47 Ronin review

Review Ryan Lambie 23 Dec 2013 - 07:18

Keanu Reeves stars in the lavish samurai fantasy, 47 Ronin. Here's our review of a flawed yet fun film...

Universal’s made an unusual and somewhat risky decision to make a samurai fantasy movie with 47 Ronin, and made the even riskier decision to give first-time director Carl Erik Rinsch about $175m to make it.

Loosely based on the Japanese legend of the same name, 47 Ronin stars Keanu Reeves as “half-breed” orphan Kai, who’s raised and trained in martial arts by demonic warriors in 18th century Japan. Subsequently taken in by the kindly Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), Kai falls in love with her daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki), though his outsider status means that they can never marry. Then, a power-hungry rival Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and his shape-shifting witch sidekick (Rinko Kikuchi) carry out a cunning plan to frame Lord Asano for murder, allowing Kira to seize control of the former's kingdom.

When Lord Asano’s put to death, his personal retinue of samurai, led by a shame-stricken Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) are banished from the land on pain of death. Mika is forced to marry Lord Kira, while Kai is sold into slavery. Oishi, now a ronin (the Japanese term for a samurai warrior without a master), decides to exact his revenge, and reassembling his scattered men, he tracks down Kai - who he believes has magical powers - to help him end Lord Kira’s reign.

The story of the 47 ronin has been tackled before several times in film, but never by Hollywood, and certainly not at this budget level. This is unsurprising, since it's an important part of Japanese history, and one of the country's cultural touchstones - taking the tale and shoehorning in an American actor is vaguely akin to a Japanese studio heading to England to make a Robin Hood film with Ken Watanabe cast in the lead.

Even the story's characters seem a little perplexed as to where Reeves came from. “Why is he here?” More than one warrior asks of Reeves’ Kai, and for at least the first hour, the audience would be forgiven for asking the same thing.

The studio’s deep pockets are all there on the screen, though, and 47 Ronin is colourfully designed and sometimes exquisitely detailed; just about every scene has another, beautiful new costume in it, or an elegant painting on a paper screen, or an imposing carved statue.

In terms of special effects, 47 Ronin is on less certain ground; the creatures don’t always look as though they’re in the same frame as the characters, and some sequences appear rushed. This is especially true in the opening reel, with an introductory sequence which looks as though it was added in at the last minute, some awkward and badly-dubbed child acting, and the somewhat depressing death of a forest monster that looks as though it’s stumbled in from Princess Mononoke.

It’s not entirely clear why the more fantastical elements were introduced to such a traditional story in the first place, since the movie's at its best when it sticks to what it's supposed to be: a historical samurai epic. Like the summer’s The Lone Ranger, it feels as though the demons and magical powers were ushered in to help endear the film to an audience not entirely sold on samurai movies, a bit like the use of the various ghosts in the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise.

Yet somewhere around the half-hour mark, 47 Ronin begins to find its pace. The rusty gears that crank the script into motion suddenly free up and spin into life, and the film emerges as a briskly entertaining - albeit downbeat - action movie. Keanu Reeves makes for a morose and monotone hero, but then, his brand of acting will be familiar to most audiences by now. He’s not really the star of the film in any case; he’s the eyes and ears for a western audience, while the heavy dramatic lifting’s done by such characters as Oishi and Rinko Kikuchi's anonymous witch.

That all these Japanese actors are saddled with an English script surely hampers their ability to fully express themselves, but their strength of character and sheer presence shines through. Hiroyuki Sanada in particular has real screen presence, and like most samurai films, the story’s emotion is conveyed almost entirely through his noble, fearless expression rather than dialogue.

On the other side of the moral fence, we have a trio of cracking villains. Tadanobu Asano's Lord Kira is an entertainingly smirking, smug bad guy, who stamps on people when they’ve fallen over and swaggers about in purple fabric. Backing him up is a wordless giant in chunky samurai armour - a truly formidable opponent. But the best boo-hiss antagonist of the piece is Rinko Kikuchi, who plays the absolute inverse of the softly-spoken heroine she brought us in Pacific Rim.

