I was fortunate enough to go to a pre-screening of trailers for movies to be released in 2014 a few months ago and squealed like a little pig when I saw the extended trailer for Carl Rinsch’s 47 Ronin. It looked like everything I could dream of. Samurai, katanas that zinged, fantastic demons and magic! To my friends I likened it to a sort of hybrid between Conan the Barbarian and my all-time-favourite Zatoichi (The Blind Swordsman). Instead what I got was a mishmash of The Last Airbender and Pathfinder. What could have been a decent Samurai fantasy is split at the seams by inconsistent focus, poor character development (read: none), and so many failed opportunities it would have Donald Trump screaming ‘You’re fired!’
Loosely based on the legend of the 47 Ronin who avenge their master, the new adaptation suffers from the producers’ insistence that ‘The One’ Keanu Reeves take the centre stage, when the story is actually about Oishi, played by Hiroyuki Sanada (Wolverine, upcoming Helix). Indeed the first half of the movie IS about Oishi and his mission to avenge his master who is wrongly forced by a witch’s machinations to commit seppuku.
Kai, Reeve’s character, is a halfbreed, someone brought up by demons and as such possesses some of their powers (which we are only teased with). This makes him visually more appealing than the humans so at any opportunity he is called upon to flair for the audience. But that is just it; it’s just flair. Don’t get me wrong, the fight scenes are more than competently put together but their relevance seems contrived, if not completely irrelevant at times. For example, we have Reeves help out our weapon-less Samurai by fighting 10 people and claiming their tools of destruction. But this isn’t enough. Next we need to have a battle with some monks (the ones who brought him up and are in need of some serious facial surgery) in order to get better, supernatural weapons. You can feel that this scene was originally put together to only include a test for Oishi but someone decided let’s have Kai break out some moves to make it look cool – which it does but to the detriment of the story. This side-lining of the main character gets very repetitive and frustrating and breaks the story into small little episodes that feel like a youtube series.
This also leads me to one of my biggest gripes about the movie and that is you don’t care one bit about the characters. I think the writers try and hide behind the idea that Samurai do not show their emotions to cover a shallow script, but then you have a scene where a fatty Samurai bathing is the comic relief; placed to lighten the tone, in a SAMURAI MOVIE!? To say it stands out like a sore thumb would lose the opportunity to include how said sore thumb was lobbed off with one of the super sharp katanas!
It is very obvious that the script was hacked up and put back together more times than Frankenstein’s monster; production issues coupled with the producers’ concerns that the movie wouldn’t be universally accepted (it wasn’t), the sudden desire to make it 3D (which really doesn’t work as 3/4 of the movie is set in the dark), and the desire to change the original script so that Reeves was more integral did the movie no favours. And I know it is superficial when faced with all of the above, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that had the whole cast used Japanese instead of poorly articulated English it would have added a much-needed level of depth and immersion.
So far it isn’t looking good for a movie I really wanted to win, but I do have to point out some elements that were done quite well. Firstly there are some amazing set pieces. The colours used, sets and costumes are at times breathtaking. Some of the fights scenes are a lot of fun but as said above fall short where they could have soared. In the first scene we are treated to, I was reminded of the fight scenes from Avatar which had the audience punching the air with a ‘hu ha’. Then there is Kai. I think Reeves did a very good job in convincing us of his fighting ability and it shows that he spent a long time training for the movie. However, he is a flipping halfbreed demon with magical powers, yet we only see these manifest in him moving like an oil painting and cutting fire? They could have done a great deal more. Lastly the dragon was beautifully done and acted out by a convincingly freaky Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim).
When I walked out of the cinema I thought to myself that was a fun movie but as the hours ticked by I increasingly became agitated that I had been taken for a ride, and a bumpy one at that. I also became aware that what I had just watched was slipping my mind, like I had just woken from some weird dream where I/they/he/she were the lead character. What happened again? Who were the characters? Why didn’t they do this instead of that? It didn’t really matter in the end as the whole thing was a katana-dripping bloody mess. A crying shame for a movie that should have been the Lord of the Rings of Samurai and not the Starship Troopers 3 of space marines.
Last Updated: January 8, 2014