With a lackluster opening weekend and Universal Pictures already writing down many of the costs associated with this picture as losses for this fiscal year, it would seem like a futile thing to review a movie that so many critics have already written off as dead. I believe that a critic should always take a fresh look at any movie, regardless of their feelings about an actor, the content of the movie, or the history behind a picture, but I also feel that sometimes a movie makes critics have to think too much and, if you read reviews like I do, you will see that some of them just don’t like to do that. 47 Ronin is a movie with a storied past, a strong plot with a focus on honor and acceptance, and beautiful cinematography and special effects.
Back in 1941, Part 1 of The 47 Ronin, the original Japanese movie, was released in hopes of encouraging the Japanese people in their participation in World War II. The movie was released one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor, so you can imagine that it was not a blockbuster success in Japan as they were shortly in the throes of war. This original version was not even released in the United States until the 1970’s. There have actually been seven different versions based on the true events of this story told on film in the last 80 years, with the new release, 47 Ronin, being the first English version ever produced.
I write all of this to help you, the reader looking for some reason to watch this new cool looking Keanu Reeves movie, to understand why this movie is important and how it is worth watching. 47 Ronin is not The Matrix, it is not about how one man saved the world through his actions, but it is a movie about a group of men whose commitment to each other and their code of honor drove them to fight for what they knew was a right and proper thing, regardless of the consequences. This movie is about the lengths that honorable men should go to in order to correct a wrong.
I really liked this movie. Hopefully that doesn’t make you stop reading. I have enjoyed many of Keanu Reeves’ movies since I first saw him on the screen as Ted “Theodore” Logan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and he has always played a soft spoken character with a fairly somber demeanor or at least not the most expressive character. As Kai in 47 Ronin, Keanu Reeves takes on the role of an outcast striving for acceptance in a culture that is resistant to any outsiders, especially those rumored to have ties to the tengu, demons that live in the forest. Kai is brought into the province because Lord Asano finds him and has mercy on him, but Kai lives outside of town, in a hut, and is feared and ridiculed by many of the people.
Many of the trailers that I have seen show more of the action and less of the actual story. The story is a fairly simple one, although there is a lot of license taken in this new version, adding in the story of witchcraft used to drive much of the cause of disgrace in the story. This allows the addition of the character of Kai, the child raised by demons and taught their magics, who has to give in to that magic that he despises in order to prove himself worthy to those he serves. Besides this, the main part of the story is about samurai who are disgraced when their lord is forced to commit sepuku, ritual suicide, because of an event that disgraces his province. As the samurai are now without a lord they are made ronin and banished. After one year, the leader, Oichi, gathers his men from exile and marches on the palace of the lord that orchestrated his lord’s destruction.
A stirring and emotional musical score and amazingly choreographed action scenes as well as the colorful detailed costumes make this movie spectacular. The acting was what I expected, solid deliveries by all characters, touching performances by Ko Shibasaki, who played Lady Mai, and Keanu Reeves, but also from Hiroyuki Sanada, the actor portraying Oichi, leader of the ronin. The effects were everything I would expect from a holiday blockbuster, adding to the excitement yet not overused to make the movie all about special effects.
One of the big things I really liked about this movie was the changes in colors and lighting in the second half of the movie, right up to brightness of the last few scenes. The darkness and mist that the ronin live in and move through to carry out their vengeance is a statement of the shadow cast over their spirits because of their actions. While the revenge is called for by bushido, the code of the samurai, it is something that was forbidden by the shogun, the leader of all of Japan. Honor is the most important thing to the samurai and this clearly illustrated throughout this movie.
Regardless of your feelings for Keanu Reeves, I would recommend you see 47 Ronin on the big screen. I got to watch it in 3D, which was very cool. There were some fight scenes where I really jumped because of the use of the 3D images. Be prepared for something different, but definitely check this movie out.