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Tuesday, 3 June 2014

47 Ronin.

A review? On Tuesday? What is this sorcery?

I'm increasing my posting schedule, so this should be becoming a regular thing. Tuesday is going to function as something like a 'free slot', sometimes having reviews, and other times having lists or editorials in it. Precisely what day it is may be prone to shuffling about once Game of Thrones and Orphan Black end, to account for the new ongoings that will be taking their place.

Right-o, on with the review.

47 Ronin.

I really didn't want to watch this film.

I pretty much made myself watch it to review it purely because it is the worst box office flop in history, having crashed and burned so spectacularly that it nearly killed the company that produced it.

For those who don't know or who are only distantly familiar with it, the Story of the Forty-Seven Ronin is a very well-known and very well-loved folkloric/semi-historical tale in Japan. It tells of forty-seven samurai that served under Lord Asano. Asano, having been repeatedly bullied and insulted by a court official, Lord Kira, eventually snaps and assaults Kira with a dagger, and for that is ordered to ritually commit suicide.

Asano's men, led by his principal counsellor, Oishi, took revenge on Kira and killed him, as bushido told them they should. Left in a quandary, as they had broken the law but at the same time upheld the ideals that they as samurai were meant to adhere to, the shogunate ordered the ronin to commit suicide, as Lord Asano had done.

It's one of Japan's iconic tragic stories, with the forty-seven ronin embodying ideals of loyalty, honour and self-sacrifice, and it's been adapted into more than six films, plenty of plays, an opera, twenty-two different television dramas, a ballet, and several different comic book series.

There was much soul-searching, I'm told, as to why this film wasn't popular in Japan: After all, it's a beloved Japanese story with a fantasy twist, with several well-known and respected Japanese actors like Rinko Kikuchi and Hiroyuki Sanada. Why, then, was it not an instant success in Japan?

Well, here's two ideas.

One, it's dull, dull, unspeakably dull.

Two, you took a Japanese story and made it all about a white guy.

A white guy who could not act his way out of a paper bag.

I'm really glad, actually, that both this film has failed so spectacularly, because Hollywood needs to learn that, by jove, if you're adapting an important story from another culture, don't cast a white American Canadian dude as your lead actor.

(And yes, he does have a Chinese-Hawaiian grandmother. This does not make it any better, since a) The producers clearly still wanted their audience to go 'Phew, white protagonist! Dodged a bullet there!' and b) It now reeks of 'All foreign is the same, right? Japan, China, Hawaii, all the same.')

But if you're going to do that, you know what you definitely shouldn't do? Have the gall to then have a major subplot be how terribly racist all the Japanese people in the film are. Cor, they are racist, aren't they. Not like white people who bravely weather their slings and arrows and then benevolently make their stories all about a white dude saving the day. 

The problem, incidentally, isn't even with the assertion that Japan may have a racism problem - Japan does have a racism problem, it really, truly does. The problem is that film producers who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

But, okay. Same deal that I made with The Wolverine, which is in many respects a very similar film: If you subtracted all the racism, would this still be a bad film?

Well, it's very visually striking, I'll say that. Some of the scenery – a lot of the scenery – is astoundingly beautiful. There's a strong cast of actors, although the fact that Keanu Reeves is consistently outshone by people performing in a language that is not their native tongue says volumes either about how excellent they are or how terrible he is – extra special props to Rinko Kikuchi, who steals every scene she's in and is a delightful scenery gnawing villain. The soundtrack is functional, bordering on good at a few points. 

This film is startlingly pretty at points, for being so bad.

But no. It would still be a bad film, because there's just not much here: With The Wolverine, I could at least say that there were the seeds of a fun, stupid action flick, but I can't say the same thing about 47 Ronin. It's beautiful, certainly, but in a way that would be just as beautiful if it was a series of photographs, because there's no life behind it.

I'll try to clarify:

I don't care about a single one of these characters or their problems and the film never tries to make me care. I don't care that Mika is getting married to Evilly Smirking Lord Evil. I don't care that any of these samurai have been disgraced. I don't care that people keep calling Kai a monster. I don't care that he was raised by bird people and that they're not well-chuffed with him.

