What to make of this Hollywood-isation of a classic Japanese story? Was it Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets 300? Well not quite, but almost… there may be some spoilers below, but if you’ve seen the trailer then you’ve already had it spoilt for you anyway so read on:
47 Ronin’s biggest flaw of all is the shoe-horning of a Western character into the story – imagine someone like Tom Cruise’s Last Samurai character popping up in CTHD, or Donny Osmond appearing in the classic Monkey TV show. I know that Hollywood probably wouldn’t have green lit this film without a headlining Hollywood star, but really. I suppose at least, unlike 300, and Pearl Harbour they didn’t totally rewrite history.
Okay so with Keanu the film doesn’t get made, I never see it; I never get to experience the good bits amongst the lame bits. So I forgive them this indulgence and move on. Keanu is actually very good in the film marrying action with a CTHD style love story and when people say ‘it’s all in the eyes’ it really is with Keanu, especially when the script varies from the poetic to the ludicrous lines like ‘we end this now,’ it needs someone with a certain amount of gravitas to pull it off.
That said I would have quite happily sat and read subtitles delivered by an all Japanese cast (as I did for CTHD and the multitude of other martial arts films I have watched) rather than having to cock my ear carefully to decipher English delivered with thick Japanese accents. At least it wasn’t dubbed I guess. I’m sure the cast would have also preferred speaking in their native language. Here’s an idea – get Keanu to say his lines in Japanese – there’s less of them and he is supposed to be a ‘half breed’ in the story after all. It’s set in feudal Japan why are they all speaking English? Is the TARDIS parked nearby?
Second only to the forgiven insertion of a Western character is the 12 certificate. There’s only one reason to make this film a 12 and that’s money, film making in Hollywood is a business not an art. Because of the certificate we see very little of the red stuff apart from some bloody thumb prints when the Ronin sign up for their mission against the comic book bad guy – we know he’s the bad guy because he’s the one wearing dark colours. Kill Bill this is not, and I’m not asking it to be – but how can you express the horror of seppuku when the camera just shows a grimace on the face of the person committing ritual suicide? How can you cut the head off someone and not have it bleeding from the neck? I guess any amount of blood would have elevated the certificate to a 15 and lost a good chunk of bums on seats as result, but for me it would have made a more realistic visceral film. Sword stabs and cuts generally produce blood to have them not do so is like playing a computer game on ‘non blood’ setting.
Also I don’t mean to be rude, but a splash of sex wouldn’t have gone amiss either – there is a whore house in the story and a couple of love stories (if you count the bad guy and the witch as a romance) which could have easily featured a bit of hanky panky. But instead I felt at times I was watching something like Prince of Persia i.e. a fantasy film for kids. If Kai and Mika love each other so much then they’re going to want to bump bits before he has to receive the Shogun’s wrathful edict. I also thought that the pacing of the film was a bit slow for a 12 Cert and apart from the twenty minutes of the final battles it seems to plod along from trailer clip to trailer clip.
That said the film does stand up to repeat viewing and I enjoyed it better second time around – probably because I didn’t feel disappointed. The reason for my disappointment first time around was the realisation that all the best bits of the film had been given away in the trailer. I am not exaggerating that every cool bit of the film is in the trailer and all the film does is explain the sequence of the events in the trailer. Probably the best line, even though it is a trope, was ‘I’m not scared of you,’ followed by ‘you should be,’ it’s a big impactful couplet coming as it does in the final computer game boss level when Neo, sorry I mean Kai, faces off against Agent Smith, I mean the witch.
The stylish effects for the shape-shifting witch are very well done although I had to laugh at the convoluted way in which she poisons a Lord (who looks like the first Doctor from Doctor Who) to get the evil plot rolling. Fannying about hanging off a ceiling to dangle a poison squirting spider into his sleeping mouth seems a bit silly (and yes it’s in the trailer). The usual trick is to drip poison down a silk thread into the sleeping chap’s mouth, but that was probably deemed a little boring by the CG chaps. My favourite iteration of her shapes was the cunning fox character which was very well animated. Oh and by the way, while on the subject of Dr Who, there’s a Japanese William Hurt amongst the Ronin.
All the creatures were well animated but also quite frustratingly designed – Japanese folklore creatures had been Westernised, so as to not offend our eyes, and seemed to be safely based on previous film creatures from such things as Avatar/Predators (the big horned thing with six eyes – this is a terrestrial story – no mammal even mythical would have six eyes), Lord of the Rings (‘they have a cave troll’ I thought on seeing the pit fighting giant), and Sucker Punch and Brazil to name but a few (the giant Lovecraftian Samurai). Why the giant Samurai is described in the pitiful extras as Lovecraftian is a mystery to me. I’ve read H. P. Lovecraft and don’t remember any Samurai ever featuring in his strange tales.
One trope successfully avoided was the ‘the bad guy isn’t really dead’ scene, but we did get the ‘tending to the hero’s wounds’ scene, the Jacob’s Ladder/Matrix ‘shaky head’ scene and various LOTR wide shots with giant stone statues in the CG scenery. The similarities to LOTR don’t end there as we have the hero entering the ghost haunted forest and then the Tengu cave to get some swords – this is Aragorn entering the haunted pass to recruit the green ghosts in Return of the King in another guise. The only thing missing was an avalanche of skulls. Also we have a very Robin Hood-esque castle infiltration and one of the Ronin takes up the mantle of the Friar Tuck comedy fat dude archetype, I think his name was Basho or something like that, you’ll recognise him – he’s the one with the tits and the sword that doesn’t work (surprisingly not in the trailer). As well as borrowing from LOTR, the bit where Oishi goes to find Kai fighting like Jet Lee in Unleashed in a fighting pit with the LOTR cave troll is borrowed from Pirates of the Caribbean. The Dutch Island could have easily been based on CG models from POTC and the two scenes (three if you count the deleted one) that play out are straight out of the POTC world.
As usual I have dwelt too long on the negatives. This film is far better than drivel such as ‘Eat, Love, Pray’ that I had to endure last night (two hours or so of my life I won’t get back) in which Julia Roberts eats a lot but never puts on an ounce of fat and far better from the last film in which I spotted a list of ‘borrows’ – Oblivion.
There are lots of good things in 47 Ronin – the costumes are excellent (despite the castle guards walking around with TRON disks stuck in their heads and some of the concubines looking very surprised for most of the film due to elevated eyebrow positions), the CG scenery and creature animation is excellent, the real sets, where they existed, were excellently detailed and authentic looking, the music is excellent and the acting is generally top-notch – there were none of the comedy deaths from over-acting extras you see in a lot of martial arts films. Also the sword fighting scenes look great – they appear to be quicker and far less choreographed than in other films – when the V for Vendetta style blade traces kick in it makes for very nice eye candy, and the end battle sequence looks like controlled chaos – excellent stuff.
I think I only dwell on the lame stuff in this post just to highlight what a good film this could have been if the creators had made a few bolder decisions instead of relying on so many things from other Hollywood films to satisfy the studio executives. They should have spent more time looking at successful Japanese films and if they felt they had to borrow then borrow from them. It is a feature-length debut for the director and I guess that has something to do with the rather cautious approach. I would love to know what the Japanese audience made of this retelling of one of their best-loved tales.