Say what you will about Keanu Reeves’ acting abilities, he’s made some genuinely good movies. John Wick, Speed, The Matrix, Point Break.
And then there’s 47 Ronin, a puzzling hodgepodge of a movie. The 2013 film cost a bundle to make, and FLOPPED hugely. It’s a classic example of a good concept getting shot in the foot due to extensive studio interference. It was such a box-office bomb that Wikipedia lists it as the second-most expensive box-office bomb EVER. And that’s adjusted for inflation, unadjusted, it’s number one.
Wow. A movie that bombed so hard must be absolute crap, right? Well…not exactly. The film is a mixed bag, but it’s nowhere near as bad as you might expect.
The movie tells a heavily fictionalized version of the real forty-seven Ronin, which was an actual historical event. That the film’s version of this story is fictional is pretty obvious from the opening narration, which claims that ancient feudal Japan was “A group of magical islands home to witches and demons.” Um, okay.
Keanu plays Kai, a half-Japanese, half-English outcast, who is shunned by his fellow samurai due to his mixed ancestry. He was also raised in the woods by demons, who taught him to fight and gave him superpowers.
Tellingly, the character of Kai is not present at all in the actual story of the forty-seven Ronin. He was invented completely for the film, I guess because Universal studios wanted a recognizable Hollywood actor.
But Reeves’ character still feels shoehorned into the story, since it would have been entirely possible to tell it without him. 47 Ronin was supposed to come out in 2012 but was pushed back to 2013 to incorporate time for re-shoots, which were done because Universal wanted Reeves to have more of a presence in the movie. This included giving him more dialogue scenes and also added a love story involving his character. Sorry guys, but it didn’t work, since Keanu’s character still feels unnecessary.
He’s more of a side character. The real driving force behind the story is Oishi, who is driven to avenge the death of his lord, who committed seppuku (ritual suicide) after being bewitched by the evil Lord Kira and his henchwoman, an evil sorceress.
Much like Reeves’ character, the movie as a whole is something of a half-breed (and also like Reeves’ character, it was largely shunned upon release). It can never decide if it wants to be a gritty historical swords-and-sandals epic (like Gladiator or Braveheart) or more of a fantasy romp (leaning more towards The Lord of the Rings).
This is again due to interference on the part of the studio. From what I’ve read, the film’s director, Carl Rinsch, wanted a more realistic, gritty approach to the film, while Universal wanted a fantasy epic. The finished movie ends up being some of both and a lot of neither. The rumor was that Rinsch was kicked out of the editing room during post-production, and therefore didn’t have much of a say on the film’s final cut.
It’s really too bad, since the actual story is great, but the film’s version of it is so watered-down it becomes hard to care about the outcome. The main problem from a story perspective is that of the titular 47 Ronin, only two of them have any personality or character development, like, at all. Those are Kai and Oishi, and of those two, only Oishi feels actually necessary to the plot.
Fortunately, Oishi is played by Hiroyuki Sanada, a very talented actor (known to Western audiences for his role as a gangster in The Wolverine) who gives Oishi a real sense of humanity and determination. The rest of the movie doesn’t live up to his drive.
Also contributing to the weird feel of the movie is that fact that it’s in English. Yeah, I get it, Americans are lazy and don’t want to read subtitles, but in 47 Ronin what you get is a lot of very Japanese-looking people speaking very heavily-accented English, which brings to mind all of those badly-dubbed kung fu movies from the 70’s and 80’s. And it’s not that the film’s dubbing is bad per se (the words coming out of the characters’ mouths do at least match up with the movements of their lips) but it doesn’t sound right. You keep wondering why these people are speaking English, and as a result you’re distracted and not focusing on the actual movie.
And this brings us to the end of the movie. At the end, (spoilers obviously), all of the 47 Ronin (or at least the ones who weren’t bumped off earlier) are sentenced to commit seppuku by the shogun for having disobeyed his earlier order to not take revenge against Kira for the death of their master. So, yeah, the movie ends with the main characters committing suicide. That sucks. And what sucks even more is that only TWO of them have any personality, so you don’t give a crap about the other forty-five. It feels anticlimactic to say the least, and the lack of character development robs the movie’s ending of much of its impact.
But as sloppy as the story is, there are good things about the film. For one thing, it looks GREAT. The costume and set designs are top notch. Every character looks amazing and authentic, and the costumes in particular give the movie a vibrant color palette that makes it great to look at.
The special effects are also quite good (the $175 million budget had to go somewhere) and the action scenes are well-shot and choreographed. There are some great sword fights and the final battle scene is viscerally satisfying. Keanu gets to fight a dragon, which looks cool even if it doesn’t make a great deal of sense.
And since we’re on the subject of stuff that looks cool, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the Lovecraftian Samurai. The Lovecraftian Samurai is a hulking brute of a henchman who looks really freaking cool. He’s sadly underused (big surprise) but he looks absolutely badass. He’s actually not a CGI character, he’s played by an absurdly tall English guy in a sweet costume. CGI may have been used to enhance the character but there is an actual guy in there. The character’s name is never given in the movie, he’s listed in the credits as Lovedraftian Samurai, although I really have no idea why, since as far as I know H.P. Lovecraft never wrote about the cosmic existential horror of seven-and-a-half-foot tall samurai warriors. I do love the phrase “Lovecraftian Samurai” though.
47 Ronin is worth seeing for fans of quirky and bizarre cinema. Given all of the studio interference and the film’s jumbled tone, it’s not too surprising that it was such a flop. It is too bad that the story didn’t get better treatment though, since it’s a fantastic story and the fact that it’s based on actual historical events is pretty mind-blowing. Overall, 47 Ronin feels like a wasted opportunity with a few bright spots that ultimately aren’t enough to elevate the film above the level of a cinematic curiosity.