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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
A well-known Japanese historical tale, 47 Ronin is about a group of former samurai who reunite to avenge the death of their master. The story is perhaps as important to Japanese culture as the story of the 300 Spartans is to the Greeks. This film adaptation, like the film adaptation of 300, adds monsters and mystical powers into the mix. It is a special effects-heavy adaptation featuring swordplay, witchcraft, and all manner of Eastern mysticism. It is also approximately one thousand times better than pretty much any review I read of the film prior to seeing it. It is also an absolute train-wreck of a movie and one that Universal probably should have pulled the plug on years ago. But I’m glad they didn’t.
47 Ronin began production way back in 2008. First-time director Carl Rinsch entered negotiations to helm the project in the fall of 2009. Filming began in March of 2011 after a lengthy casting session. It’s not entirely unheard of for a film to have a long production cycle, but the interesting thing about the assembly behind this particular film is just how much time and money Universal seemed to spend on it in order to save some amount of face. Originally planned for release in November 2012, 47 Ronin was delayed initially until February 2013 in order to work on the special effects and 3D conversion. Universal then again delayed the film until Christmas Day 2013 in order to further work on the post-production process. In the mean-time, Keanu Reeves hadn’t starred in a mainstream blockbuster film since 2008’s The Day the Earth Stood Still remake, and that film is hardly remembered whatsoever.
One of the best things 47 Ronin has going for it is the stellar cast. Despite receiving top-billing, Keanu Reeves isn’t the main character. Hiroyuki Sanada, who has done great work in films like Sunshine and The Wolverine, portrays lead character Oishi, the samurai closest to the aforementioned ill-fated samurai master. After his master’s death, Oishi spends a year suffering in a pit before gathering his men. The most important and resonant relationship in the film is between Oishi and Reeve’s half-British/half-Japanese character Kai. Kai is mistreated time and time again throughout the film for his partially Caucasian heritage. Reeves plays the character with a quiet dignity and a calm intensity throughout. One of the worst aspects of the film is the shoehorned in love affair between Kai and Kou Shibasaki’s Mika, which I’ll get to later.
Rumors began to swirl that director Carl Rinsch, once again a first-time film director gifted with a massive 170+ million dollar budget somehow, was taken off the project at some point during post. The Director’s Guild was said to have even stepped in on Rinsch’s behalf at some point during the fiasco. Universal was quick to denounce any rumors at all pertaining to the lengthy post-production on the film. Additionally, it was widely reported that Keanu Reeves’ role was bulked up through re-shoots and edits, with Reeves simultaneously shooting new scenes for 47 Ronin alongside working on his directorial debut Man of Tai Chi (a film that could easily also qualify for What Went Wrong?). A love story for Reeves was even added to the film, as were additional lines of dialogue for Reeves’ character. It’s the love affair that’s the real stinker, as it adds nothing to film except give Kai something extra to do. It also doesn’t really fit thematically with the rest of the movie.
When I first saw the trailer for 47 Ronin, I was aghast at how awful some of the special effects looked, particularly Rinko Kikuchi’s witch dragon thing. The finished film product still looks particularly crappy, as if it were rendered in 2002. The rest of the special effects look pretty great, however, including an otherworldly-looking samurai, a Japanese dragon/elk looking thing, and some pretty great looking set design, some of which appears practical – including a Dutch trading post reminiscent of something out of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Unfortunately, you can almost tell where Universal stepped in with the editing buzz saw, as the film jumps from one scene to the next somewhat haphazardly in places. It is clear this was once a 2 hour and 45 minute movie hacked down to just over 2 hours. But the production design is gorgeous nonetheless.
So what went wrong with 47 Ronin? For one, Universal completely botched the post-production and the marketing. They never seemed fully committed to the project, which led to a lack of faith in the public over the finished version. Bulking up Reeves’ role was probably a way for them to add marketability to the film, but it ultimately appeared to signal a lack of faith in both director Carl Rinsch (who will probably never work with this level of budget again unfortunately) and the international cast (which again, the cast is fantastic throughout, particularly Sanada and Kikuchi). The marketing for this film was also dreadful, including that particularly awful trailer that debuted earlier this year. I found a lot to like about 47 Ronin, from its awesome cast to its gorgeous production design to its simple and honest themes of honor and integrity. This film is approximately one thousand times better than any review I read of it, and it is a darned shame it will go down in history as a colossal box office bomb and a punch-line in Keanu Reeves’ stellar career.