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It’s a fairly colorful film.

2013 has been a pretty great year for movies. So great that I think the haters are really trying hard to hate when they can while the pickings are slim. Most of the really badmouthed movies are movies like Man of Steel, which is simply not as good as it should have been due to a few grievous errors in an otherwise good film. To me, this is a pretty grave sin when it’s traceable to bad decisions, or any decisions at all. Bad writing also kills an otherwise good movie. I almost always prefer to waste my time writing about those kinds of movies than I do about the movies that just don’t care. There are movies that are little more than cynical consumer fluff occupying each year’s slot for Dance Movie, Talking Animal Movie, or Adam Sandler Hates You Movie (occasionally we get multiples of these in a year, oh joy!).

Then there’s stuff that doesn’t quite fit in. 47 Ronin is one of those awkward movies that you don’t cringe at half as much as you do at the people writing about it. Like World War Z, this is a movie that was either butchered or saved in the editing room (my opinion is that it was the former). Unfairly maligned almost as much as that movie, 47 Ronin is simply “not as bad as people are saying”. It’s pretty solid, really. It could have and should have been much, much better. There are little glimmers of that better movie, and there are also a great many moments of nuance, technical flare, and so on. These are the things that make a movie like this fascinating to me, rather than disappointing. If 47 Ronin had bigger names behind the camera, rather than first-timers like Carl Rinsch, it would not be able to sidestep more damning criticism. As it is, it’s a movie that was taken away from its director after the shoot, with a gun-for-hire editor brought on to “fix it”. It’s hard, when you know shit like this going in, to not let it mitigate your expectations and critical responses to a film. The same thing happened with World War Z.

Most of this review is going to focus on 47 Ronin‘s problems. This is because it has many. That said, it is watchable and entertaining and occasionally cool. The barriers to entry are all stupid, and the problems it actually has require watching it and engaging with it as a narrative and as a film, subject to the rules and techniques that govern those things.

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In many ways, 47 Ronin is a remake of Krull.

47 Ronin‘s first problem makes itself known right at the get-go. I don’t know who’s decision it was to add the pretentious, British-accented voiceover to the movie but it feels like a toxic combination of lifting from The Last Samurai, trying to explain the concept of the movie to people, and trying to underline how serious and epic it is. It’s a mistake. I do not need to hear words like “To know this story is to know the story of all Japan”. Sentiments like that are why we can’t have movies like 47 Ronin just be what they are. They always have to be justified in some larger cultural or historical sense. 47 Ronin is a fantasy-lite retelling of a classic Japanese myth. Some people are stupid enough to think this is an attempt at being an historical film. It is about as historical as The Pirates of the Caribbean. In fact, if not for its self-seriousness, 47 Ronin compares most closely with the Pirates movies.

One of the nice, unexpected things about this movie is that it cares about its story. It may have been difficult to work around certain problems or demands (more Keanu Reeves was a demand by the studio, and he was actually digitally reinserted into some scenes), but a coherent story does come through. The trouble is, the film was recut and marketed to be all about Kai (Keanu Reeves) and his outsider story. Savvy audiences were already sharpening their forks to eat this movie alive for that shit. No one in their right mind wants to hear a story about a vaguely “white” guy like Reeves (he’s very mixed race, but white enough for political correctness) forced into the sort of role traditionally reserved, in white-dominated societies like ours, for non-white people. That said, some attempt was made to consign his outsider status to being raised by the Tengu demons as much as for being the product of an English sailor and a Japanese peasant woman.

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Much as I like him, this movie isn’t going to do him any favors.

Ageless, impeccably physical Mr. Reeves does about as much as anyone could with a grim, stoic role. But he’s basically a sidekick, which makes matters pretty confusing. His story of trying to come to terms with his past is often secondary to the story of Oishi (Hiroyuki Saneda), the chief retainer to Lord Asano (Min Tanako) of Ako. Oishi gets more screen time but not more screen time. Like Pacific Rim, this movie distracts from its true protagonist, a Japanese character, by having a familiar and attractive white guy around so that the suits can rest assured that the 15-35 white male American demographic is satisfied that they are being represented. I know that’s snarky, but where Pacific Rim is sneaky and progressive about it, 47 Ronin is not. The film absolutely reeks of tension between keeping the story on Oishi and making time for Kai’s sidestory. That tension does not exist in Pacific Rim, where the split of hero and protagonist is organic to the story and comments on its themes (teamwork). In 47 Ronin it doesn’t mean anything. Thankfully, the “chosen one” dialogue of the trailers (and pretty much all the dialogue from the trailers) is excised in this film. The movie you’re watching seems to sort of know that Kai is more of a second in command or reluctant ally than the main character of the film.

