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December 26, 2013

47 Ronin -- An Emergency PSA

I like how as soon as I try to put the blog on hiatus, I end up seeing a movie so bad that it drags me back in.  I feel like one of those guys in an action movie who gets pulled in for “one last job” and it ends with a death toll in the dozens.  Still, that’d make for a better movie than this.  When the most interesting part of the movie is when the theater has technical difficulties and the film starts glitching out like a sputtering GameCube disk, you know your time has been well spent.

So yes, the movie’s pretty terrible and I hate it, so let’s talk about why.  But quickly.  Because I want to do something fun, like not think about this movie.  Also, because I’m dumb.

Also, don’t see this movie.

Spoilers incoming, but…look, just do what I didn’t and go see Frozen or something.

--First things first, though: start playing this song.  You’ll need the proper music for this post.  Like...all of it.

--Now let’s get the obvious out of the way.  The Tale of the 47 Ronin is a story that’s -- if I had to guess -- entrenched in Japanese culture and canon, partly because it has at least some basis in actual historical events.  I’d explain more, but I think you’d be better served if you read the TV Tropes page for a quick summary.  In fact, go ahead and do that now, then come back here.

--Did you read it?  Okay, good.  Now, I’m going to level with you here: that one description made the entire movie pointless.  The movie has witches, dragons, magic and other fantasy elements, but none of those are necessary.  In fact, they even get in the way at times -- as if they’re only there to “spice up” a “boring” tale.  As if the movie makers had no confidence in a story that’s not only been told before (and better), but a story that didn’t need those fantasy bits in the first place.  When the description of a story, one lacking all those 3D flourishes, is more interesting than a hundred-million-dollar plus product, just pack up and go the hell home.

--I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m inclined to name 47 Ronin as the worst movie I’ve seen all year.  And bear in mind that this is the same year that had me grinding my teeth through Man of Steel.  In fact, this movie reminded me of that movie for a number of reasons -- yet, against all odds, managed to make a lot of the same mistakes, with EVEN LESS of the redeeming qualities.  That’s…probably what I was expecting, given that when I first checked Rotten Tomatoes -- and at the time of writing -- the movie’s sitting at a spit-take-worthy 11%.   But my brother and buddy wanted to see it because…I don’t know, Keanu Reeves was in The Matrix?  Because they liked The Wolverine?  Whatever the case, I sincerely hope that they understand how much they owe me for tagging along.

--As is often the case, the problems with this movie start with its main character…only that problem is compounded even further, if you can believe that.  I’ve never really borne any ill will for Keanu Reeves as an actor, but he really doesn’t do anything for his role or the movie at large.  He plays Kai, apparently a member of the 47, but constantly (CONSTANTLY) derided for being a half-breed…and let’s not touch the connotations of having a white man (albeit one of mixed descent) taking top billing.  There are just two things you need to know: A) he’s the lead character, but not really, except when he is, except when he isn’t, but it turns out he is, and B) you could pretty much capture the essence of his performance and character by staring at a picture of Sad Keanu for a couple of hours.

--It’s worth noting that, inexplicably, the movie has a hard time deciding who the main character is.  Conventional knowledge would suggest that it’s Reeves’ Kai, but there’s just as much emphasis put on a fellow samurai named Oishi.  (A part of me wanted to snicker every time he popped up on screen, because oishii is Japanese for “delicious” -- and note the extra i there.)  A main character can and should define a story, but because 47 Ronin waffles AND fails to develop either of them an inch past where they started, neither of them can offer anything definitive.  I’d say that the movie threatens to be passable when it focuses on Delicious because he’s more concerned with the movie’s actual themes and plot, but he has no presence.  And that’s because when you get down to it, this is still Kai’s movie.

--Unfortunately, Kai ends up breaking the movie’s ideas in two.  At least with Delicious, he did what he did for the sake of the movie and its ideas.   With Kai, it’s impossible to get a sense that he even cares about what’s going on around him.  He’s just along for the ride.  All I can say with some certainty is that he’s in it not to honor the life and teachings of his lord, the man who took him in as his son, but so he can get with said lord’s daughter.  And thus begins the most torturous and obtuse love story/save the princess plot I’ve seen in my entire life.  And I’ve seen some shit.

