I debated whether I should watch 47 Ronin or not. It seemed to me the page view alternative was embarrassing myself by posting fan altered pictures from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles teaser trailer so I opted for Ronin. Suffice to say, the result wasn't going to be pretty either way.
Originally scheduled to hit theaters November 2012 before finally hitting theaters December 2013, the final reported budget for this retelling of the classic Japanese tale was $175 million. Throughout the course of production there was talk of just how bad things had gotten and, at the time, the budget was said to have ballooned to over $225 million. After watching all 118 minutes of this film (ten of which are the closing credits) it would appear the money was spent on crummy visual effects, but mostly production design as several massive sets, aided by CGI, were created only to eventually present a picture that never feels authentic, only cheap.
Like most failed films of this sort, it's supremely lacking in story, opting to tell most of its tale through narration in the opening moments where we're introduced to a young child named Kai, a half-Japanese, half-British outcast. Running away from those that raised him, Kai (Keanu Reeves) is eventually taken in by the Ako clan where he isn't accepted by the samurai living there, but finds the Lord's daughter, Mika (Ko Shibasaki), is quite smitten with him and he with her.
Things for the Ako bunch are about to take a turn for the worse. Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), master of ceremonies to Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), takes to Mika in advance of the Shogun's arrival. Through a convoluted plan and a bit of witchcraft, he twists a narrative into action that causes the Ako Lord to commit seppuku in order to save the reputation of his people, after which the samurai serving Ako are banished and declared ronin and told to never exact revenge.
Flash forward a year later and Kai has become something of a gladiator and the boys are ready to get back together to try and avenge their lord and reclaim their land from Kira as Mika's time of grieving is declared over and it's time for the two to get hitched.
Now if that sounds confusing, I apologize, but it only sounds more confusing than it really is. In essence there's a bad guy that stole Keanu's girl and her father's land and it's about time to take it back. Obviously this will also involve the ronin not trusting Kai until he proves himself to them and blah, blah, they accept him as one of their own, blah, blah, exact revenge, blah, there's a witch that turns into a dragon, blah, the end.
What's truly amazing about all of this is how screenwriters Chris Morgan (Fast & Furious 6) and Hossein Amini (Snow White and the Huntsman) attempt to wedge this new Kai character into the 18th century story and still try and maintain some semblance of authenticity while also weaving witches, beasts and magic into the mix. By the time you get to the very end, it's embarrassing to think director Carl Rinsch or the screenwriters felt they earned the right to portray the honorable deaths of the samurai via seppuku. Have they never seen a samurai movie before?
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I watched a pair of the special features included on the Blu-ray and all I kept hearing was how they wanted to "modernize" the story. What exactly does that mean? We are, after all, still telling what is meant to be an 18th century story, so where does the modernization come into play? Is it the special effects? Is it "modern" to have a half-white, half-Japanese character inserted into the story where he doesn't belong and never existed? Does being modern mean shape-shifting witches and lizard people?
I still haven't watched the original 1941 Japanese version of the story (though both parts are available on Hulu), but watching this made me want to rush to Hulu to cleanse myself of this mess, of which I never expected to be this bad.
Watching the features I get the impression Rinsch never had a firm grasp on what he felt this film should be. It seems his idea of big and epic has to do with imagery, not story and not the consequence of actions. By attempting to "modernize" the story, the stakes for the ronins' decision to avenge their master's death become cloudy, largely because so much time is spent focusing on Kai and the group's search for weapons.
Seriously, the first 40 minutes leads to the moment Ako's retainers are made ronin, the next 40 or so are spent looking for swords, then the attack happens and... the end. We never get to know these men and only their leader, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), is given any real kind of face time and his was the only name of the bunch I even remembered once the credits rolled.