That said, Reeves gets to do a lot of fighting in the film and most of it is really good. His swordfights at Dutch Island are especially cool and have you sort of wondering about what a cleaner version of Kai’s story could have been like. I’m not one to say that stories about outcast half-breeds in societies other than European/white ones are impossible or undesirable to tell. A story about Kai, freed from the ball and chain of the 47 Ronin but with all the demons and monsters kept in could have been splendid. Instead, it’s merely adequate and occasionally slipshod.

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The monster stuff is very cool.

It shouldn’t bother people that this is a fantasy movie. It also shouldn’t really bother people that Keanu Reeves is in it, just because he’s a white guy. The way it’s done is the problem, because Kai’s shit detracts from and sidelines the actual story of the film: the 47 Ronin getting revenge on the man who used trickery to kill their master and take his lands.

This makes the movie, ostensibly, a revenge epic. Unfortunately, the opening act drags on quite a bit as it establishes the characters. None of this is really all that complex or layered, so it has the feeling of being doable in way less time. Better economy would also have left more time later on to let some of the action sequences and set pieces breathe more. Like the Dutch Island escape, which almost certainly was cut down from a much longer sequence. Waste of a cool location and an iconic looking character. The tattooed guy all over the marketing is in the film for all of five seconds. What’s funny about this is that I expected 47 Ronin to have the “too fast for its own good” problem a lot more than it does. It makes somewhat good use of its 2 hour running time, really, with more crossed t’s and dotted i’s than most of these types of movies bother with.

Which is maybe the real problem with 47 Ronin and its reception: there are just too many movies like this, and most of them are bad. For what it’s worth, 47 Ronin is far better and far less insulting to the audience than stuff like Jack the Giant Slayer.

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We do get this guy and his severed head, though.

One of the bigger problems this movie has is its writing.The moment to moment dialogue is obnoxiously adequate. There’s no flare, no style, and nothing memorable about anything anyone says in this movie. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, thankfully, but it’s one of the few not exaggerated problems 47 Ronin has. To make the audience care, a filmmaker has to try to get a lot done with dialogue and without this, 47 Ronin is more a collection of cool moments and beautiful imagery than an adventure where you actually give a shit about the adventurers.

In terms of plot, exposition, and moving itself along, it does okay. There’s also that it doesn’t try to water down Japanese feudal culture more than it has to. That they actually end the film with all the heroes killing themselves seems jarring in a McEpic, but it’s appropriate to the myth and to the culture that’s been fantasized. Sorta like having pirates actually doing piracy could have felt jarring but appropriate at the same time in the Pirates movies. Still not sure if avoiding that altogether was the right move for those movies, but it’s the move they made.

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This sorta lethal, bedraggled look is way better than the look Kai normally has. The character is better when unhinged.

Saneda is always engaging due to his effortless presence. The character isn’t much as written, with most of the development going toward a fairly undramatic relationship with his son. Few of the other Ronin get any development, though there’s a handful who get some lines and a moments to shine.

This is more or less echoed by the villains of the film. Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) is a vaguely effeminate, power-hungry villain who seems like the thinnest attempt at a Macbeth pantomime as I ever did see. His Lady Macbeth is the nameless witch played by Rinko Kikuchi. Alone in the cast, Kikuchi unfolds herself across the role like a fucking blanket. Appropriate given her character’s power over cloth. Her performance rises above the silly dialogue and thin characterization, providing plenty of scenery-chewing and even a little pathos. She’s probably the best thing about the movie, and its only truly memorable character.

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Very cool design, kind of a wasted character.

One of the things that makes me want to defend this movie at all is the final assault on Lord Kira’s snowbound castle. For about fifteen minutes, it is like watching a completely different movie. There are flashes of the confidence, planning, and cinematic flair of this sequence sprinkled throughout the movie, but it really comes together into something special. Something that’ll make you sit up in your chair if you’re starting to turn on the movie a bit. It’s that good.

You’d be hard-pressed to find the Japanese flavor of swords and arrows better done than here, including the somewhat similar (and equally amazing) ninja attack in The Last Samurai.

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I just wish she was in it more.

I’ve painted a picture of a movie which has an assortment of problems. What makes 47 Ronin interesting is that it’s very solid in spite of its troubled production and host of issues.  Maybe I’m a bit forgiving of this movie because it was a troubled production. Maybe it’s because I had hugely diminished expectations. This is probably one of those cases where diminished expectations work in a movie’s favor.

I still maintain that 47 Ronin is not as bad as people are saying. I may have proved its badness in this review, but I think the allure of its setting goes some ways in mitigating the vague assertions that its boring or lifeless. It is not those things. It is merely roughly stitched together. I mean, not everybody is going to respond to a fantasy movie set in Feudal Japan the same way I did (and we will all wish for a better version of that someday anyhow), but it can’t be argued that this much at least is fresher than yet another grimdark retelling of a classic fairy tale, or a Peter Jackson dwarf cabaret. Maybe not better, but certainly fresher.

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“This should have been a buddy movie, right?”

“Keanu… I thought it was a buddy movie.”

“Oh Hiroyuki. Poor, naive Hiroyuki.”

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