--Hey, want to simulate the relationship between Kai and his main squeeze Mika?  It’s easy!  Just grab a Brillo Pad and a plastic flower, grind them together once every thirty minutes, and in two hours’ time you’ll have a romance that makes Romeo and Juliet look like the flies buzzing around a mule’s ass!  Kai’s expression through the entire movie changes maybe once or twice -- and his tone of voice changes even less.  Mika spends just as much time looking sad and fragile, and either gets no lines, or has them spent going on about Kai. 

--There’s zero chemistry between them, but I’m supposed to believe that this is the thrust of Kai’s quest?    These two love each other so much in spite of spending about ten minutes of screen time together?  Further, why is it that this worthless love story is a focus of the plot, even though Kai says near the start that they can never be together, and then because reasons before the end he says he’ll never leave her?  Except, you know, when he leaves her to fight a dragon?  Or leaves her to go die via ritualistic suicide because he took part in the 47’s plan, which by nature was designed to end with them dying? 

--Oh crap, I just remembered that kai is the Japanese word for shellfish. 

--Much like Man of Steel (I just gagged a little), the problem with this movie is that instead of being just a story about swordsmen going out for revenge and honor, it has to be an hours-long treatise on what it means to be a samurai, and what it means to have honor, and what it means to serve a lord, and what it means to die with dignity.  Movie, I don’t need you to spell it out for me.  I can read subtext.  Let me come to my own conclusions, please.  But I guess that’s too much to ask, seeing as how the movie starts with a voice-over that explains things I kind of needed to see for myself, and how so many lines of dialogue go “blah blah blah honor blah blah blah dignity.”  I have a number of books on the samurai mindset, up to and including The Book of Five Rings.  Why should I count on you to change my view on those fabled Japanese warriors when you can’t even decide if you’re telling a love story or indulging in revenge fantasies?

--I almost clocked out before the half-hour mark (or was it the half-hour mark?  This movie felt twice as long as it really is) thanks to the plot’s inciting incident.  Basically, the shogun comes to visit and watch a tournament between the “best fighters” of Lord Asano -- on Team Good Guy -- and Lord Kira -- representing the bad guys as obviously as possible -- because…well, why not?  But apparently there are some hijinks behind the scenes and Asano’s fighter gets attacked by a witch or something.  Shellfish finds him and tells Delicious that the witch is nearby, and Delicious responds not by saying, “Oh crap, this could mean trouble for the lord!  Let’s try and sort this out!”  No, his response is pretty much “Pfft, you would say that, wouldn’t you, half-breed?  Who cares about witches?  You’re wrong and stupid!”  DO SOMETHING, YOU ASS CLOWN.

--What I find really infuriating is that there’s still more to it, and it only gets dumber.  Shellfish wants to warn Asano that there’s treachery afoot, and his best fighter -- in what I guess is a tournament with one round and two fighters -- has been hit with magic.  But Delicious says “There’s no time,” and Shellfish ends up putting on some armor to fight while disguised.  NO.  NO.  GOD NO.  WHY?  AND NO.  Why is it that there’s not enough time to warn the lord (and possibly even the shogun) that there’s a potential assassin in the ranks, but plenty of time for Shellfish to deck himself out in full armor? 

--Why is the “half-breed” even allowed anywhere if he’s just going to be mistreated, especially if there’s a pretty good chance he’ll have to take off his mask even if his helmet didn’t get knocked off his face (because reasons)?  Why not let Delicious put on the armor instead?  Is it because if not for that dumb string of decisions -- one that inevitably does lead to Asano getting bewitched, brainwashed, and committing a crime that forces his death -- the movie would have no way to cram in a big dumb action scene that goes nowhere and has no tension?

--In hindsight, I’m starting to think that this movie is (almost paradoxically) treating the audience like idiots while demanding too much of them.  It’s regularly shoving its main ideas in your face instead of letting them naturally creep into your mind; despite that, it assumes that just because events kinda-sorta happened in the actual tale -- liberties aside -- you have no reason to question why they happen in the movie. 

