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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

47 Ronin review: they’re not having much fun storming the castle

47 Ronin yellow light

A handsome movie in many ways, but it feels like an unpolished first draft, one that can’t quite decide how fantastical it wants to be.
I’m “biast” (pro): like Keanu Reeves more than most

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

This umpteenth iteration of the Japanese legend of the 47 ronin, or masterless samurai warriors, has its fair share of problems, but not as many as you’ve heard, and not as many as the presence of poor Keanu Reeves — who has unfairly become a cinematic punchline — may have led you to believe. Stolid, stoic Reeves (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Street Kings) is well-cast as the half-Japanese, half-British Kai, whose status as an outcast in xenophobic 18th-century Japan means he has to keep his eyes down and his mouth shut, and the actor maintains a modest presence throughout, even as he takes on a heroic role as a warrior fighting to restore the honor of his cruelly slain benefactor, kindly Lord Asano (Min Tanaka).

Complaints about a traditional Japanese tale being whitewashed — half whitewashed? — by throwing a Westerner into the mix are worth discussing, although, alas, this is the best way to get mainstream Western audiences interested in a classic and widely influential story that is worth hearing. But Kai is not the hero of the film: that is most resolutely Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada: The Wolverine, Speed Racer), who reforms Asano’s samurai a year after their master’s death and leads them on a quest to destroy his murderer, evil Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano: Thor: The Dark World, Battleship), and save Asano’s daughter, Mika (Kô Shibasaki), from having to marry the toad. (There are subtle hints of The Princess Bride here, and also Hamlet and The Lord of the Rings, which speaks to the crosscultural universality of the story in the grand scale.)

How do we know Kai is not the hero? Simple Hollywood math: in the climactic final battle, Kai, number two to Ôishi, battle’s Kira’s number two, the witch Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi: Pacific Rim, The Brothers Bloom), leaving Ôishi to dispatch Kira himself. The ending of the journey of the 47 ronin has not been Hollywoodized, however… and thank goodness, for it is key to the archetypal importance of this story, why it continues to be told, and for its very Japaneseness.

Still, the script — by Chris Morgan (who wrote a bunch of Fast & Furious movies, including 5 and 6), Hossein Amini (Snow White and the Huntsman, Drive), and Walter Hamada — is stubbornly dour, and could do with a few flashes of humor amidst its relentless grimness; even a dark fairy tale, as this is, needs a few flashes of light. My big disappointment with the film is that it can’t quite decide how fantastical it wants to be. First-time director Carl Rinsch presents Mizuki’s witchiness in ways that are spooky and even beautiful — here she slinks as a white fox through a palace where she’s not supposed to be; here she is transformed into a dragon who slithers through the air in a way both horrifying and gorgeous. But her magic is either limited by something that is never explained to us, or the writers didn’t really know what to do with their concept of magic beyond some striking images.

This is a handsome movie in many ways, but it feels like an unpolished first draft, not the final film. I’d like to see that film.

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47 Ronin (2013)
US/Can release: Dec 25 2013
UK/Ire release: Dec 26 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated SK (contains Sad Keanu)
MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, and thematic elements
BBFC: rated 12A (contains moderate violence)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    The suggestions I’ve heard are that the script suffered heavily from the producers insisting on MOAR KEANU at a relatively late stage.

  • Brody85

    Thank you for the review but I want to clarify a couple of things

    How is this movie handsomely made? The CGI looked like complete and utter shit, the clothes of the people looked like paper and ribbons, the dialogue was stilted, the story telling was so repetitive, and, the props looked so fake! Also, you sort of mentioned that this is half whitewashed *Hmm* THIS FILM was so inauthentic at every turn. It took a classic Japanese folktale, stripped out all the culture and made all the actors speak in ENGLISH whilst having a background of feudal Japan. I know you said it is far from perfect BUT judging by this review, it also seems far from fresh. In fact I was shocked to see that the budget of this was $170M, it just looked so cheap! Your opinion on this?

  • My review is my opinion.

  • Paul

    So you think that every film made by an English-language film company set in another culture, or involving another culture, should use the language of that culture?

    Presumably even if that culture is a historical culture?

    By which logic, any movie set in history further back than, say, 2 or 300 years would be unintelligible to us (if you want proof, watch the second Sharpe dramatization, where they went some way towards authentic Napoleonic period English).

    OK, I may be biased in having a half-Japanese, half-British son called Kai, as well as being fascinated by the tale of Will Adams. And it may well be that I would hate this film. But I find the “inauthentic” accusation as laughable as the language complaint (and ironically I say that as someone who could have understood this movie if it had followed your prescription). Have you ever read a manga or seen an anime? “Authenticity” is nigh-on meaningless in that context. And the Chushingura* both fed manga culture and were pretty thoroughly “inauthentic” from the very beginning. Added to which, the culture of the Edo period that we get from pretty well every post-war representation is resolutely fictional: it’s all about meeting the psychological needs of a post-war Japanese populace who wanted to have some sort of a past, while scooting past the problematic Meiji, Taisho and early Showa. In simple terms, it’s as authentically historical as the average 1950s Western.

    *You complain about authenticity so I’m sure you know what they are.

  • Brody85

    Thank you for your comment on mine being “laughable” and then copy-pasting random wikipedia facts. Look, I am fully aware that anime and manga get translated in to english, I get it. What I don’t get i why they take an old Japanese fable set in feudal Japan, and higher a full Japanese cast whilst making them speak awful english and bombarding the so-called “context” with uncontextuallized fantasy elements that weren’t even in the original story to begin with. Why? To remake an old tale with new style? For the budget, this film looked pretty damn cheap and the cheesy usage of 3D further enhanced the film’s artificiality.

  • Nina Garren

    Guys this woman hated Kill Bill and defended this piece of shit..

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Well, Kill Bill was a nauseatingly self-indulgent piece of shit. This one’s just dull.

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  • Mark

    Ha, this is dull but you lose your credibility by calling Kill Bill a POS.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Oh noes, I’ve lost credibility with Random Internet Commenter #3263827. However will I earn it back. *eyeroll*

  • And with your very first comment here, you prove you have no credibility at all.

    Please don’t post comments like this. *Explain* your difference of opinion. Don’t act like your opinion is solid fact. It isn’t.

  • Albie McNames

    I just watched this movie last night, and your review puts into words how I felt during the entire film. I was constantly asking, “So are they going with fantasy or not?” It was an awkward in between. Overall, I liked the film but I am more interested in seeing some earlier Japanese versions.

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