Surprise, right? 47 Ronin isn’t all that good. And I’m sure some of you are wondering why anyone could possibly think a samurai movie starring Keanu Reeves would be.
I was one of you once. Then I saw the trailer, with the monsters; and the posters, with giant Silver Samurai Dude and Skeleton Tattoo Guy. And I kinda thought, “Great! They’re ignoring the historical event completely, and making some bizarre supernatural Seven Samurai instead.” You want to know how much Skeleton Tattoo Guy is in the movie? Maybe three shots. Not scenes: shots. What you see of him in the trailer is all you see in the movie. He is definitely not one of the 47 Ronin, who all dress identically and are mostly indistinguishable except for the fact that one of them is fat so they make fat jokes about him.
Yes, there are monsters. A giant elk/possum/dragon hybrid that Reeves fights in the beginning is easily the greatest thing in the movie, and worthy of appearing in a Japanese fantasy video game. He also fights a giant obese mutant, and there’s a sexy witch (Rinko Kikuchi) who becomes a dragon at times, an unoccupied CG floating dress at others. But when it comes down to it, the actual plot here is still based on history – sort of – and must therefore be about 47 masterless samurai avenging their lord’s death, after which they intend to commit ritual suicide, since said revenge will be dishonorable.
If you’d like to take a moment to point out that nobody who looked like Keanu Reeves was part of the original history, rare will be the responder who does not go “Duh!” Reeves is presumably added to the story – playing a half-demon orphan, no less – to give western audiences a familiar face, and somebody to relate to, because heaven forbid white audiences connect with Asian characters. But let’s grant that this was the hypothetical strategy, however misguided: Reeves was the wrong goddamned choice. I’m a guy who’ll defend him, by the way; I think when he plays characters who are detached or otherworldly, he can nail it. Making him the emotional center of a film so that, through his performance, we can understand the sacrifice and stakes? Really bad idea. He can’t play that.
Hope you weren’t expecting these exploding ships to get much screen time either.
I’ll say one thing for director Carl Rinsch – he periodically remembers that 3-D can be a fun gimmick, and sticks a few things out at the audience. This is, surprisingly to me, a lost art of sorts; nowadays, it’s like every director forced to use 3D is ashamed that it can be used to falsely threaten eye-pokage and projectile injury. They get all James Cameron-y, and are like, “Oh, it’s about enhancing the depth of the STORY, not some effects trick.” Fine, James Cameron, you get to say that. But somebody else needs to THROW SHIT AT THE CAMERA. There’s room for that in the marketplace of ideas, says I. Look at Alfonso Cuaron – he might win an Oscar for it.
Anyway, Reeves plays a guy called Kai, adopted by an aristocratic family in feudal Japan, wherein he falls for the princess not because of any genuine chemistry, but because the plot says so. He’s treated like crap by everyone even after he kills monsters, but then one day Shang Tsung comes to town (not really, but it is Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa, and he looks the part much more now than when he actually played it the first time) and wants to see some Mortaaaaal Kombaaaaaat! Anyway, some evil lord is visiting, and he’s in league with the aforementioned witch, who curses and poisons the champion from the House of Keanu, or whatever it’s called. But since the samurai armor hides most of the person inside, Reeves puts it on and pretends to be his boss for the sake of battle.
Is it racist to point out that since his eyes are showing even through the armor, you can tell he’s not Asian right off the bat? Just throwing that out there. Anyway, he gets caught and punished. Then later his lord gets bewitched and tries to kill his guest, Lord Evil Guy, but since trying to kill a guest is a worse crime than being evil, Emperor Shang Tsung makes him kill himself as penance. Then there are a bunch of fights, and Keanu goes to the demon forest to visit a genuinely scary owl man and get some swords. After that, there’s hanging out, fighting, hanging out, fighting…it seriously gets pretty boring for a 3-D movie about people killing each other with swords.
What sucks is that the production design and the creatures look really cool, and a quest narrative set in this world could have been a lot of fun, versus the tiresome set up of let’s go fight the bad guys, regroup, go fight them again, regroup, rinse, repeat. Also, for being half-demon, it’s pretty lame that Keanu only really uses that ability to score free weapons, and realize that a creepy looking fox is actually an evil thing (anyone who’s seen an Ylvis video knows that).
Ronin, consider yourself Accused (see what I did there?).
Of being dull.