47 Ronin


Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

(2013) Martial Arts Fantasy (Universal) Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Ko Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Masayoshi Hanada, Hiroshi Sogabe, Takato Yonemoto, Hiroshi Yamada, Shu Nakajima, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Neil Fingleton, Natsuki Kunimoto, Togo Igawa, Tanroh Ishida, Yorick van Wageningen, Clyde Kusatsu, Haruka Abe. Directed by Carl Rinsch

There is honor and courage and then there are the ancient samurai of Japan. If we in the West think we know what those concepts are, think again. For that group of warriors, those weren’t just concepts – they were their way of life.

In feudal Japan, the kind and just Lord Asano (Tanaka) rules in a beautiful and bucolic province of Ako. He takes in a half-breed man named Kai (Reeves) who apparently escaped from the demon-infested forest as a boy, although his samurai urge him not to. His beautiful daughter Mika (Shibasaki) nurses him back to health and the two fall in love, although there is absolutely no future in it.

But not everyone is as honorable as Lord Asano. Lord Kira (Asano) desires the wealthy and plentiful lands ruled by Asano and determines to obtain them. With his devious partner, a shape-shifting witch (Kikuchi) who poses as one of his concubines, Kira hatches a plot to shame Lord Asano during a visit by the Shogun (Tagawa) which results in Asano’s ritual suicide. His samurai are released from service and declared to be Ronin, masterless samurai which is the equivalent of a mercenary in modern times although with much less respect. They are forbidden from seeking vengeance by order of the shogun. Kai is sold as a slave to the Dutch where he is made to fight in their bare knuckle brawls and Mika is betrothed to Kira whom she will marry after a one year mourning period for her father.

This is more than the leader of Asano’s samurai, Oishi (Sanada) can take. Even though he knows the consequences of his actions, he determines to re-assemble his men and add Kai, whom he had previously expressed disdain and loathing for, to take on overwhelming odds to exact justice for their Lord, but it’s not an easy matter. Kira’s palace is more of a fortress and the possibility of 47 men storming the castle and surviving is simply ludicrous, plus he is under the protection of a skilled and seductive witch but even if they are successful, the men know they will be under the sentence of death for defying the shogun’s orders. So what’s the use?

Well, according to the actual men who inspired this movie, plenty. If you take away the supernatural elements of this version of it, the basic events happened pretty much as shown – a Japanese feudal lord was betrayed by an ambitious and ruthless fellow lord, rendering his samurai as Ronin. They did defy the shogun’s order and behave as depicted. The results were surprisingly the same as well and they were led by a real life samurai named Oishi.

This was something of a surprising choice for a very big budget Hollywood movie. Why the writer and filmmakers determined to add the supernatural elements of the witch, the Lovecraftian samurai, and the demons in the forest is somewhat surprising; a smaller budget version with fewer special effects would have been a much more effective film in my view.

I won’t deny that some of the CGI are pretty spectacular and the attempts to give this a kind of epic scope of the sort that the legendary Akira Kurosawa used to routinely give his movies are pleasing to the eye. However, Kurosawa certainly would have rolled his eyes at the over-complexity of the plot.  and quite frankly the legendary director wasn’t much into fantasy although he wasn’t afraid to use elements of the supernatural in his films when they were required.

Rumor has it that the studio was overly involved in the making of the movie, demanding changes and leading to a delay of nearly a year for this movie to come out. There definitely is a feel here for too many cooks in the kitchen; the movie doesn’t have the feel and flow that you get with a steady, single hand in charge. Perhaps they needed someone more experienced than first-time director Rinsch for a movie of this scope and budget.

While Reeves is as usual somewhat stiff and wooden, we are treated to some of the finest actors in Japan at this time with the Oscar-nominated Kikuchi as the seductive and sly witch with the different-colored eyes (one brown, one blue) and the respected Sanada, a veteran of The Last Samurai lending gravitas to Oishi and Asano (The Wolverine) giving Kira a kind of sly wink to go along with his wickedness. Tanaka (The Twilight Samurai) as the kindly Lord Asano is also memorable.

While this is a good-looking movie that gives us the opportunity to watch quality performances by actors who don’t get as much exposure in the West as they deserve, there is simply too many flaws for me to give this a solid recommendation. See it more as a curiosity piece rather than as coherent cinema and as long as your expectations aren’t too high, you might even find reasons to enjoy this.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly cool eye candy. Nice supporting performances from a great Japanese cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwrought plot. Needless elements of fantasy in one of Japan’s most iconic true stories. Something of a mess.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of martial arts action violence, some fairly disturbing images  as well as some thematic elements that might be above the heads of the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh filmed version of the story although the first to come from Hollywood; in reality the 47 Ronin are revered in Japan for their honor and adherence to the Samurai code despite overwhelming odds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 29/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Griff the Invisible

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New Releases for the Week of December 27, 2013


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

(20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Patton Oswalt. Directed by Ben Stiller

Walter, a worker drone at Life Magazine as it gasps its last, is a dreamer who sometimes zones out as he imagines fantastic heroic scenarios starring himself. Yet he never acts on these impulses, never does anything memorable or notable. He yearns for love but does nothing to pursue it. When at last he is pushed into it, the greatest adventure he could imagine awaits.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Adventure Comedy

Rating: PG (for some crude comments, language and action violence)

47 Ronin

(Universal) Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, Rinko Kikuchi. After a ruthless warlord betrays and murders their master, 47 now-leaderless samurai (known in Japan as Ronin) vow revenge. Standing in their way are wizards and demons who have their own plans.

See the trailer, clips  and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D (opens Tuesday)

Genre: Martial Arts Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, and thematic elements)

Grudge Match

(Warner Brothers) Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin. Two out of shape boxers retired for 30 years are pushed into resuming their bitter rivalry with a final match to determine the whole she-bang, but are these two old codgers ready?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Sports Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sports action violence, sexual content and language)

Justin Bieber’s Believe

(Open Road) Justin Bieber, Scooter Braun, Usher Raymond, Ludacris. Unaware that his 15 minutes were done about an hour ago, here comes a concert video of Canada’s most shameful export.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Musical Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including some unsettling images) 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

(Weinstein) Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa. The story of the late Nelson Mandela and his struggle to end South Africa’s repressive system of apartheid appears in theaters only a few weeks after the great leader finally passed away. Some studios have all the luck.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: PG=13 (for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language)

The Wolf of Wall Street

(Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie. A stockbroker goes from starry-eyed ambition to absolute corruption as he rides the wave that was Wall Street during the 80s. The rise and fall of Jordan Belfort mirrors Wall Street’s own in the eyes of the public. The latest from Martin Scorsese and a huge Oscar contender.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R (for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence)