Growing up in the 90's, I was one of many kids in my generation who were fascinated by the fantastic world of the martial arts. Now, granted, we didn't actually watch any real kung fu movies, didn't know who, say, The Shaw Brothers or Sonny Chiba were, and probably couldn't pick out Bruce Lee in a line up if you paid us in skateboards and Go-gurt, but we had something better. We had the Power Rangers, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Double Dragon brothers, those crazy 3 Ninja kids, not to be confused with those crazy Surf Ninja Kids, and of course, lest we ever forget, those kung fu kangaroos The Warriors of Virtue. Yeah, we had no taste, but we were stupid kids, what did we know? Now its been 20+ years since then, we've grown up, refined our cinematic palette, and moved on to bigger and better things. At least most of us did. One of us apparently grew up to make 47 Ronin. Good grief.
Okay, maybe I should give the producers of this movie the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they do have a solid appreciation for the classics of the genre they're working in, and they just happen to be really bad at translating that into an original work, but I suspect otherwise. The Man With The Iron Fists proved that even a misguided and inappropriate love of actual classic kung fu tropes can be cheesily awesome in a guilty pleasure sort of way. I suspect that what the people who made 47 Ronin love about martial arts cinema, or rather what they think of as martial arts cinema, is what you get after it has been bastardized over several years to appeal to a mainstream American audience. Its like the telephone game applied to movies; you start with something good, dumb it down for a different audience, then dumb it down again for children, then sit back a while until it becomes nostalgic as those children become adults, and then reboot it for those same adults.
47 Ronin is a movie out of time, and not just because it focuses on a bygone era of Feudal Japan, which of course it doesn't, because even though the legend of the 47 Ronin is at least reputed to be a true story, the witches, minotaurs, bird people, and dragons probably weren't involved. And leave it to Hollywood to take a story celebrated by Japanese people to this day, inject it with monsters and magic, and still have the most offensive thing about it be that a white guy has to save everyone in the end. To the film's credit, I think, at least the fact of Keanu Reaves whiteness is an important part of his character and isn't just ignored as it was in, say, Elysium. Then again, the fact that he's a "half breed" is still only a flimsy justification for having an American as the main character, and given that this apparently didn't help its box office much and might have hurt it overseas, ironically a more authentic approach might have served everyone better, the audience included.
There are a few saving graces, notably the acting of most of the Japanese cast, who commit to very two dimensional roles with enough passion and gravitas to almost make you forget that they're all walking cliches. Hiroyuki Sanada from last year's The Wolverine once again plays a good gruff traditionalist, this time in a heroic context, and Pacific Rim's Rinko Kikuchi's goofy eyed shapeshifter is fun, even though the movie suggests more for her character than it ultimately delivers. We also get a number of interesting set pieces that suggest a better movie could have been had, notably a mystical slave fight club that might have given the film a crazy Pirates of the Caribbean historical fantasy mash up feel if they'd stayed there more than five minutes. Most of the overt fantasy elements feel like this, wedged in haphazardly and treated almost as an afterthought when they could have been so much better if given time to breathe.
But then, I don't want to leave the impression that 47 Ronin is the kind of movie that but for a few tweaks could have been something great. There are deeper structural flaws with this movie that can't be avoided or ignored, most egregious being the complete silliness of its approach to a story still regarded with a great deal of reverence by so many people. One would think that if you're adapting a story like this, your target audience would be fans of the original tale, such that you would seek to do justice to the source material, and that enforced limitation of fealty would rein in the temptation towards cheesy excess. Unfortunately, 47 Ronin is paradoxically not made for people who actually care about the 47 Ronin or even know who they were or what they did, so nothing was stopping the producers of the movie from throwing in a bunch of nonsense and trying to cobble it all together into a mess of inauthentic and insultingly bland crap. It doesn't work as history, it doesn't work as high fantasy, and while its occasionally fun to look at, it simply doesn't work, period.