--Why would the shogun just have Shellfish beaten instead of killed outright, especially if he’s supposed to be half-white half-demon?  Why would the shogun demand that Asano kill himself when he was clearly under the influence of someone looking for power?  Why wouldn’t obvious asshole villain Kira go after the shogun instead of just trying to take the land of a rival, especially since Kira has a witch in his back pocket that could easily help make that happen?  Why would Kira even bother with a needlessly elaborate plan to potentially shame Asano to death when he could have just assassinated Asano in any number of ways (and in fact arrows are used later on in the movie almost to the same effect)?  Why not just make use of the witch?  Where did Kira even meet the witch if having super-sensing powers like Shellfish is only possible via demon blood?  Did she come to him?  If so, why?

--What does the witch stand to gain from working for an obvious asshole villain?  Why does the witch not have a name?  What if Kira actually taking Asano’s land is actually a good thing?  What if he’s actually a brilliant leader who could instate sweeping economic reform?  What if we’re just forced to believe that he’s an obvious asshole villain because every character in this movie has 1/5th of one character trait?  Why does there need to be an arranged marriage subplot between Mika and Kira for the unity of their two territories, if not just to give Shellfish a motivation straight outta Super Mario Bros.?

--I hope you’re still playing Groose’s theme.  It’s more than a little fitting, I’ve found.

--This movie reads like the worst fanfiction.net has to offer.  So there’s this guy who was found in a forest and has this girl he loves, but he can’t have her because reasons.  But that’s okay, because he’s the greatest swordsman who ever lived, because he’s a half-demon, but he’s just so tortured about it, as you can see from his clear lack of emotion and reactions to anything.  And everyone’s so totally jealous of his powers, because who wouldn’t be when he can bust up an armored goliath’s sword, sense things nobody else can, split an incoming wall of fire in half, chop down branches with a single one-handed slash, and warp around in a rush of smoke which he probably should have done at the outset to save his girlfriend -- who, much like him, is tortured because they can never, ever be together?

--If you’re going into this movie expecting wall-to-wall action, don’t.  This movie continues the trend of saving most of its action for the latter third or so, and “developing characters” for the rest of the movie while sprinkling in the occasional big dumb action scene.  The problem is that in order to make the wait for that final fight sequence worth it -- to make both the quiet and loud parts have merit -- you have to make every component worthwhile.  This is something that a movie like Pacific Rim understood that a theoretically-smarter movie like 47 Ronin doesn’t.  There’s no zest, no resolve, no charisma; they’re just whittling away the hours with shots of Shellfish’s ever-motionless beard, or pontificating about what it means to have honor.  It works for a movie like Pacific Rim because I care about the characters, the world, and the stakes.  It doesn’t work for a movie like 47 Ronin because they do their damnedest to make you NOT care.

--Congratulations.  You've now seen the one face Shellfish makes through the entire movie.  Ah, such nuance.

--I pretty much called this as soon as I first saw a trailer for the movie, but there was no way they could make all 47 ronin distinct characters.  There was just no way.  And that’s fine.  But this movie couldn’t even be arsed to give us two.  Shellfish and Delicious are worthless, much like every other “main” character.  (Except maybe the witch, if only because it’s mind-numbing to see Mako Mori gleefully indulge in a needlessly homoerotic interplay of sex and violence with Mika.)  Who are the other ronin?  Pretty much just extras -- guys in costume designed to make the final battle look larger in scale…and they pull away from that to go back to Shellfish.

--There are exactly three jokes in this movie.  That’s more than Man of Steel’s whopping one, but they’re either really bad (ha ha!  There’s a fat guy bathing!), hurt the story (ha ha!  One of our comrades can’t cut a branch!  He’ll come in handy in this fight to the death!), or just create some huge tonal shifts (I know you could have died, fat man, but let me just remind you how fat you are!).  It goes without saying, then, that the movie is oppressive in its tone and gravitas, playing everything with crippling seriousness and treating every event like some profound revelation.  Movie, you’re not as smart as you think you are.  You’re really not.  I know you’ve got the guy who said “Whoa” that one time as your leading man, but you don’t have to try to make the audience do that in every scene.  Because you can't.  Because you're dumb.

