if your overseas picture is creeping toward the $200 million mark, you better have a big Hollywood star in it, or else nobody here is going to want to see it. That was the case with this Universal Picture. It seemed that unknown director Carl Erik Rinsch wasn’t gonna get by on his talent and name alone, so the big guns over at Universal decided to throw in a Hollywood star into his all-Japaneses cast as its selling point. Don’t ask me why they chose Keanu Reeves of all people, that was up to the casting gods… and what were THEY thinking?

As familiar as a Shakespearean tragedy, “47 Ronin” is actually based on a centuries-old Japanese fantasy tale that’s been told and re-told throughout their generations. Long ago and during feudal Japanese times, we are introduced to Kai (Reeves), ahalf-British, half-Japanese boy with a secret dark past that, having escaped from some questionable place, is taken in by the kindly Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). But being a “half-breed”, he is ostracized and treated like an outcast, except for Asano’s beautiful daughter, Mika (Kou Shibasaki) who has fallen in love with him. But that’s not a good thing, especially since she’s betrothed to her father’s #1 samurai and head of his army, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Oh yes, Kai’s crazy for her too, but their love can never be since she’s of royal blood and he’s forced to live as an outsider.

During a visit by the supreme Shogun of Japan (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), Lord Asano suddenly attacks the Shogun’s nasty pervert of a son, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) while under the spell of Muzuki (Rinko Kikuchi), Lord Kia’s secretive witch and partner-in-crime. When Lord Asano is forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) to save his honor and his lands, that leaves his personal samurai without a master and not only labeled “ronin”, but banished as well. 

Worse yet, the Shogun
orders that Mika is to wed his real-piece-of-work son in one year’s time. In a move to show who’s boss, Lord Kira (being a real dick) throws Oishi down a pit for a year to break his spirit and sells Kai off into slavery. But, never fear, a year passes and Oishi gets out and assembles his old gang back along with Kai to take revenge on Lord Kira and rescue the girl! Kai then reveals he was, in fact, raised and trained by magical demons and gives the 47 hope to storm the castle on the eve of Mika’s wedding by giving them all magical samurai swords! 

The climatic battle at the end is a whirlwind of swords and arrows as samurai’s fight each other and Kai squares off against the evil Muzuki, who pulls a Maleficent and turns herself into a huge white dragon/serpent/”Neverending Story” Falcor-looking thingy. The ending, which is unbelievably sad and tragic, is not at all what I expected, but after all, this is part of the legendary Japanese tragedy, so…Screenplay adapted by Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini, this character driven story is much different that your basic hyper-slashing, blood-letting samurai sword-slasher movie that you would think. In fact, this movie has almost no blood shown on the screen! Literally none! With an all English-speaking cast, the sad thing about this movie is the thought that it had to have an American actor thrown into the mix it “to make it work”. Keanu Reeves was not exactly the best choice for this part, sad to say, but his time on screen is limited, which is a saving grace.

Director Rinsch has a great eye and directs with such ease that it’s remarkable that this his very first full-length movie. Yes, it is slow and plodding at times, but on the plus side, it does have dramatic storytelling and wonderful cinematography by John Mathieson, and incredible production designs and sets which are awesome. It takes about an hour and fifteen minutes for any real action to happen, but if you wait around a bit, you’ll be treated to some decent samurai sword action.

The CG effects are of particular note here as well, not to mention the terrific acting of the principle actors (no, not Reeves). Look for Gedde Watanabe (who played drunk foreign exchange student, Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles“) in a small cameo as an actor in a traveling entertainment show.

In the world of samurai movies, I have seen some spectacular films both from the American side and the Japanese side, dubbed and non-dubbed. Although there are way too many for me to put into print here, I’ll give you my top five samurai films that are definitely worth watching, and why.

Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004)

Quentin Tarantino’s two-part tale of ultimate vengeance with a samurai sword. Macabre humor with an extraordinary amount of blood gushing all wrapped around amazing Uma Thurman and her trusty Hattori Hanzo sword. Her battle (i.e. massacre) with the Crazy 88’s at the House of Blue Leaves, then a mano-a-mano confrontation with O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), is the highlight of Volume 1. In my opinion, this is Tarantino’s finest masterpiece of cinematic melding of beauty and violence, next to his “Inglorious Basterds“.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 black and white classic that set the standard for every movie after it for any plot that had to do with a group of mercenaries helping out a town or people in need. An astonishing revelation in film; it is a cinematic achievement that should be watched by everyone.

The Last Samurai (2003)

A brilliant script with an equally brilliant cast, led by Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, and “47 Ronin’s” Hiroyuki Sanada, light up the screen with a deeply visceral movie about one man’s struggle against his own personal demons. Sure it’s a “Dances With Wolves”/”Avatar” redux, but the acting, directing, and cinematography is just so freaking good! And who knew Cruise could pull off speaking fluent Japanese and wielding a samurai sword like a pro?

Hero (2002)

Rarely have I seen samurai film this good with such high production values. Starring Jet Li, Tony Leung, and Maggie Cheung, and told in backwards fashion, a lone nameless assassin recounts to a King (whom he’s supposed to murder), what led him up to this point. The script, along with the beautiful cinematography and wire work stunts, is genuinely breathtaking.

Shogun Assassin (1980)

Also known as “the baby cart series”, this Japanese movie features Lone Wolf, a lone samurai warrior and his little two-year-old son, Cub, who also narrates the movie. Lone Wolf takes his kid from village to village in a specially equipped wooden baby carriage, while seeking furious vengeance and cutting a swath from attacking assassins. While the plot of the movie is negligible, the blood-splurting and decapitations are oh-so frequent and oh-so ridiculous, that it becomes comical, even laughable at the amount of arterial spray and limbs being hacked off.

And don’t get me started on the hokey dubbed dialogue! Hoo-boy! Like this, for example: “When cut across the neck, a sound like wailing winter winds is heard, they say. I’d always hoped to cut someone like that someday, to hear that sound. But to have it happen to my own neck… is ridiculous!”