Review: '47 Ronin'

Possibly the second-worst thing to happen to Japan so far this century, “47 Ronin” is at once both a miserable movie and an extraordinary monument to how miserable the movie industry can be. An inherently problematic attempt to graft a gaijin savior onto the most famous episode of Japanese folklore, this latest example of Chushingura has been a notoriously troubled project from the beginning, when Universal provided director Carl Erik Rinsch with an absurd budget of $175 million for his first feature, only to see that figure balloon even higher as the film suffered a number of difficulties and delays during post-production. While it’s always prickly and often unwise to view a movie through the lens of its making, “47 Ronin” was stitched together with the seamless precision of Frankenstein’s monster, its various sutures so carelessly visible that the circumstances of the film’s creation are almost impossible to untangle from the film itself.

Nearly Brechtian in the extent to which its confrontational editing becomes the text, “47 Ronin” is flimflammed together with abrupt transitions, contextually amputated moments, and several different varieties of whiteout. What casual or future viewers might be able to graciously dismiss as catastrophic ineptitude, we are burdened with the clarity to understand as a symptom of a greater problem, the lump identifying a cancer that has already spread too far.

The legend of the 47 Ronin is essentially a simple story of honor and revenge, but the tale so pivotally hinges on Japanese customs and caste systems that it almost feels designed to resist any sort of foreign repurposing. The historical narrative begins with an 18th century feudal lord who was compelled to commit ritualistic suicide (or “Harakiri”, to namecheck the title of a much better movie) after assaulting a devious court official. The lord’s death left the 47 samurai who served him without a master, rendering them ronin, a shamed and dishonored class of wayward warriors with no social value. In response to their collective neutering, the men banded together and spent two years plotting their revenge on the bureaucrat who upset the lord they served. The fallout of their vengeance would be remembered as the campaign’s defining detail, and remains the facet of the story that is perhaps least conducive to translation.

But where native cinematic titans like Kenji Mizoguchi and Hiroshi Inagaki struggled to successfully adapt this historical saga, Hollywood was dedicated to succeed. If those two revered auteurs produced authentic human epics that were overwhelmed by the vast scope of their drama, Universal Studios’ version would solve that problem by doubling down on myth and removing every last trace of humanity, adding generic flourishes of magic to the story (witches! giant creatures! that heavily tattooed guy who used to be one of Lady Gaga’s backup dancers!) until the national flavor at the heart of this story has been completely suffocated under an incoherent wail of florid bullshit.

Throw enough money at anything and at some point it will start to feel like a good idea.

Carl Erik Rinsch’s “47 Ronin” begins with a bland male narrator declaring that “The story of the 47 Ronin is the story of Japan”, instantly and inexplicably calling attention to how problematic it is for this particular telling to introduce a white savior. When the tail wags the dog this hard, the star justifies the budget rather than the budget justifying the star. Enter the doggedly lovable Keanu Reeves, who – in all fairness – is probably the most Asian movie star in the history of mainstream American cinema (his father was Hawaiian and he grew up “around Chinese art, furniture, and cuisine”, so his creds check out). Reeves plays Kai, a slave with a mysterious past who lives in a shack behind the lord’s castle. Tormented by the 46 prejudiced samurai who will reluctantly fight beside him and loved by the lord’s colorblind daughter, Kai is eventually revealed to be the only one capable of defeating the villain’s scantily clad hench-sorceress (the reliably watchable Rinko Kikuchi, who slithers across the screen like she’s the only one having any fun).

Perhaps semi-aware of how troublesome it is to suggest that a foreigner played the hero’s role in “the story of Japan”, the film tries to have it both ways, clearly identifying Kai as the protagonist while also bending over backwards to isolate him from the central plot. While the internationally famous actor Hiroyuki Sanada is afforded a decent bit of attention as the de facto leader of the ronin, Kai is undeniably the film’s greatest concern, as most of the running time that isn’t devoted to the faceless mass of avenging warriors is spent following Kai on inane adventures devoid of dramatic action or consequence. The various fight scenes in which Kai is forced to partake are recklessly shot and chaotically jammed together, failings compounded by such sequences’ utter disinterest in meaningfully articulating the film’s half-assed conception of a fantastical 18th century Japan, which seems more inspired by Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” than it does anything from the country’s rich historical imagination.