--Well, I think that’s enough nitpicking.  Now it’s time for a confession: I fell asleep during this movie.  I fell asleep during what is ostensibly an action movie; that’s pretty much an automatic failure.  Granted I fell asleep during the dreary talky-talky bits, and I guess technically this IS more drama than action, but even when things started getting into high gear (and not even to that point, because who the hell needs entertainment?), I had to fight back yawns.  Only one in three visual setpieces are interesting, the fantasy elements are misfit and uninspired, there’s no sense of the scale of the world or the conflict at large, and even the fights aren’t all that memorable.  The only thing I remember is Shellfish’s final Super Magical Ghosty-Stab, and a month from now I won’t even have that.  How much effort did these bozos put in to make katana sword fights boring?

--I’m utterly convinced that 47 Ronin is a disaster.  A complete disaster -- a misfire in every sense of the word.  It feels like it missed the point of adapting the original story, even if I haven’t seen anything of said original story for myself.  But you know what?  The best thing I can say about this movie is that it made me want to look at those alternatives.  It made me want to see how it’s been done, and done well.  Because I can guaran-damn-tee you that this movie isn’t it.  And that’s precisely why it’ll have to make do with being right around HERE on my SmartChart™:

--Actually, you know what?  There is one other good thing to come out of this little experience: because my screening of the movie glitched out -- just enough to stall it, but not enough to bring it to an end -- everyone there got a voucher for a free movie-viewing of their choice.  So, let’s see if I can make this miracle count.

--And that’ll do it for now.  Going back into kinda-sorta-hiatus mode in 3…2…1…


  1. Ah, it seems like you've put a lot of thought into what made Man of Steel tick. Impressive, indeed -- and it looks like you're a lot more forgiving of it than I'd ever be.

    That is an interesting point about "writing around margins". Very interesting. Not knowing much about Superman or his adventures in the comic canon, I can't say with any clarity how to make a good Supes or a bad Supes. Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut whatever the answer is, MoS doesn't have it. Like you said, being a summer blockbuster hurt what the movie's masterminds were trying to go for. It was too dumb to be an exploration of the character, and too smart to be a big whompin' punch-up between superpowered dudes. Are there ways around that? Probably. But I guess in a way, the movie's duality is as much a problem as trying to "nail" Superman as a character.

    Long story short, thank you for writing the best comment I've seen all year. If I had a million thumbs, they'd all be up right now. Although I'd think that the combined weight of them would leave me struggling to live.

    RE: 47 Ronin, I like how you haven't even seen the movie yet you understand instantly what the problem is. Yes, taking out that love story would have done wonders for the movie. The impression it gives off is that it's the struggle of a man to get back with his woman, rather than a group's struggle to avenge the man who meant so much to them. Thinking back, I don't think Kai and Lord Asano even have any meaningful scenes together before the lord's death. That just opens up a whole host of problems...like why Asano acted like Kai was someone special and worth nurturing, but once he's grown up he barely even registers his presence. One would think that the guy who took in a "half-breed" would tell his men to lay off, but I guess he was A-OK with letting his adoptive son endure psychological torture for decades.

    ...This movie's some old bullshit, is what I'm trying to say here.

  2. I blush. I suppose I put a lot of thought into Man of Steel because I've always considered Superman a paradox up there with Xeno's. Placing the movie under scrutiny felt like checking a student's homework, in a way. A student who has a dual personality of fairly bright, if a tinge troubled (Nolan), and fucking batshit crackerjack nutso (Zach Snyder). When folks complained about the extent, senselessness, and tone deaf placement of the finale, I shrugged, recognizing Snyder's handiwork.

