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USA 2014
Directed by
Carl Rinsch
118 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
2.5 stars

47 Ronin

Synopsis: When Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) is tricked by witchcraft into assaulting Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), he is forced by the Emperor to kill himself. His samurai retainers are declared ronin (lordless samurai) and forbidden to take revenge on Lord Kira. They ignore this. Oh, and Keanu Reeves is a half-breed named Kai who knows magic but has sworn never to use it.

First the good news. Anyone seeing a trailer for this would be expecting a fairly offensive fantasy re-telling of a reasonably significant Japanese story: the 47 Ronin as led by the white messiah Keanu Reeves, because only he can lead them to victory. It’s not the case. Thankfully, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is still the boss. In fact, aside from a few moments, Kai doesn’t really seem all that relevant to proceedings. It doesn’t start out that way, but either he’s so boring I stopped paying attention or else the makers wised up and pruned his part. There’s still plenty of annoying bits where he explains magic to the natives, so to speak, but overall they never quite establish his relevance. Possibly this is because they try to make his personal story complementary to that of the revenge of the ronin, rather than essential to it. Possibly it’s because Reeves sleepwalks through the film, seemingly wishing he were off doing his own thing. (I hear his directorial debut, Man Of Tai Chi, is actually pretty good.)

So, it’s not quite as offensive as it might have been. That’s a plus. But Edward Said would still have a field day with this film. It’s fascinated with samurai culture but only the bits young boys tend to fixate on:  the bits with swords and dragons and demons in the forest. And that should be fine for a fantasy action film, but the first third is more interested in courtroom intrigue and racial politics and not enough is done to communicate the nuances that play into what’s happening. Bushido is an interesting code and the story of the 47 ronin is at once both an exemplary and contradictory expression of it. (This is a story of both loyalty and disobedience after all.) And if you sit back and question what’s happening on screen, you might get some of that but the film isn’t interested in helping you do so. Instead, the basic point is that their master got betrayed and they’re gonna kick arse.

The arse kicking is also strangely contradictory. Early on, Kai fights a giant samurai and loses. Later we learn he was taught by the Tengu (demons who are credited with teaching the ninja their skills) and fled them because they’re obsessed with death. So a dude who later on turns out to be an unstoppable killing machine lost a fight, why? There’s other things too. Lord Kira has dreams of conquering all of Japan, but we never even get a hint of how he might do it. Why even bring it up? And as an aside, I love Tadanobu Asano, he’s an awesome actor and can be a brilliant bad guy,  just watch Zatoichi. But here he’s completely one note.  I didn’t even recognise him until I saw his name in the credits. Oh, and that giant samurai I mentioned? You’d think there’d be a rematch later on. But no, just one of the weakest payoffs to a build-up you’ll see this year. You’ll watch it and the word on you lips will be “seriously?”

The script is sparse, and in the hands of a better director, one with a grasp of mood and pacing, this could have been an eerie, dark fantasy revision of a famous story. But instead it’s just dull, with weak payoffs to uninteresting plot points and no sense of character or personality. You can see what they were going for, sort of, but it smacks of too many cooks in the kitchen. “Make it more like 300, that was cool.” “What about The Last Samurai?” “That Miyazaki guy is pretty well liked.” Go and watch 13 Assassins instead. Now that’s a samurai action film.




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