By Preston Wilder
Come for Keanu, stay for the costume design. Actually, even that isn’t strictly accurate. Keanu Reeves, clearly intended as the major selling-point in 47 Ronin – the only Hollywood name in an almost entirely Japanese cast – has instead been vilified as the film’s weakest link, too dude-ish, too Californian, too ineffably Keanu for the 18th-century-Japan setting. I don’t know if that’s fair, Mr. Reeves having come a long way since his Bill and Ted days (his serene, albeit glazed look is now a legitimate trademark, his own form of Zen), but that’s how it is – and in fact it’s worse, because even those coming for Keanu may be disappointed: his “half-breed” character doesn’t get much to do. The costume design is great, though.
“To know the story of the 47 ronin is to know the story of old Japan,” proclaims a narrator early on – and he’s not the most inspiring narrator (“Ancient feudal Japan, home to heroes and demons!” he begins, sounding hilariously like Mr. Trailer Man), but he does have a point. The story is a major Japanese folk legend, the subject of countless stage versions and quite a few film versions. The most famous in the West is the 1941 classic directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, which is often described as a four-hour action film (it’s in two parts) without a single action sequence – it “subjugates swordplay and bloodshed to contemplation and emotion,” wrote critic Gary Morris – but most of the others tend to be quite rousing, as you’d expect from a tale of master-less samurai taking revenge for the death and dishonour of their former master.
Still, this Hollywood version goes a step further, adding out-and-out fantasy elements like a bison-like monster, a magical fox and a witch who transforms into a dragon at the climax – and, when it’s not being CGI-heavy, it’s being B-movie cheesy. “Find Oishi! I want him dead!” a villainous lord instructs his minions. The aforementioned witch draws a finger across her throat threateningly – I don’t recall if she does an evil cackle, but it wouldn’t surprise me – and there’s also a jolly, pudgy ronin among the 47, chuckling like Friar Tuck in the old Robin Hood movies. Plotting is erratic when it’s not being simplistic; a second-half ambush that kills many of the ronin seems to come out of nowhere.
In fact, the film’s sophistication is in inverse proportion to its visual splendour. The director is Carl Rinsch, who’s never made a film before – yet was entrusted with around $200 million to make this one, on the strength of his commercials and a 2010 short called The Gift. His short is apparently dazzling to look at; his adverts, I presume, are stylish (like most adverts). 47 Ronin is also stylish, or at least it conjures up beautiful images on a regular basis. Dark ships in lamplight; cherry-blossom trees; the bamboo-like stalks of a forest in blue evening light. And of course there’s the costume design, which is great – soldiers in red and brown uniforms, or a dance troupe in frilly ‘ethnic’ get-up. Disgraced samurai put on flowing white robes to commit seppuku (i.e. ritual suicide with a dagger to the belly), the noblest end a disgraced samurai can hope for.
Speaking of which, it’s unclear what the kids who’ll best appreciate the witches and dragons will make of the story’s morbid streak or the emphasis on “honour”. It may be hard to explain to a 10-year-old that sticking a knife in your own intestines is an ‘honourable’ death hence a Good Thing, or that the 47 ronin go on their final mission knowing – and accepting – that they’ll have to kill themselves en masse afterwards (revenge being against the Code, or whatever). Unsurprisingly, this dog’s-dinner of unfamiliar and over-familiar has turned out to be the biggest flop of the holiday season, losing an estimated $175 million.
In the middle of this mess is Keanu Reeves, playing a role that’s not in the original story – the illegitimate son of a British sailor and a Japanese peasant woman – and looking lost, or just Keanu Reeves-ish. “Strip him of his armour! Beat him!” cries the villainous lord, and Reeves endures these mediaeval sufferings with the same equanimity with which he’s (presumably) endured the film’s box-office fiasco. It seemed like a good idea at the time – Hollywood’s plundered Greek mythology in Percy Jackson and Clash of the Titans, so why not recycle a Japanese legend with fantastical beasties and a ‘name’ actor for box-office cachet? – but 47 Ronin is a bust, and the endearing Canoe isn’t the kind of movie star who can raise a sinking ship single-handed. Nice costumes, though.
DIRECTED BY Carl Rinsch
STARRING Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki
US 2013 119 mins