    Seriously, have you seen Owls of Ga'Hoole? It's like poor, sweet Redwall made an unwilling merger with DethMetal. A dipping bird lies in Snyder's head, and whenever its beak descends, Pandora's Box opens anew and pours its effluvium onto hapless scenes.

    I'm acquainted with your Smartchart(TM), so I know what you're indicating, but I'm amused by the placement of "smart" next to the box art.

  3. Yeah, I caught that too. But I just decided to roll with it, because why bother with formatting when you can be lazy? Glad you got a laugh out of it...although looking at the poster makes me realize there was some creepy skeleton-faced guy in the movie. I guess he was in the part I slept through? Well, he couldn't have been THAT important.

    Anyway, I forgot that MoS was the work of several people -- Nolan, Snyder, and I think David S. Goyer got involved? I think that's his name; he was in on The Dark Knight Rises as well, IIRC. I wonder how well they managed to work together; I'd like to think that they think they made the best movie they could, but it's not uncommon for there to be trouble behind the scenes. Maybe there's just an inherent level of incompatibility. I don't know. Who knows?

    Maybe there's a DVD extra detailing "the making of" out there. I wouldn't know, since -- unless someone's posted it on YouTube -- that would require me to buy MoS. And I'd sooner eat a goat's head, bones and all, before that happened.

  4. To me the film kind of came off as an L5R plot. That's what most of my friends who saw it with me thought to. I think the flaw(s) that were brought to the table were the inclusion of the supernatural elements - and to that the idea that absolutely everyone accepts them, I mean they slay some sort of forest demon at the start and don't bat an eyelash.

    The more damning thing, to me at least, was the inclusion of Kai's character. I have nothing against Keanu, he's a fellow Canadian after all, but Kai's character and his love story arc which wasn't much of an arc at all just come off as badly misplaced in this whole thing and get in the way of the concept of honor and living by the code that you have set for yourself, whether or not other people ultimately approve of it.

  5. I'm (obviously) with you on the whole supernatural element. I'm not against that stuff in general, but this was not the movie to put them in. Sword fights are manly and cool in their own right; why did they feel the need to throw in dragons and witches and weird bull-deer-rainbow monsters? Did they think that the source material wasn't interesting enough? Or did they just think it wasn't a movie until they pissed away enough money on CGI?

    You know what the sad thing is? The really sad thing? They're not wrong for wanting to make this kind of movie. The ideas of loyalty and honor are there. The concepts are interesting. There's so much that can be done with a character that sticks to a strict code, let alone a civilization built around it. And they completely botched it with the go-nowhere love angle. I didn't buy it for a second, yet they pushed that relationship so hard that it ended up distorting the movie. Breaking it, even.

    It just pisses me off so much, knowing what could have been. Now the most praise I can give it is that it let me get in a pleasant little nap.

  6. Funny. I was just about to watch this movie since my friend and I thought I was a great idea to wing it and pick whatever we want to watch when we got to the theatre. I wanted to watch Frozen, but I didn't want my friend to think that I can only watch "kiddy" movies (I watched Rise of the Guardians with her). I'm glad we didn't watch this movie though (we watched The American Hustle instead). I'm not really fond of romance in my movies unless it makes sense or appeals to my fantasies (so in a sense, I wasn't that fond of The American Hustle), so I could see why this movie bombed. Not much of a movie-goer so the only experience I have with movies is watching Nostalgia Critic.

  7. I haven't seen Frozen yet, but I can tell you right now that it's a lot more mature than 47 Ronin. It really does feel like bad fanfiction -- like somebody took a well-established story, threw in some worthless original character, and missed the point of the entire story just to satisfy some "creative" itch.

    You had the right instinct in dodging this movie. Without a doubt.

    I wouldn't worry too much about the "kiddy" stigma, though. Disney's proven time and time again that in spite of its colorful veneer, it's capable of hitting much harder than stuff aimed singularly at adults...or the stuff bigwigs try to market as mature. So if nothing else, anything Disney puts out should be an exception. Though they're far from the only ones; any given Zelda game, despite its occasionally-cartoonish look, is far more mature than your average gritty shooter.

    ...But you didn't hear that from me. *jumps out window*