Friday, May 16, 2014

'47 Ronin': The Untriumphant Return of Keanu Reeves

You know whom we haven't heard from in a while? Keanu Reeves.

Or more accurately, he's been trying to get in touch, and we keep hiding behind the furniture with the shades drawn until he goes away. How did this come to happen? Twenty-five years ago, we were more than happy to hang out with stoner Keanu when he was just trying to get "Wild Stallyns", the best rock band of all time, off the ground. Then there was that one time he worked with Patrick Swayze and turned into a Hollywood icon, but it was still cool. He remained grounded, even stretching himself creatively with some work based on classic literature from Bram Stoker and William Shakespeare, while speedily becoming known as a bit of an action star as well. Then he did a little movie for a pair of sibling directors that changed cinema as we know it. Granted, he also did the sequels, and that's arguably why we don't pay too much attention to Keanu these days.
The best English speaker here is the horse on the right.
But should we? I mean, he's not the greatest actor out there. There's no getting around it. But his being punished for the sins of a couple of overreaching directors doesn't seem a good enough reason for 47 Ronin to have become the failure it did. When it was released on a crowded Christmas weekend this past December, the oft-delayed directorial debut of Carl Rinsch had already seen its share of delays, from rewrites to exorbitant special effects to 3D conversion. But its story - a loose adaptation of the Japanese story known as Chushingura with the addition of fantasy elements - really isn't all that bad. What most people had a problem with - if they bothered to acknowledge the film at all - was the primary focus on Reeves as the "outsider" adopted into Japanese society, upon whom the Ronin are forced to put all their faith in for them to succeed in avenging their slain master. All praise the one white guy!
Group photo!!
And yeah, I can see why that would be seen as a problem. This isn't like The Last Samurai or Shogun, which were absolutely an outsider's visions of feudal Japan. 47 Ronin is based on traditional Japanese folklore and told from their culture's perspective, and so slapping an American hero (even one touted as being of mixed blood) on the front of that poster can leave a poor taste in peoples' mouths. But on the other hand, this release never pretends to be anything other than a fantastical, fictional variation on that tale, and from that perspective, as a movie it kind of works. It's not perfect, but yeah, this is absolutely a title worthy of a rental.
She's pretty, so naturally her character is tragic. Or she's a pop singer. Or both.
Bad stuff out of the way first: language. Obviously this was a movie primarily intended for American audiences, but having the actors perform in English was simply a mistake, even if I could write it off as simple literary replacement (in real life, they're speaking completely in Japanese, but we see it in English anyway). This works against the film in two ways; one, much of the dialogue can be irrevocably lost due to a simple lack of inflection; second, most of the cast doesn't really have a grasp on the language they're supposed to be speaking, with the few exceptions being those who have performed in American cinema before (Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi). I know it's not popular thinking, but this is a film that would have benefited from subtitles, as it would have allowed for not only more expressive actors, but more understandable ones, as well.
"So, sign here for my 401k, right?"
There's also a distinct lack of characterization when it comes to the Ronin, as well, though it's not as bad as you might think. Yes, Keanu's Kai gets top billing, and he's the cliched MacGuffin without which there would be no central plot. He does do a good job, but to be fair that's mainly because Kai is written as so fitting to his usual onscreen persona that it would have been impossible for him to screw up. But Oishi, the band's de facto leader (Sanada), has a whole arc, and despite his name being below Keanu's on the movie posters, he's arguably the film's main - and most sympathetic - character. However, it does go downhill from there. Kou Shibasaki is a standard damsel in distress, waiting for Kai to rescue her from her fate. Kikuchi's enigmatic witch is a major plus, but she really doesn't get much screen time to work. Still, she's a huge step up from Asano, who apparently learned to mug for the camera and chew scenery during his recent Hollywood sojourn. The rest of the characters have little to no personality, playing one-note parts whose names you'll never remember and whose impact on the story are negligible at best.
There's just something... intriguing... about Rinko Kikuchi... and not just her name.
But the biggest character in the film is by far the most evocative, and that's the imagery of fantastical, feudal Japan. Say what you will about Rinsch's work as director (and I though he did a solid job for the most part), but he oversaw a tremendous undertaking that included some of the most gorgeous special effects to hit screens since The Return of the King. The vistas are breathtaking. The camerawork is simply fantastic. The CGI environments are stellar. And the creature effects - with the exception of the quivering "Tengu" monks, which were predestined to look stupid - are far better than the professional standard that's been set of late. Yes, the actual mythology of this setting is surprisingly stark, with no explanations made as to how these monsters, witches and magic swords could possibly exist. But with the story moving at such a brisk pace, there's little time to dwell on what 47 Ronin doesn't do and you can focus on how good it looks while playing to its strengths.
He doesn't know Kung Fu. But he does have a killer sword!
Keanu might be passe these days (his other 2013 film Man of Tai Chi, might also find its way here soon), but 47 Ronin definitely didn't deserve to go down as the biggest box office bomb of all time (not counting for inflation). While certainly flawed, it succeeds as a simple popcorn actioneer that also treats its legendary subject matter with more honor than you might originally have thought. In fact, it feels so reminiscent of classic samurai films, both fantasy and traditional, that its appeal to fans of the genre is readily apparent. Should you rent it? Weak moments aside, there's plenty to enjoy in the two hours it will take to watch. And in the best case scenario, you might discover something you wish you had seen on the big screen when you had the chance.

No comments: