Criminally Overlooked: “47 Ronin”

December 29, 2013


Wait, what is this? An entry in the “Criminally Overlooked” category that’s not only still in theaters, but has only been released this week? What madness is this, you’d be forgiven for asking. Now, I want you to be calm and stay with me here. Doubtless, you’re probably feeling some anxiety and confusion, but before you go breaking open the emergency stockpile of assault rifles you started hoarding when it was clear Obama was going to win the election, be assured I have a good reason for this. By all accounts, 47 Ronin has not only lost the holiday weekend, but has left the field, gone home and is now drinking cheap beer and weeping. How bad is it? Well, a 175 million dollar movie has barely grossed 10 mil at the time of this writing. And that’s really too bad, since 47 Ronin is actually a nice little ($175,000,000) adventure movie. Hey, and Keanu Reeves isn’t even in it that much. Yay!

47 Ronin tells the classic Japanese story of a group of Ronin (47 of them, to be exact) who avenge the death of their master via treachery in 18th century Japan. First-time director Carl Rinsch gives the tale the 300 treatment by including heavy doses of fantasy (though not as much homoeroticism), weaving in a slinky witch (a marvelous Rinko Kikuchi), some mystical beasts, and demons.

Simply bewitching (heh heh heh...)

Simply bewitching (heh heh heh…)

As the basic story goes, an orphaned biracial boy named Kai is found and taken in by a kindly landowner named Kira (Tadanobu Asano). Kai grows to be Keanu Reeves, who serves as a tracker for Kira and his Samurai, including his son Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada). As a “half-breed,” Kai is only barely tolerated by the rest of the community, with the exception of Kira’s daughter, Mika (Ko Shibasaki). Of course their love is not meant to be, but that’s okay, since they’ll soon have bigger problems.

While being visited by the local shogun, a rival landowner, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) uses his witch/girlfriend (Kikuchi) to engineer a series of humiliations, which ultimately force Kira to commit ritual seppuku. The Shogun allows the Ronin to live, but banishes them from the land and orders Mika to be married to Asano in one year (you know, after a suitable period of mourning).

"And then I said, 'Whoa!' And then he was all like, 'No way man," and I was all like..."

“And then I said, ‘Whoa!’ And then he was all like, ‘No way man,” and I was all like…”

After being imprisoned in a pit for a few months, Oishi, too, is banished. But he has other plans—namely, getting the band back together and killing Asano before he can marry Mika and take over Kira’s lands. To do this, however, he needs Kai…for some reason. Fortunately, he is able to track him down to a Dutch-controlled island where he is fighting arena matches against enormous troll-like beasts that I guess they have in the Netherlands (I was at the Amsterdam airport once, but I didn’t see any—maybe they’re extinct now).

This is what happens when you legalize pot...

This is what happens when you legalize pot…

Once again together (and having put their truly distressing and xenophobic treatment of Kai behind them), the Ronin set about their task. And…it’s pretty cool. Rinsch may be a tyro with lousy control over his budget, but he’s a pretty good director with a keen visual sense. His feudal Japan looks great (despite the fact it was filmed largely in Budapest and London), with a slightly otherworldly quality that he ramps up every time Kikuchi and her tentacle-hair is on screen, or as in the scene when the group look for weapons in the cursed forest Reeves escaped from, populated by the ghosts of castaway elderly and unwanted infants (and populated by owl people).

"Keep talking. I'm just going to eat a couple of mice."

“Keep talking. I’m just going to eat a couple of mice.”

The mostly-Japanese cast also acquits themselves well, with Reeves’ usual inwardly-focused performance working well for a character conditioned by a lifetime of alienation (and mostly distracts from the fact that, at 49, he’s too old for the role). But it’s Kikuchi who steals the show, gliding with a gleeful malevolence, her hair swirling about and acting like Doctor Octopus’s tentacles. She sinks her dainty teeth into the villainess role and seems to have a blast playing her witch as a slithering, condescending deity, toying with her prey.

Let's just look at Rinko again.

Let’s just look at Rinko again.

The movie had an infamously troubled production (I say again, $175,000,000), with starts and stops and two abandoned release dates. Some of this shows up on screen, as several action sequences seem truncated. The final battle between Kai and Kikuchi, in particular, is pretty damn underwhelming. It’s got some great moments, but it’s not the knockdown between two supernatural combat styles we expect.

Still, 47 Ronin is a solid action/adventure movie. It’s got great action scenes, vivid and gorgeous scenery, and a story that remains true to its concept and ideals right to its final scene. So, yeah, it’s too bad this movie is going to go down as one of 2013’s most notorious flops. In a year that gave us Grown Ups 2, and RIPD, it’ sad to see a genuinely good movie get buried. Ah well…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: