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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Cinema Scorned: 47 Ronin (2013) review


47 RONIN 2013

Keanu Reeves (Kai), Sanada Hiroyuki (Kuranosuke Oishi), Tadanobu Asano (Lord Kira), Rinko Kikuchi (Mizuki), Shibasaki Ko (Mika), Min Tanaka (Lord Asano), Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa (Tsunayoshi), Neil Fingleton (Giant Samurai)

Directed by Carl Rinsch

The Short Version: Keanu Reeves wishes he was turning Japanese as the expressionless samurai half-breed who, among the title masterless swordsmen, saves Japan from a fate worse than bloated budgeted Hollywood epics. One of the most famous Nipponese historical accounts is turned into outright fantasy replete with witches and monsters. It's also a place where everything is written or chiseled in Japanese; but everybody speaks fluent English; and no one even acts like they're Japanese despite being Japanese. Sonny Chiba's most famous acolyte, Sanada Hiroyuki gets as much, if not more screen time than Reeves does -- yet seems just as incongruous as Chiba and his modern militia did time-warped to Feudal Era Japan in SENGOKU JIEITAI (1979). Someone attached to this "half-breed", mediocre movie was obviously a fan of Japan's own historical-fantasy films like SHOGUN'S NINJA (1980) and SAMURAI REINCARNATION (1981) -- watch one of those instead. Arguably more damaging than the finished product is that Universal (wisely) failed to allow this misguided opus to commit cinematic seppuka with honor by banking on its failure well in advance of its release.

A half-Japanese and a band of samurai outcasts vow to avenge the disgrace, and death of their lord Asano resulting from a plot between a duplicitous rival and an evil witch. With Asano's daughter now promised to marry the devious Lord Kira after a years time, the banished Ronin attempt to save her from Kira's clutches.

The numerous adaptions of stage and screen for 'The 47 Ronin' have somehow led to this bizarre American concoction that, after the contamination of this bomb has settled, the brains behind it will no doubt reiterate, "It seemed like a good idea at the time". Facts are often not as interesting as fiction, and the makers of this massive misfire use facts as a crutch for a fantasy fueled framework that is about as enjoyable as taking a Sonny Chiba death punch to the nether regions.

Based on an 18th century historical event, Universal Pictures likely regrets bankrolling this highly troubled US interpretation of the oft-filmed classic tale. This is Universal's second attempt at making an Eastern style motion picture; the first being the dismal and retarded THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS. Just like that awful 20 million "kung fu" movie, the company fails at capturing even a fragment of the Silver Screen samurai spirit with a much bigger $175 million to throw around.

That the Japanese audience has shown disdain towards this North American raping of a classic story hopefully is not lost on the hard-headed suits in Hollywood. Universal themselves, showed little regard for their production by adjusting for huge losses well in advance of the film coming out.

The first huge mistake was attempting to film a non-American story by inserting Anglo heroism into it via The Man with the Face of Stone, Keanu Reeves. Adding to the cacophony of mismatched elements is having the Japanese dominated cast all speak English; and they speak their dialog soooo slooooowlyyyyyy. One doesn't need to be a Jedi to feel the uncomfortability flowing through the cast members onscreen. Nevermind that everything in the film is WRITTEN in Japanese. Then there are the various monsters, demons and witches populating this potpourri of pee-yew that feel out of place. The Yokai (the creatures are never referred to as such) are more Tolkienesque than anything from Asian folklore; although the usage of a fox and the witch woman's black hair that moves about on its own has a Japanese familiarity.

Taking fantastical concepts and melding them within a historical context is nothing new; it works just fine in movies like RENEGADE NINJAS (1976), SHOGUN'S NINJA (1980), SAMURAI REINCARNATION (1981) and LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI (1984); but those were Japanese movies made by Japanese production companies. It made sense when they did it. For an American picture to use a distinctly Japanese property and deform it in this fashion is akin to the Japanese shooting a film about Pearl Harbor wherein they are the good guys and win the war with Godzilla's help; or using the battle at the Alamo as your setting, but adding ravenous vampires laying siege to the fort. How about a western utilizing an entirely Asian cast? Wait, that's happened a few times already.

Hollyweird's version of 47 RONIN never feels like its origin lies in Japanese lore, either. Despite the cast being made up of 99.9% of Nipponese performers, the body language and mannerisms are not in sync with classic chambara interpretations. The common practice of bowing is treated as some sort of drama building tool to accentuate a scene or character. The editing of some of the bowing bits feels parodic in certain instances. An instance of this is when Asano commits ritual suicide. Before Oishi decapitates him, Asano, after cutting open his belly, turns to Oishi and nods his head. Oishi does the same then cuts him. There are often these close ups of characters bowing to each other that, instead of being a simple show of respect, is shot to convey some suspenseful innuendo that will come to a head at a later point.

The costumes are also a rainbow of fruit flavors that take on a Hong Kong FIVE VENOM style of fashion sense. There are groups dressed all in the brightest blues, reds and yellows to let you know just what faction, or group they belong to. However, once the film becomes even more confused about what it wants to be, the color coding goes away, as does the films main reason for being -- supplanted by an all new storyline, and only revisiting its source when it becomes convenient towards the end.

