Movie Review: 47 Ronin

A Huge Miscalculation

“47 Ronin” might be the last nail in the coffin in the career of Keanu Reeves. In some ways the film’s box office failure is not fair because the movie itself, although not great, certainly has its serviceable moments (certainly worse films have been box office smashes). The filmmakers were banking on the idea that Asian audiences would flock to this picture—which didn’t happen. Part of the problem is that apparently the guys with expensive suits and fancy degrees couldn’t anticipate that foreign audiences wouldn’t respond to seeing Keanu Reeves in a Hollywood version of a sacred cultural story.

From the beginning, “47 Ronin” doesn’t play things exactly straight. There is a scene early on where Reeves kills this mythical dragon beast thing (I don’t know what it is or what it’s supposed to be). There are also some cool battles with wizards and some extremely fast moving warrior-monk types. It is during these scenes that I believe my ignorance (or perhaps I should say “cursory awareness”) of the true “47 Ronin” tale saved me from becoming furious at the film. Obviously this is a story with some inherent power since it has been handed down for centuries...why some idiot thought that fundamental core should be de-emphasized in favor of CGI pseudo-mythical beasts is...well, it’s why everybody is always terrorized when Hollywood announces they’re going to do a screen treatment of some important tale.

“47 Ronin” is a tale about honor, but I’m going to be honest and say it’s a type of honor I don’t understand [Spoilers coming]. It’s the story of a group of rogue Samurai who want to avenge their master’s death only for the privilege of—get this—committing honorable suicide at the end of the film. That’s their prize. I contend that most Westerners do not understand this, and that many of the ones that say they do understand aren’t being entirely truthful. I, for example, can give lip service to the Samurai code, but it’s just words to me. My heart does not soar at the end of the film as the brave 47 Ronin prepare to take their own lives in a beautiful ceremony of death. My fundamental thinking at the very core of my being lines up more with Robert De Niro’s character in “Ronin,” who, when he’s told about the sacrifice of the 47 Ronin, says simply, “they chose wrong.”

Please feel free to try to explain this cultural disconnect to me—although I hesitate to believe a few paragraphs can bridge the substantial gap. Also, despite the fact that Westerners apparently answered a questionnaire in which they checked “yes” next to “do you want to see an Americanized ‘47 Ronin’ film?” the true response—judging from the box office receipts of the movie—was that they did not.

If the filmmakers of “47 Ronin” wanted to make an interesting Samurai film that appeals to both the East and the West starring a mixed-race protagonist, they should have done a screen adaptation of “Gonji” by T.C. Rypel. Then they would have been free to add all the CGI flourishes that they wanted to without risking offending an entire culture (in the same line of thought, Peter Jackson should be making Drizzt Do’Urden films instead inserting elves where they don’t belong in “The Hobbit”).

I don’t hate this film, I found it entertaining. My biggest fear is that the incompetent idiots responsible for the grand miscalculations that doomed “47 Ronin” from the start will come to the incorrect conclusion that Samurai movies are not viable. I like Samurai movies, I want to see more Samurai movies. Heck, I’ll even go see some more films with Keanu Reeves. But if you want to make a goofy adventure flick, don’t try to say you’re doing a treatment of a culturally significant story. There are plenty of good books out there for adaptation that don’t come prepackaged with impossible-to-achieve cultural expectations.

...and seriously...make a “Gonji” flick!

Reviewer Bio:
Walter Rhein is the author of "The Reader of Acheron," "Beyond Birkie Fever," and "The Bone Sword."  He is also the editor of "Nine Heroes."

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