The only thing mesmerizing about 47 Ronin is the thought experiment wherein Japanese master visualist Kenji Mizoguchi, directing a film of the same title and based on the same classic Japanese myth in 1941, imagines that 70 years of the Hollywood machine threshing at full force will result in a new version of the film fronted by actor of actors Keanu Reeves, starring opposite a rough approximation of a horse demon and a witch dragon. Proof that it’s the simple things in life that get you through, imagining how Mizoguchi might react to this film is vastly more compelling than the film in front of us.
Simple things, by the way, are not in the vocabulary of 47 Ronin, a film that makes the bewilderingly common mistake of assuming it is smarter than it is as it lays down a tale that vacillates between deep, distinct homage to Japanese myth and a more corporate utilization of Japan’s tangential relationship to dragons. In other words, we have a film that is both completely assured of its totalizing respect for Japanese culture and oblivious to the way it confronts Japan with an exclusively Orientalist bent. Being but a humble film reviewer, I can’t proclaim this with any accuracy, but presumably the original folkloric version of the tale offered fewer characters designated only as “Lovecraftian samurai”. Since, you know, Massachusetts writers from the early 1900s weren’t exactly bosom buddies with a Japan that is both, at various points in the film, “ancient” and “feudal” (which, together, is an oxymoron, but whatever). I mean, theoretically the nebulous fantasy realm of the film’s diegesis (undone only by its otherwise heavy-handed commitment to legitimizing itself historically) implies that this could actually just be Cape Cod in 1920 after all, but I like to give the film a little more credit than that.
Obviously, 47 Ronin meant something peculiar and particular to Reeves, who in his personal life is deeply embedded in some version of Japanese culture, although it is likely the bro-shaman variant practiced by his compatriots in his breakout action role Point Break. His name was attached to some version of this product for what feels like as long as “ancient Japan” lasted, and that the film actually managed to get made with a 200 million dollar budget and only his fading, pre-John Wick star power to its name is some sort of perverse credit to Reeves and his willingness to push for the film. Also to his credit, he’s actually fairly submissive and not exclusively the main character in the film, presumably wishing to pay homage to the spirit of the original, non-white-washed version. Or maybe his lacking screen time is simply because Reeves isn’t that huge a box office draw these days, so he doesn’t need to be front and center all the time.
So this version plants his Kai, a half-white samurai who is a mongrel to some within the culture, in the middle of a cabal of samurai dedicated to their master Asano (Min Tanaka), who is forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) once rival Kira (Tadanobu Asano) is manipulated by a fell witch (Rinko Kikuchi) into disgracing him. Cast off into a sort of wandering oblivion for failing, the group eventually reforms when head samurai Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) – whose love Mika (Ko Shibasaki) is now engaged against her will to Kira – finds the now imprisoned Kai and the whole crew stages a revenge ploy against Kira. This revenge, incidentally, is against the bushido code, resulting in an edict of seppuku for all the surviving ronin including Kai, a seppuku the film commits to (admirably).
Now, far be it from me to criticize a blockbuster film for concluding on a theatrically staged mass suicide by visualists with an obvious eye for the rigid lines of Japanese architecture and society. Far be it from me to claim that a film shouldn’t also conclude with Keanu Reeves going Goku on a witch dragon. The problem is essentially that no one bothered to consider whether a film that concludes with a fetishistically filmed mass suicide should cross paths with CG dragons. You know, another one of those thought experiments that 47 Ronin proposes.
The bedeviled mixture of high and low brow nonsense feels not unlike the results of a final history project concocted by two bamboozled time travelers, except their variation would have included more Faith No More, and thus been more honest to history and good taste. First time director Carl Rinsch out-and-out desecrates the laws on continuity editing in a few shots, which is exciting only as an intrusion of the incompetent onto the mostly just-competent, but he’s no Bill and Ted. Their version of history, however inaccurate, was feisty and gloriously youthful in its uncaring earnestness. This version is either much too respectful or not nearly respectful enough, leaving us hoping Alex Winter will show his face to take Kai back to San Dimas for their history project, and this is just one of their adventures in quasi-history. Or maybe this is the future where Ted went to military school after all, and this is just some far-flung apocalypse world produced by that meddling in history. Which is a shame. There’s no George Carlin in this one.
By and large, 47 Ronin is too timid about its goofiness to survive in a crowded blockbuster landscape, stinking of a bizarre intermingling of classicist regal theater and chop-socky fantastique that, ironically, sacrifices itself on the altar of simultaneous sobriety and shenanigans. The action is staged with a brash, brazen paunchiness, but it is sabotaged wholeheartedly by a story intoned like a legal rebuttal. It’s mystifying that someone allotted this much money to a Keanu Reeves vehicle with no discernible franchise potential in 2013, but the actual film is too curated, too safe, to match the blissful ignorance of the idea. With something like 47 Ronin, you either hope for Mizoguchi sublimity or bewildering trash (sublimity of a different kind). Watching the 47 Ronin that has been produced is a depressing, dispiriting acknowledgement because only one thing can really be said about the film with any assurance: It’s existent, certainly nothing more, and unfortunately nothing less. Where’s the RZA when you need him?