Sunday, January 5, 2014

47 Ronin

Alternate Title:  Dude, Where's My Honor?

One sentence synopsis:  The former Samurai of a betrayed and dishonored Lord must take revenge against the men who betrayed him with the assistance of a half-breed with demonic power.

Things Havoc liked:  It's a fair question to ask what I was doing seeing this movie at all, frankly, but to be honest, while I don't go out of my way to see bad movies, I felt that the year, and with it, my worst of the year list, would not be complete without going to see a film I knew was going to be terrible, but perversely kind of wanted to see anyway. Keanu Reeves as The Last Samurai taking on one of the great staples of classical Japanese mythology is precisely the sort of colossal trainwreck that appeals to the part of me that enjoys rubbernecking at traffic accidents. And so it was, on the last night of 2013, that I sat down to find out where on my list of the worst films of the year, this wondrous disaster belonged.

Turns out? Nowhere.

Don't get me wrong, this is not some hidden gem destined for cult classic status, but given the trailers I saw for this film, to say nothing of the noted shortcomings of its primary star, I expected a disaster of cataclysmic proportions, and while it is shaping up to be one of the biggest bombs in history (as of this writing, it's about $175,000,000 in the red), the movie is nowhere near as bad as its previews made it out. And one of the biggest reasons? Keanu Reaves isn't the main star.

No, the star of this film is Hiroyuki Sanada, of Sunshine, The Last Samurai, and most recently, The Wolverine (we'll forgive him that one), here playing Oishi, the leader of the 47 Ronin, former samurai of noble Lord Asano, who is betrayed and disgraced by his arch-rival, the evil Lord Kira. The decision to focus heavily upon Oishi rather than Reeves' character (whom we'll get to), was a terrifying one for the studios, who fired the director and edited the movie with re-shoots designed to bulk up Keanu's presence. Even with them however, the fundamental premise of focusing on the guy who is actually important instead of the guy who's the box office draw is a daring one, something you rarely see in Hollywood, and given that Sanada is a fine actor who delivers a performance that's actually convincing, I can't fault the logic here. Sanada's character is rather broadly drawn, but then Samurai movies have never been venues for subtlety, and his presence on screen is formidable, whether he's peremptorily issuing orders to subordinates or donning a disguise so as to get close to his hated archenemy and kill him. Indeed, so central and overarching is his role, that of course he was left completely off of the movie poster and barely appeared in the trailers, a decision that plainly has nothing whatsoever to do with the studio's desire to twist the movie somehow into being about the token white guy.

But speaking of the token white guy, Keanu isn't bad this time round. Channeling more of his Constantine performance than his Matrix one, he remains the morose, barely-emoting, monotone surfer that we all know and love, but his fighting skills still remain intact, and the script puts few demands on him that exceed his range. Moreover, despite my assumptions, the film actually bothers to give us a plausible explanation for why a white guy is running around in Tokugawa-era Japan. It's a contrived explanation, certainly, but it's there. Keanu overall manages to at least not detract from the film, and a few of his fight sequences actually show real skill.

Overall the rest of the movie more or less follows the above theme, not great, not necessarily all that good, but much better than a movie like this should expect to have. The plot is straightforward and gets across the essence of the story without too much of a need for additional puppies for the main bad guy to kick. The scenery is lush and vivid, from dark mountain fortresses to verdant forests to beautifully-appointed temple-cities full of the obligatory Chrysanthemum blossoms. The always awesome Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (better known as Shang Tsung from Mortal Kombat), shows up to lend his gravitas to the role of the Shogun of Japan, grimacing disappointedly as only he is capable of. Finally, while I normally don't give away the endings of films in these reviews, let me just say that I was astonished that the filmmakers, whoever they were, actually had the courage to present us with the ending we got, something I would not have expected from a western, Hollywood studio, and which certainly earns the film a point or two in my book.

Things Havoc disliked:  Please do not mistake my effusive prose as an attempt to indicate that this film is some awesome, buried treasure.

For one thing, despite a 200 million + budget, the effects in this movie are shockingly poor. Makeup and practical work does fine, but the CG creatures that our heroes must deal with or battle look like something that would have been laughed off the set of The Scorpion King. A mystical white fox, appearing several times throughout the early part of the film, is particularly poor, to the point where I first mistook it for a wolf, and then later wondered if there wasn't some stylistic choice ala Who Framed Roger Rabbit going on. Alas, no. Just lazy CGI.

But it's not just the fake characters that are unconvincing. One of the two main villains of the piece is an evil witch named Mizuki, played by Pacific Rim's own Rinko Kikuchi. The best I can say for Kikuchi's performance is that it's miles away from the shrinking violet she played in Pacific Rim, but alas, this sort of vampish role also proves to be beyond her powers. She plays the character completely over the top, like a bad cartoon version of some evil Dragon Lady (literally, as it happens), all wide eyes and sultry expressions and desire to do evil apparently for the sake of doing evil and being oh so devilishly in love with the concept. Maybe in a camp film this might have worked, but the rest of the cast plays the film sermon-straight (Keanu, as we all no, could not play camp if one provided him with a tent and sleeping bag), resulting in a terrible tonal clash whenever she appears on film.

There's also the question of the love story, a superfluous man/woman of different stations tale dropped on top of the original 47 Ronin story with a very audible thud. The film manages to sequester the majority of this plot to the first third or so of the film, which is fine, except it results in Keanu being forced to do absurdly stupid things that he knows cannot possibly end well for him just so that the plot can continue to flow. I know that Hollywood demands a love story in everything, even classical Japanese Samurai tales, but that doesn't make this any better of an idea, and given that Keanu and his love interest Mika (Kou Shibasaki) have no chemistry whatsoever, one wonders why it was included at all.

Final thoughts:   Actually that's a lie, because I happen to know exactly why the love story was included. Apparently Director Carl Erik Rinsch was summarily removed from the project when Universal saw the rough cut of his film, and discovered to their horror that it included neither a love story, nor all that much of Keanu Reeves, their bankable (?) star. In a desperate effort to suck whatever creativity had previously existed in the film right out of it, they mandated reshoots to add in more Keanu, more love story, and more crazy evil witch, which, if you've been paying attention, were all elements in the film that did not work. The result is that 47 Ronin is a film that probably could have worked had the Director been allowed to make the rather surprisingly stripped-down version that he was apparently set on making. Unfortunately, the seams of the welding job done by Universal, to say nothing of the actual qualities of the crap they added in, conspire to eliminate that. It's still nothing close to the disaster that I confidently predicted going in, but all it serves to prove now is that Universal's studio heads are tasteless clods, and that your movie is unlikely to fly when you arbitrarily solder lead weights to it. Frankly, neither of these facts were really up for debate.

Final Score:  5/10

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