Why would I care? Not one of these characters has a personality that couldn't be described in one word ('Wooden' for Keanu, 'smirky' for Lord Kira, 'gruff' for Oishi, 'pretty' for Chikara). None of them feel like real people, and when the story tries to give them backstory and stakes, it comes off as painfully clumsy. Oh, look, a Tengu. He's expositing about Keanu Reeves' upbringing. Well, it's good he told me, because if he hadn't spent half a minute chattering about it I would have thought that Keanu's character existed solely so that American audiences had a white face to look at, and the fee for hiring a literal man made of cardboard was just too high. Oh, look, Oishi's wife. She doesn't seem to understand the class system of her own country. I do hope she reads a book before we see her again.

(To be honest, not caring about the characters isn't even the worst of it. I don't even understand what the villain, Lord Kira, wants – in the original story, he's just a bully. Here, his motivations change every five minutes, from wanting to humiliate Lord Asano, to wanting to marry his daughter, to wanting to take over his lands, to wanting to rule all Japan. I'm not sure why any of these plans required a witch or a Cthulhu-Samurai.)

I mean, it's nice to have a witch, but he could've gotten by
without her.

The love story, such as it is, doesn't help. We're clearly meant to care about Keanu's romance with Mika, but it's impossible to muster any kind of enthusiasm for that, either, because they have all the chemistry of two noble gases. They only have about two, maybe three scenes anyway, and if any of them were meant to compel me into believing that these are a pair of young lovers, they failed spectacularly, because every scene in which the two of them together has no spark, to the point of being soporifically boring.

Nor does it help that the pacing is so very off. The plot doesn't really get started until forty minutes into a one-hour-forty-five-minute film, and when it finally does get moving, it zips from set piece to set piece, never really stopping on any of them. “LookTengusoepicsomysterioushavesomebackstorywoooooaaaahwe'reoutoftimebro,” the story chatters as it snatches you unceremoniously out of a subplot about finding magic swords and lobs you towards the next set piece. “Ambush!” As soon as you've finished blinking yourself back to awareness and taking in that now the characters are being ambushed in a burning field, the story grabs you again, hisses "Character death, quick, start caring about this nameless ronin who provided half a minute of comic relief a little while ago," and then hauls you over its shoulder and carts you off towards the mercifully brief climactic showdown.

Neither does it help that even the action scenes, the one place where you think the film would excel, just seem phoned in. I couldn't put my finger on anything wrong with them, it's just that I also can't put my finger on anything right with them. Some people had swords. There was a CGI dragon. Stuff exploded. The choreography was functional but unimpressive, the cinematography failed to highlight the action at all, and I watched the action scenes while checking the clock on my computer to see if they were going to be ending any time soon.

It's all just so lacklustre. This doesn't feel like a film that had any effort put into it whatsoever: It feels like a film that was hastily thrown together by a committee of half a dozen executive producers who wanted a quick, easy hit and didn't have a shred of creativity, cinematic ability, or passion to share between them.

When people talk about Hollywood as if it's a soulless engine of creative bankruptcy, spawning endless bland flicks that follow the same formulas and are keyed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, 47 Ronin is the film they mean. It is everything bad about Hollywood neatly wrapped into one film.

There's a thinly masked cynicism here, an apathy, a rather snide suggestion that so long as you put a name like Keanu Reeves on something with swords and explosions, you'll get people in seats, and they were wrong. 

Oh, look, a better candidate for the main character.

What a beautiful set of scenery photographs this was. A+ on the scenery, really, and A+ on a lot of the acting – I had fun seeing Masayuki Deai, actually, usually I just see him being ridiculous on tokusatsu shows. But a U on everything else, because this film is phoned in, and if there's anything the Star Wars prequels should have taught us about film-making, it's that even the best cast of actors in the most beautiful sets will not save a badly written and badly directed and badly produced film.

At least Star Wars had some exciting action scenes. Apparently Gwendoline Christie has been cast in the next one, so I look forward to everybody else fading into a grey, amorphous mass in my memory.

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