As the witch, Kikuchi gets to have all the fun, transforming herself into silver foxes and a menagerie of other animals, terrorising samurai warriors with her witchy powers and enchanted green spiders, and genuinely winding everybody up. Her performance could be described as a cross between Marion Cottillard’s femme fatale trickster in Inception and Maleficent out of Sleeping Beauty - a truly hypnotic creation who does something either amusing or disquieting every time she slithers onto the screen.

It’s characters like the witch, and a handful of imaginative set-pieces, such as a night-time fight illuminated by fire, or the stealthy take-over of a hilltop castle, which make 47 Ronin something more than a forgettable holiday spectacle. It isn't in the same league as the best samurai movies from Japan, and it feels hobbled by the PG-13 stipulation that a swordfight can’t result in the spillage of blood, but Rinsch directs his set-pieces with flair for the most part, and it’s a handsome film to look at in its best moments.

Like the warriors of the title, 47 Ronin might have an uphill battle ahead of it at the Christmas box office, with the likes of The Desolation Of Smaug and Frozen still crowding audiences into multiplexes, but as an American attempt at a quintessentially Japanese genre, it fights valiantly to the very end.

47 Ronin is out in UK cinemas on the 26th December.

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3 stars out of 5. An awful lot of films reviewed on Den of Geek have this identical rating, are they all equally average? Maybe time for a review of the review system at DoG?

A good number of higher profile films have picked up three stars certainly, but - appreciating that star ratings are inherently a bit flawed - we've given nearly as many films 4 stars as 3 this year, but they tend to be reviews of smaller profile films.

To answer your specific question: no they're not. Three stars is a broad church, and it absolutely doesn't mean that every film we give that score to is the same. - Simon

If a film is average then it gets rated as average. It should make no difference how many other films got the same rating. Besides, rating out of five is the ideal system in my opinion. When it comes to complaints about it they're generally along the same lines as yours and that they dislike the amount of things getting 3 out 5. Such a thing is a veritable heaven compared to ratings out of 10 or, heaven forbid, percentage. Something gets 5 out of 5 and the disagreements are mildly annoying. Give something 10/10 or 100% and people go mental.

Imagine the review that contains 4-6 categories, like actors, script, visual effects, overall entertainment, score etc every segment has 5 star rating potential. Usually when I have problems with DoG rating (not very often) I double-check on rottentomatoes. But on the other hand, we have very detailed and trustworthy reviews. I mean that stuff that is written above stars))))) combining stars and word review can give nice picture about movie

Surely the nature of 'average' would mean that the majority of films fall into the 3 star category. The fact that there are so many 3 stars surely shows that the scaling is spot on.

Yes I 2nd your proposal - the 5 star rating system is flawed and doesn't give the level of feedback we discerning DoG readers require

Saw it last night, I have to agree, the film started awkward and with a too slow pace for my taste but once Keanu is in the Dutch Islands, the action comes and you forget about the rest. You see a man who is almost 50 pull a couple of stunts, which are surely not CGI and a joy to watch. The story is respectfully told with stunning cinematography although I could have done with less fantasy in it. But I do see what they are trying to do. I do recommend it, if not for Keanu, for the incredible talent of the Japanese cast.

So would you ever consider changing the review system? - the idea Guntars Kauls has seems pretty feasible - Although opinions of films etc. are entirely subjective, it would be good to have a rating system that breaks down some of the essential criteria that concludes whether a film can be endorsed or condemned.
I know it's not always advisable to trust a rating before deciding whether to watch a film or not (..IMDB...) but I do always tend to trust DoG before watching a film and have seen some good films just from the recommendations they get on this site.

Nice review, as always. One minor nitpick: Maleficent was from Sleeping Beauty. :)

Agreed.

Personally speaking, I have never understood how you can give a rating out of 5.

As you say, 3/5 is quite a recurring theme so it seems there are a lot of average films about. Even when the review itself has seemed quite positive, it is then given 3/5 which then makes me question the review I have just read.

Were they to score out of 10, they could then give it a solid 'average' score of 5/10, or if it's above average 6/10.

It just seems like common sense to me to have an 'out of 10' score system.

