I finally got around to watching 47 Ronin last night. There is much to like about it. It is beautiful to look at. The costumes, sets, and cinematography are all first rate. Actually, the whole film is professionally made. And that is mostly a bad thing. It’s all finesse — no inspiration. I know that I’m very much interested in the form of narrative art. But watching this film, I’m sure most people were thinking, “Oh, this is the point in the film where…” The third act action sequence is beautiful to look at, and wonderfully choreographed. But it just lays there on the screen. Did anyone care watching it? I doubt it.
A big part of the problem is just that there isn’t a single interesting character in the film. The closest we come to one is Ko Shibasaki as Mika — the lord’s young daughter who would rather murder her oppressor than kill herself. The film doesn’t even manage to create interesting villains. The main villain is Lord Kira. He is played by Tadanobu Asano — a great Japanese actor. And here, he’s a joke. That can’t be his fault. There is pretty much nothing in the script for him to work with. So director Carl Rinsch must have just told him, “Grin menacingly!”
Similarly, Rinko Kikuchi as Witch seems constantly off. She did have one amazing scene where she manages to be simultaneously sexy and frightening while trying to get Mika to kill herself. Otherwise, her direction seems to have been, “I gave you different colored eyes! What more direction do you need?!” Really. I don’t think I’m overstating this.
All I can think is that Rinsch was only really interested in the technical side of the film. So he gave scant attention to Chris Morgan’s screenplay. You may know Morgan because of his formulaic scripts for the later Fast and Furious films. Apparently, Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) was brought in to fix the script. Clearly, there was not enough time. The screenplay is as weak as can be imagined.
I question the whole idea of making the forty-seven ronin story into yet another film. This time, we get the “twist” of some mythological beings and the half-breed so that Keanu Reeves could star in it. But it is kind of hard to get too excited by the story: a revenge plot followed by mass suicide. Hardly the kind of thing that Americans like. As for the Japanese, they have to be sick to death of this story.
So there are basically two reasons the film didn’t do well at the box office. First, no one is really interested in the story. Second, the film is boring. Last year at this time, Kirsten Acuna of Business Insider tried to explain this much more complicatedly, Why Keanu Reeves’ 47 Ronin Was a Huge Box-Office Bomb. She claimed that it was wrong to release the film over the holidays because there was so much competition. But would that really be a problem if the film had been, you know, good? Then she claimed that its production delays hurt the film. This is typical insider nonsense. Why would the audience care that the film came out a year later than it was scheduled? And then she claimed that it was Keanu Reeves’ fault because, “The last time Reeves’ commanded a huge blockbuster north of $400 million was 2003’s The Matrix: Revolutions.” But people didn’t go to see The Matrix: Revolutions because of Reeves; they went because they wanted to know if The Matrix: Reloaded could be redeemed by the last one. (It wasn’t. And does she really think The Matrix was successful because Reeves was in it?!) What’s more, Reeves has shown himself to be a very good box office draw since that film and even since that article.
Ultimately, technique in any art form only takes you so far. This is why almost no one can get through Finnegans Wake. It doesn’t matter how amazing the technique and how clever Joyce was, the novel really doesn’t have any characters — at least any we can know well enough to care about. In that way, 47 Ronin is the same. It’s a shame too. Because 47 Ronin is obviously a film in which great technical care was taken. But if you want to see a big budget Hollywood take on the genre, you should stick with The Last Samurai. Although really: just rent Ran or Samurai Rebellion.