Sunday, January 05, 2014

Film: "47 Ronin"

47 Ronin is this floptastic big budget action film set in Japan and starring Keanu Reeves. It turns out to be based on a true story that is apparently famous in Japan. Some feudal lord assaulted another visiting lord who was a court official of the Shogun. For this terrible affront, the Shogun obliged the feudal lord to commit ritual suicide. His samurai then became masterless — the 47 ronin of the film's title. But they decided to avenge their master's death by taking on the court official lord, who had in some way been asking for the assault their master meted out to him. Thus they laid their plans and carefully embarked on a campaign of vengeance.

The film takes this bare bones story and throws in both fantasy elements and Keanu Reeves. And it is in 3D. It is a reasonably enjoyable confection. Like many films, there are things wrong with it, but the same is true of many films that go on to be seen by many people. So I am curious as to what exactly went wrong with this one.

Let me consider first the film's problematic elements. Adding in fantasy elements is not a bad thing in and of itself — sword fighting samurai are great but samurai fighting shape-changing witches are even better? In this case, however, the CGI effects used for the fantasy elements are distinctly second rate and severely detract from the suspension of disbelief required to accept that the guy with the sword is actually fighting a snake monster. The people who make films seem to think that CGI is far more convincing than it actually is, leading to any number of films like 47 Ronin featuring risible monsters. With this film they would have been far better advised to tone down the fantasy elements and foreground the people laying into each other with swords, leaving the witch as a more subtle presence (or writing her out completely).

The use of 3D was also a bit unhelpful. 3D is meant to make films more realistic but here there was a counter-intuitive distancing effect that made it oddly difficult to follow what was going on in some of the action sequences. That 3D was being combined with ropey CGI meant that things became very murky.

The film attempts to court a PG audience by toning down the violence a bit, so in this film we miss severed limbs, blood, and flying heads. But again, this weakens the action sequences so that we end up a bit vague as to what is going on.

Yet for all these negative features, the film is not without its charms. The good guys have a nicely heroic quality, gamely following what they see as the path of honour yet knowing that it will bring them to their deaths. The bad guy and his witch associate are properly evil and make for great pantomime villains. And I liked the whole sub-plot they created for Keanu Reeves. He is an outsider adopted by the original master of the 47 ronin, but he has to endure the suspicion and hostility of the lord's established servants. That they eventually have to make friends with him to advance their goal of vengeance makes for some great male bonding stuff.

The ronin successfully avenge themselves on the evil lord. And then it follows the original story rather than embracing a Hollywood ending. Because they have defied the will of the Shogun, who forbade them from avenging their master's death, the ronin are themselves obliged to commit ritual suicide. And that's how the film ends, not with Keanu Reeves shacking up with the aristocratic lady who loves him but with him and his friends disembowelling themselves. This defiantly unhappy ending may be the real reason why it tanked so badly in the West, as it follows narrative norms so different to what we are used to. But it did not do that well in Japan either, so who knows.

image source

An inuit panda production


Trish H said...

I still want to see this movie. I love it when Keanu mumbles his dialog with no facial expression except that of pure wretchedness.

Fair point about the snakes. I honestly believe that The Worshipful Masters of CGI have set their underlings the task of making a convincing CGI snake.It is indeed a humbling task, since not even the cgi team for David Attenborough's 'Alive' got it exactly right.

ian said...

With Keanu and acting - he is perfectly grand for roles like this where he has to just look a bit troubled/confused with occasional switches to looking a bit cross about things.

With CGI - partly the CGI in this film is a bit below par, but I really do think that film makers often seem to think that even good CGI is more convincing than it is.