Nothing should ever get a score of 5/5, likewise 0/5 should never happen either, meaning that a score could only ever be 1 (bad), 2 (average) or 3 (good), giving more reason *not* to use the "out of 5" system.

If you want to use a metric to decide whether or not to go and see a movie then go to Metacritic. The review should flesh out the numbers and explain how they have been assigned. I believe that DoG should keep the review but ditch the star system altogether in the same way Sight & Sound does.

There is nothing wrong with DoG's - industry standard - rating system. Their film reviews are, more often than not, fair and accurate. Geeks will always demand more.

There are two points to consider here: 1) Hollywood churns out far more lacklustre three star movies, than it does four or five star movies. 2) The tone of a review may veer towards either the positive, or the negative, but that doesn't mean the overall movie is any more or less deserving of three stars.

"it feels hobbled by the PG-13 stipulation that a swordfight can’t result in the spillage of blood." *sigh*

The way I review things: 5 = a masterpiece, a Film You Have To See, even if you're not a fan of the genre. 4 = One of the best of It's type, but does not transcend it's genre. 3 = Good, Watchable, Doesn't feel like you've wasted your time but you don't race to see it again, 2 = Poor - Usually a good idea, badly implemented. A disappointment. 1 = Terrible - difficult to watch - makes you realise life's too short to waste on this tosh. This system leads to a lot of 3s and 4s and hardly any 5s, but I feel it's fair!

There's no movie that is, in your opinion, perfect? There's always a flaw that bothers you?

It's not a 'legend', the 47 Ronin is a true story. You can still go and visit their graves if you like. This film is like the Japanese making a film of D-Day, starring a Japanese person, featuring a sexy Queen Elizabeth, a machine-gun wielding Shakespeare, gunned down Allied soldiers exploding into poppies, the Loch Ness monster & John Wayne. Horseshit.

So not only have America stolen Godzila, but now they have stolen samurai movies, too.

To be honest, I like a simple scoring system. I very often skip the whole review and just go straight to the rating. I like it when I can see a movie that I know is decent in some way, but know very little else about it going in

Star systems are utterly pointless. They are worse than useless. What does three stars really mean? Why not just have a gif of the reviewer with the caption "S'alright, I suppose"? The only reason most magazines use them is for PR purposes in the hope that their names will get mentioned alongside whatever they happen to be reviewing.

Star ratings also do a disservice to the art of criticism. Imagine having the choice between your vision as it is now or being able to only see in five colours. Sure, very few things will be utterly black (0/5) or brilliant white (5/5) but we don't need the full spectrum to discern between a tree and a human being and the sky so why bother overcomplicating things?

Agreed. They don't seem to like any movies.

There are many movies out there that are an easy 5/5. Perhaps you just need to watch more of them. ;)

eh

I was bored for a sizeable period of the film and found myself longing for some slashing of swords rather than wandering through woods babbling about honour. Also, when will Keanu Reeves learn to act? When?!

Well, that was just plain weird. I'd really looked forward to this, but was bitterly disappointed by all the oddness. And where was Bill S. Preston?

whoops, double post.

Yeah does scoring a movie out of 5 really give readers any kind of indication of how good a movie actually is? If its pretty bad it gets 1 or 2 stars out of 5. Average 3. Pretty good 4/5. Where is the distinction from excellent down to average but watchable?

At the very least score things out of 10. 1 or 2 = Terrible. 3-5 = Average. 5-6 = Average but entertaining. 6-8 = Pretty good and 8 plus is in the excellent range.

Everywhere scores out of 5 and I think this is a lazy convention which has been recycled from print reviews who want to use up as little space as possible. This is the internet. That has absolutely no concern anymore, but perhaps you may actually need to think about how you are scoring things and may offend the studios who you pander to.

Saw the film yesterday, found 3 things wrong with it:

1) Some dialogue should have been in Japanese, after all it is set in Japan. Remember, not everyone speaks English in Bollywood movies.

2) You CANNOT have a Samurai themed movie rated 12 ! These movies are all about intense swordplay, limbs and heads being cut off, blood and gore. Come on Universal, if you wanted it to be for children, you should not have made it.

3) Allegedly $175 for the movie ? Felt more like $75 million.

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