Thursday, December 26, 2013

47 RONIN Slices and Dices

47 RONIN Review:

- 47 Ronin bears the mark of a movie that's been through the proverbial wringer. Like a person who's had obvious plastic surgery, this is a movie that, clearly, has had work done. As you watch it, scenes feel spliced in, mashed together, pulled out, and re-inserted. The fact that this is a film that went through many re-shoots and re-edits over a multi-year period is visible up on screen. And yet, 47 Ronin works pretty darn well in spite of that fact. It tells a fun story, and there's a lot of cool stuff packed into the film. Once it moved past the cut-and-pasted set-up portion, I really started getting into it. At some point, I found myself surprised as I thought, Keanu-like, "whoah ... this got pretty epic, dude."

The cool thing about 47 Ronin is that it feels like a Japanese film that just so happens to be in English. The pacing, the look, the way the plot unfolds - it all feels very Japanese. This will likely surprise and possibly turn off those expecting a non-stop roller-coaster ride of an action film. But I really dug it. There is a lot of build-up here to the big action scenes, but that means that those action scenes feel more well-earned, more climactic, than in your typical mindless action flick.

Also, this might just be me, but 47 Ronin has one of those stories that is just inherently sort of awesome, and that lends itself to action-movie gravitas. The plot takes place in feudal Japan, and centers on Keanu Reeves as Kai - an outsider due to his mysterious origins. Kai is dubbed by others as a half-breed, because it is said that he is the offspring of a human woman and a demon. Kai is indeed the progeny of magical demons, but he fled their kingdom and found refuge in a nearby land. There, he fell in love with Mika, the daughter of the local lord. But their love was forbidden, since Kai was considered a lowly outcast. And so Kai lives on the fringes - alone, unable to be with Mika, and unable to fulfill his other ambition - to be a samurai. Eventually, however, events force Kai to step out from the sidelines. During a rare visit from the Shogun, the Shogun's sinister advisers - including a mysterious witch (Pacific Rim's Rinko Kikuchi) - plot to seize control from the lord of the land. Their play for power works - and soon the lord is dead, and evil forces rule the land. What's more, the samurai - numbering 47, and now masterless (thus becoming what is known as "ronin") - are exiled. The movie then picks up years later, when the gruff leader of the former samurai, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), devises a plan to take back his land from the Witch. To do so, he knows that he must recruit Kai - though Kai was never a samurai, he was one of the land's best and bravest fighters, even if few would admit it.

So yeah, maybe I'm just a sucker for epic revenge flicks. Maybe I've got a soft spot for stories about outcasts realizing their destiny and leading a group of warriors into battle. But regardless, I found myself getting pretty caught up in the increasingly epic story of 47 Ronin. Like I said, the beginning of the movie is a bit of a chore to get through. We're told Kai's origin story in a seemingly endless montage that feels like the infodump to end all infodumps. However, once things finally settle down, and the story begins to unfold more naturally, it becomes pretty involving. Not only is there a simple but deeply-felt impetus behind the quest of the ronin (to seek revenge for their master and take back their land), but so too is there a nicely-developed arc about Kai's slow-but-steady journey towards acceptance with the ronin. The movie doesn't give us anything we haven't seen before, plot-wise, but it develops its key characters well, and delivers all the trappings that make this sort of revenge story work well - rousing speeches, stern vows of vengeance, and love-to-hate-'em villains who seem to seethe evil. As the Witch, Rinko Kikuchi is great - far-removed from the more innocent and lovable character she played in Pacific Rim. Here, she's a true femme fatale - slinky and seductive, but also full of killer intent. I've also got to give huge props to Hiroyuki Sanada as Oishi - most recently seen in The Wolverine. This guy is the real deal, and he brings a huge level of badassery and gravitas to the role of Oishi, leader of the 47 ronin. Many will be surprised to find that this is as much Oishi's story as it is Kai's. But given how great Sanada is, that's a very good thing indeed. Keanu Reeves is quite good here as well. This isn't a part that forces him to stretch too much - he's playing the stoic, sullen zen-master type - but Keanu does these parts well. I enjoyed his turn here as Kai - Keanu makes Kai a natural badass both through his acting and through the ease by which he swings and slices his way through the big action beats.

Also, this is just a pretty weird movie, in a way that's fun and will be much-appreciated by fanboys of a certain type. It's chock full of the kind of crazy-ass stuff you usually only see in the most whacked-out Japanese videogames: giant mythological beasts that look like the kind of thing you might summon in a Final Fantasy game, creepy-looking rock-demons, and of course, a Witch who turns into a mystical and deadly dragon. The movie takes a lot of left-turns into full-on fantasy, but for those who enjoy a magical, mythical take on Japanese history (and who doesn't?), there's a lot to like here. This is definitely not typical Hollywood blockbuster stuff - the monsters and creatures in this film are very unique, very Japanese.

The film feels Japanese not just in terms of pacing and visual design, but also in the way that its story doesn't pull punches for an American audience. Okay, it obviously features well-known American actor Keanu Reeves in a lead role, but what I mean is: if you've seen much Asian cinema, you know that it often goes to some dark places, story-wise, and often eschews the happy endings typical of Hollywood films. Without spoiling anything, I'll simply say that while, yes, this may be a big-studio blockbuster, it plays out much more like a Japanese import. Suffice it to say ... expect some seppuku!

Again, where 47 Ronin suffers is that it quite simply feels majorly disjointed in parts. There's a rough-draft feel to the movie that likely speaks to all of the re-shoots and re-edits. In some ways, it feels like a multi-movie epic was crammed into a single film. And yet, the movie works best when it breathes, takes its time, and lets the story build for maximum drama.When it's cramming in exposition or seemingly rushing through some of its big action scenes, you can only guess at the sorts of band-aids and duct-tape that had to be applied to get this movie completed. That unfinished feel is also noticeable during a few key scenes in which it feels like something is missing or left on the cutting room floor. For example, a key sequence, in which the Witch believes all 47 ronin to be dead by her army's hand, makes little sense based on what we've seen (namely, many of the ronin clearly, well, not dying). It feels like a last-minute plot-insertion to get from Point A to Point B, but it ends up disrupting the flow of the film and taking us out of the movie. Other instances of odd editing are just odd, like the awkward narration that closes out the film. For the life of me, I can't figure out why it's there - it totally saps the power of the real ending that happens moments earlier. Again, it's that feeling that the movie was assembled, in some instances, Frankenstein-style from disparate parts that had to then be glued together.

Still, 47 Ronin has a lot of charm, and I think it has enough cool-factor to eventually gain a cult following of sorts. Despite its flaws, I admire the movie for clearly having so much passion for its subject matter and the mythology that surrounds it, and for having the guts to go all-in to really feel like a Japanese-style revenge epic. There's badassery and cool visuals aplenty, and I'll say this: the movie got me pretty pumped-up as it went on. This is one that people will forever wonder about, in terms of whether there's a a smoother, cleaner, more coherant director's cut that exists or that could have been. But what we did get, while oddly edited and chopped-up feeling at times, still has enough epicness to be well worth a watch.

My Grade: B

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