Ronin on Empty
Well, the end of the year is very nearly upon us, and of course one of the signs of this is the fact that the cinemas are getting ready to fill up with prestigious, big-budget, star-laden quality movies, all with an eye to collecting as many gongs as possible in a few months time: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Twelve Years a Slave, the Mandela movie, and doubtless many others will soon be with us. None of them really look like a barrel of laughs, but on the other hand it's arguably the equivalent of the January detox after the usual festive excesses.
Sneaking out ahead of the pack is Carl Rinsch's 47 Ronin, a costume-drama based on the venerable and much-loved Chushingura literature dating from early 18th century Japan. Clearly, no expense has been spared in bringing this slice of Shogunate life to the screen in a deeply authentic and respectful way, as all the subtleties and strangenesses of feudal Japan survive intact, with a very nuanced and emotionally expressive central performance as a samurai warrior from Keanu Reeves.
It all sounds just about plausible until you reach those last couple of words, doesn't it? (And I say that as someone who nearly always enjoys it when Keanu turns up on screen.) Hey ho: this is very much not a prestige production, nor even a remotely successful one. In a rational world it might even be challenging the likes of After Earth for the title of Dog of the Year, but we shall see.
As the film opens we are transported to a Mystic Japan of Expository Voice-overs, where demons and spirits still lurk in the forests (despite the fact that it's technically set only about three hundred years ago). The movie may be based on a real-life historical event, but the actual plot structure we are presented with consists almost entirely of bits from bog-standard fantasy movies with their desktop theme reset to late-period Kurosawa. So we meet the mysterious orphan adopted by a wise old nobleman, witness his loyalty and nobility as his patron's blood family mistreat him, are party to various wicked shenanigans from an ambitious rival noble, and so on. There is a tragedy, exile, a regrouping of the protagonists, a trip to the mystic forest for supernatural aid and so on. In the end there is a damn big fight in a castle.
Now, sick as I am of bog-standard fantasy movies, I would still concede that it might be possible to do one of these movies that wasn't actively dreadful – but for this to happen, you would need a witty and intelligent script with a firm handle on the characters, brought to life by engaged and charismatic performers and a director of vision and energy. 47 Ronin has none of these things, with the remarkable result that a big-budget fusion of the fantasy and samurai genres with lashings of CGI and a considerable amount of bloody mayhem actually turns out to be really, really dull.
I can forgive a film being bad as long as it's bad in an interesting way. Tedium is much bigger crime in my book, and this film reeks of it – and it's really all down to the script, which is mechanical and obvious, not bothering to bring any of the characters to life, and the direction, which is flat, uninspired, and too reliant on empty spectacle to really involve the viewer.
Keanu is at his most robotic throughout – though his cause isn't helped by the fact that the film can't seem to decide whether his character is the main hero, or if it's in fact Hiroyuki Sanada. I should point out that Keanu is the only significant non-Japanese character in the film (there's a very Pirates of the Caribbean-informed visit to some Portuguese traders, but it's over with quickly) and most of the cast is made up of Japanese thesps whose faces may be vaguely familiar to you even if their names aren't. Most of them have a decent stab at the material, such as it is – though the totemo kawaii Rinko Kikuchi really struggles with the part of a vampy witch (or possibly a witchy vamp) who spends some of the time looking like a fox, some of it looking like a dragon, but nearly all of it looking a bit like David Bowie.
Despite this, for most of its duration the film feels about as authentically Japanese as Usain Bolt playing the bagpipes while dressed in lederhosen. There's something very odd about the conception of this film – it's a bit like Japanese producers deciding to make a Robin Hood movie, then casting a lot of British and American stars in it but requiring them to speak Japanese (with Watanabe Ken prominently cast as a Merry Man).
The only element of the film which felt to me as if it genuinely came from Japanese culture was a slightly distasteful obsession with ritual suicide. This is practically fetishised by the film, and – without giving too much away – it happens in bulk quantities. Something very weird is going on when something that appears to have been an attempt at an exciting fantasy adventure for a mainstream audience feels the need to include dozens of characters committing seppuku, and virtually celebrates this.
I saw the trailer for 47 Ronin, clocked the dodgy historicity, prominent CGI, and Keanu Reeves, and thought I had the film pegged as 300 Goes East. I would never seriously argue that 300 is a great movie, but it's highly entertaining – virtually the definition of a guilty pleasure. Watching 47 Ronin didn't make me feel guilty, but I got hardly any pleasure from it. I respect Keanu Reeves' decision only to take selected acting roles these days – but on this evidence, he really needs to do his selecting with a lot more care and attention, because 47 Ronin is a rotten film.