The introduction of a foreign protagonist does nothing to add a new dimension to this idiosyncratic saga (though the film is presented in 3D, a redundancy to ensure that you have absolutely no idea what you’re looking at), the script briefly flirting with the idea that honor is as arbitrary as racial prejudice before dismissing that idea in favor of Reeves squaring off with a tumored Sasquatch. And while the fights would no doubt be dull on their own, it certainly doesn’t help that viewers familiar with Reeves’ winsome directorial debut “Man of Tai Chi” – the filming of which was partially responsible for one of the post-production delays suffered by “47 Ronin – know full well what Reeves is capable of when left to his own devices.

Every scene feels dramatically confused and abbreviated beyond recognition, as if the prevailing ethos in the editing room was “terrible food, and such small portions.” While the film was supposedly taken away from Rinsch as soon as his DGA contract allowed, the editing overseen by Universal co-chairwoman Donna Langley, the butchered cut being dumped in theaters does nothing to suggest that production yielded footage required to piece together a decent movie. Indeed, the project seems to have been doomed from the very beginning, and can only be rationalized if you imagine that Universal’s executives were somehow cornered into a classic “Brewster’s Millions” situation, forced to unload an outrageous sum of money in order to collect on a greater fortune.

But the refrain goes: Throw enough money at anything and at some point it will start to feel like a good idea. Why, with $175 million at your disposal you can actually afford to shoot this most cherished Japanese legend on location against the finest green screens in Hungary! With that kind of budget you can go for broke and hire “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift” scribe Chris Morgan, the only screenwriter on the Universal lot who has definitely probably been to Japan!* They must have done a premiere screening there, right? Of course, the finished film is as disinterested in the Japanese characters as the production was in their country, only a small handful of the 47 ronin ever being granted their own shot, let alone a line of dialogue or a defining characteristic (my favorite was “the fat one” followed closely by “the 46 skinny ones”). How can you not root for these guys?

*Morgan is one of two credited writers, and "Tokyo Drift" is awesome.

An Insufferably boring, culturally hegemonic, and profoundly ugly pastiche of action adventure, the only conceivable value of this film is in how it exposes the cynicism and backwards thinking that has made Hollywood vulnerable to failures of this magnitude. It’s not just that “47 Ronin” is very bad, but that it’s hard to imagine how it possibly could have been any good. The film effectively recasts other blockbuster disasters in a positive light, lacking the scale of studio pariah “John Carter” or the visual dexterity of Gore Verbinski’s bloated but sporadically brilliant take on “The Lone Ranger”. Slightly older fiascos like “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” or “Cutthroat Island”, even with their box office receipts adjusted for inflation, left a certain artistic flair in their wake – this isn’t to suggest that those particular examples are good movies, only that it’s possible to imagine how their makers were convinced that they had the potential to be.

The most tempting comparison is to call “47 Ronin” the “Heaven’s Gate” of the CG era, but “Heaven’s Gate” – to say nothing of its recent critical reevaluation – was Michael Cimino’s follow-up to “The Deer Hunter”, while “47 Ronin” is Carl Erick Rinsch’s follow-up to a typically handsome but unexceptional sci-fi short that sparked a Hollywood bidding war.

The biggest difference is that genius was never on the table, here. Cimino and his ilk were permitted their excesses because the film industry was leashed to their visions, Hollywood motivated by profit but still convinced of possibility. While the director-driven system was fueled by hubris, “47 Ronin” proves that hubris is certainly preferable to mediocrity. $175 is an absurd sum of money, but it’s not the number that offends so much as how little was achieved with it.

Adjusted for inflation, “Heaven’s Gate” cost $157 million, which is almost $75 million less than the $225 million Universal admits to have ultimately spent on the production “47 Ronin” (to say nothing of the marketing money that followed, a fortune spent on a funeral). There’s a bit in Steve Erickson’s great novel “Zeroville” in which a character suggests that “Heaven’s Gate” was ultimately a good version of a grand movie. It’s easy to imagine that same character furiously dismissing “47 Ronin” as a cataclysmic version of a terrible movie. Those pivotal differences in ambition and potential notwithstanding, “Heaven’s Gate” was such a spectacular failure that it forced the film industry to change the way it did business. If we’re lucky, “47 Ronin” will do the same.

It was only this past summer that Steven Spielberg arrived at the opening of a new USC School of Cinematic Arts building as a herald of doom, lamenting the Hollywood machine’s over-reliance on massive blockbusters into which they poured all of their resources, tentpoles without a tent. He soberly cautioned the crowd in his keynote speech that “There's eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm."

After watching “47 Ronin”, Spielberg’s words sound less like a warning than they do a hopeful glimpse of a brighter future.

Burn Hollywood burn.

SCORE: 0.5 / 10

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