2013, 119mins, 12
Director: Carl Rinsch
Writer (s): Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini
Cast includes: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Min Tanaka, Tadanobu Asano
UK Release Date: 26th December 2013
It’s been a tough road to multiplexes for “47 Ronin”. Delayed by over a year and rumoured to have waddled seriously over-budget, the samurai epic is already (two days into its global release) in serious danger of making “The Lone Ranger” and “R.I.P.D” appear like serviceable box-office performers. Early reviews haven’t been favourable either, cultivating the image of a belated Christmas turkey, dimming the final embers of star Keanu Reeves’ once justified claim to marquee validity. Except it’s not that bad. The film’s financial future is already dispiritingly inevitable, but if you’re willing to dabble in scrappy big screen fantasy “47 Ronin” actually comes over as gracefully watchable. It’s devastatingly underwritten and not particularly well acted, but Carl Rinsch’s feature debut looks gorgeous and manages to sustain itself over two beefy hours. Whilst watching the decadently assembled spectacle onscreen, the whiff of production woe diffuses only faintly, and it certainly doesn’t obstruct the piece’s arresting designs.
Having lived a dark and mysterious childhood, Kai (played as an adult by Keanu Reeves) is adopted into a feudal Japanese community, viewed as a second-class citizen on the basis of his mixed ancestry. When his home and love are threatened by warlord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and witch Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi of “Pacific Rim” fame); Kai bands up with a group of recently disgraced Samurai (known as Ronin) to help return rightful governance and bring justice upon the villains. However in order to do so they will need weapons, resources and courage, not all of which are readily available in the human domains of ancient Japan.
Rinsch made his name in the world of advertising (and was mooted to helm the “Alien” reboot before it became “Prometheus”) and it shows in “47 Ronin”, a film in thrall to the power of individual images. Everything from locations, monuments, characters and creatures are endowed with imaginative and unique visual identities, often affording the feature additional points of connection with the oriental legend it incites. The action sequences are competent, but it’s the Peter Jackson-esque portrait shots and smaller details that lend “47 Ronin” a proper sense of craft, attention clearly having been voraciously applied to the movie’s surface. It helps that “47 Ronin” achieves a suitably sweeping sensibility, pushing its characters through just enough lavishly wrought locales to inherit impressive scale, all backed by a traditional but enthusiastic score. If the film did indeed cost as much as some have speculated (projections range from $150-200 million) then at least the dough is up there for all to see, bolstering Rinsch’s work with generous lashings of gloss.
The screenplay is broadly plotted, with little focus applied to any mythology or context that isn’t utterly essential for coherence. As fantasies go “47 Ronin” isn’t fresh or innovative, but the grandeur of its aesthetic helps fill the duller beats with awe, and it would be foolish to claim the movie enjoys no scripting success. The end proves strangely powerful, and whilst rote characterisation hampers some performances (including a wooden Reeves); the film’s odder fascinations helpfully inform others. Rinko Kikuchi is slinky, menacing and incredibly sexy as the witch at the heart of Kira’s scheming, channelling the ethereal and overt visual designs into her playfully seductive turn. Similarly Hiroyuki Sanada (as the chief Ronin) engages comfortably with themes of stoicism and nobility that run through Samurai life, lending the film’s cultural component further value. Without ever trying too hard, Sanada runs rings around his A-list co-star.
“47 Ronin” is hugely imperfect, but it’s not some sort of grossly overwrought holocaust. Dramatically its successes are muted, but there’s no denying the worth of the feature’s pristinely formed exterior; and thanks to an abundance of acceptable action it’s rarely boring. The affair certainly leads me to believe Carl Rinsch might be capable of something special in the future; maybe when he comes into possession of a clearer narrative map and less obviously limited leading man. “47 Ronin” isn’t the disgrace some industry insiders and media types are labelling it – in fact – it’s a slightly better than average Holiday blockbuster. If you can stomach silly, there’s junky Hollywood buzz to be absorbed here.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013