The script is also a huge mess. Suffering a cavalcade of delays and numerous re-shoots, the lack of major set pieces makes one wonder just where in the hell the bulk of the $175 million budget went. There are action scenes, but virtually none of them feel like anything more than a medium level action sequence bridging a much bigger one that never comes. Even the finale lacks oomph. The ending is moderately satisfying, but it misses a few grand opportunities to go out with a bang settling instead for one big firecracker. An example of this would be this 8 foot, silver-plated, Daimajin-like samurai villain. His participation in a few scenes is but a tease that hints at a huge fight at the end. But upon setting up a battle between the giant and the 47 Ronin, he's blown up before a fight has a chance to take shape. What we do get is a reported re-shot finale which finds something for Reeves to do instead.

The title outcasts are also wasted in their own movie. Other than a couple of them, they are all little more than stock characters in the very film named after them. The first 45 torturous minutes is spent setting up their disgrace and then abandons it once the movie turns into KRULL (1983). From there, it's a journey to rescue Asano's daughter through lands that look nothing like Japan whatsoever. This new plot point revolving around Mika's rescue contains a weak-kneed sub-plot of a love between her and Kai, the half-breed character. So now there's all new motivation. This ultimately takes precedence over the whole restoring honor concept the movie was supposed to be about. It's only during the last five minutes that we are reminded of what the initial story was to start with.

Of the ronin themselves, we do get to (briefly) know a fat guy among them -- only because he's fat. The rest are just background dressing, and make little to no impression on the ending; where their participation should matter most. A closing title card tries to salvage some respectability by reminding us this is a true story, and this American perversion is inspired by it!

Just as bad is the martial arts choreo -- it never ignites; its wet fuse fizzling out from the usual fast cut editing of the current Hollywood standard. The only fight that's allowed to breath for more than a few seconds at a time is this galley fight between Kai and Oishi on 'Dutch Island'. Kai is sold into slavery and Oishi goes looking for him to set our story in motion. The moment we see Kai has become essentially a gladiator battling 8 foot tall Golems, the words of Mako from CONAN (1982) began running through my head -- "He did not care... only that the crowd would be there to greet him with howls of lust and fury. In time, his victories could not easily be counted." Then once Kai and Oishi begin their HK style sword duel, I woke up and realized I was watching a watered down version of what Hollywood thinks a samurai epic should look like.

The films poster is also an insult. The skeleton-tattooed character isn't onscreen even five minutes and yet he's displayed prominently on the North American advertising. Sanada Hiroyuki is nowhere to be found, and he figures as much, if not more so than Keanu Reeves does. His native country at least included him on their posters, but Reeves is still the central focus.

About the only good thing to be said about the movie is some of the effects are pretty to look at. The bulk of them are CGI overload, of course. Everything is so much bigger than it really would be. For example, the kaiju sized vessels docked in the ship yard on 'Dutch Island' look sprawling in design, but totally out of scale when humans are inserted into frame. The 3D was actually very impressive with little nuances jumping off the screen making a bigger impression than the more noticeable bits.

Speaking of Keanu Reeves, hopefully he has gotten all his Eastern mysticism out of his system by now after his directorial debut with MAN OF TAI CHI (2013) and now this RONIN train wreck.

The aforementioned Sanada Hiroyuki became famous as the biggest star to emerge from Sonny Chiba's Japan Action Club. His agility and good looks were key to his success that has spanned four decades and counting. He has appeared in numerous movies and television series' including MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978), SHOGUN'S NINJA (1980), KAGE NO GUNDAN 2 (1981), ROARING FIRE (1982) KAGE NO GUNDAN 3 (1982), LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI (1983), ROYAL WARRIORS (1986), YELLOW FANGS (1990), RING (1998), THE LAST SAMURAI (2003), RUSH HOUR 3 (2007), SPEED RACER (2008), and THE WOLVERINE (2013).

Tadanobu Asano will likely be most familiar to fans of Japanese cult cinema as the psychotic Kakihara from Takashi Miike's ICHI THE KILLER (2001). His work in US cinema include BATTLESHIP (2012) and the two recent THOR movies.

Rinko Kikuchi is the seductive, evil witch Mizuki, and recently appeared in Guillermo Del Toro's Japanese giant monster tribute, PACIFIC RIM (2013).

The gorgeous Shibasaki Ko (see insert) was in Kinji Fukasaku's controversial BATTLE ROYALE (2000); and US cult action fans will no doubt recognize Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa from a slew of movies appearing as a devil-worshiper in SPELLBINDER (1988) to a slew of villain roles in flicks like SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO (1991) and MORTAL KOMBAT (1995).

Virtually NOTHING in Rinsch's wretched movie feels natural, or even remotely Japanese. This applies to the score, too. It occasionally sounds like outtakes from Christopher Nolan's BATMAN trilogy. It's a shame it couldn't have had a John O'Banion song, or two; or been dotted with some other sappy Japanese pop score that was a mainstay of Japanese films and TV shows in the late 70s and into the 1980s. If anything, it would have given this sideshow act some identity with those who are familiar with the source material, or the genre in general. But then, Universal's epic bowel movement doesn't seem the least bit interested in catering to its base -- just to the mainstream stereotypes and misgivings Hollywood has long held, and will continue to hold towards a culture they will never understand, nor seem all that interested in ever understanding.

***All images from various sites via google images***

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