A Tale of 47 Ronin

Thomas Salmon takes a look at the highs and lows of Universal's take on the tale of the 47 Ronin

Boxing day. My belly was churning over cold cuts and mulled wine, and as everybody knows the best cure for Yuletide indigestion is a trip to their local multiplex. In a crowded Christmas season of singing princesses, teens fighting each other in a dystopian future and a British author wrestling with Walt Disney there was only one real choice. 47 Ronin. A $200 million Samurai epic starring the Marmite of action films Keanu Reeves and a Japanese cast of B-movie heavy hitters. The film’s story centres upon a group of 18th-century Ronin that set out to avenge their master’s death and regain their honour.

It marked the feature debut of Carl Erik Rinsch, a highly imaginative commercials director who had worked on Ad campaigns for LG, Heineken and BMW. It was Rinsch’s 2010 short film The Gift and the artwork for his project Small that sent the Internet into a frenzy and sparked a bidding war between Warner Brothers and Fox. The Gift is a visually arresting piece of filmmaking that plays like a mash up of I, Robot and The Bourne Identity. I have a feeling this is why Rinsch’s name was linked to the remake of Logan’s Run and then later The Creature From The Black Lagoon. He was poised to takeover the reins of the Alien franchise before Fox convinced his mentor Sir Ridley Scott to step back into the sci-fi arena. Naturally I was excited to see Rinsch deliver on the  promise he had shown in his earlier work when 47 Ronin was announced, but the film never arrived.

47 Ronin had almost as many release dates as there have been cinematic adaptations of this Japanese folktale. It was pushed back three times from November 2012 to February 2013 and finally hitting theatres on Boxing Day 2013. There were rumblings in the trades that Universal was unhappy with Rinsch’s lyrical and artsy vision and the production budget had spiralled out of control. The main bone of contention seem to be Keanu Reeves’ character Kai, a mixed raced slave who joins the Ronin on their quest for vengeance. It was a role created especially for this the first English language adaptation of this historical tale and according to reports had become sidelined in the editing process. The subsequent delays were to accommodate re-shoots to expand Reeves’ role and make him the focus of the climactic battle sequence at the end of the film.

After the credits had rolled on 47 Ronin and my indigestion had turned into trapped wind, my first thought was that there simply was no way to shoehorn a leading man like Keanu Reeves into a supporting role that is meant to carry this film. The dramatic focus of this story is based upon the bravery and sacrifice of Oishi, the leader of the Ronin played beautifully by Hiroyuki Sanada. My second thought was this is an exquisitely designed and crafted film with moments of real pathos. My third thought was it lacked the pace that a genre busting fantasy epic like this needs to engage a modern audience with ADD.

Interestingly, Rinsch had mentioned in an on-set interview that the 3D cameras he was using to shoot the film were the size of Volkswagens. He would not be able to use the same free-wheeling visual aesthetic that had made his commercials so much fun to watch. Therein lies the problem with 47 Ronin, as well as Rinsch’s statement that this film was to be like ‘Kurosawa on meth’, aping Kurosawa’s long takes and building massive sets like the Dutch Island that in fairness was a particular favourite of mine. However, the outlandish action sequences seem stilted at times and lacked the frenetic pace that is needed to hit an audience squarely in the gut.

I recently re-watched Zack Snyder’s equally historical and bloody opus 300 and it is a great example of how 47 Ronin could have been approached. It is smaller in scale, bloodier, camper and has a tragic ending that always leaves a lump in my throat. I admire both films for shunning the perpetual sequelization of action films… 300: Rise of an Empire is to be released in March.

It takes a brave soul to step into a $200+ million dollar epic for their first feature film. I can think of only one director that came anywhere near a budget of that size and it was JJ Abrams when he made his feature debut with Mission Impossible 3. He had a decade’s worth of experience directing television shows like Lost and Alias and writing blockbusters like Armageddon and Forever Young. I feel a more apt parallel would be to David Fincher’s experience stepping into the director’s chair for the first time on Alien 3.

I hope that, like Fincher, that Rinsch is given more opportunities to direct but perhaps on a smaller scale and on projects suited to his sci-fi sensibilities. I know audiences and critics alike have written off 47 Ronin, and it represents a huge financial loss for Universal. It is easy to focus on the shortcomings of a film that had a rocky path into theatres. I am optimistic that in the years to come audiences and critics will come back to this film and celebrate Rinsch’s ambitious, gutsy and creative effort that ultimately stays true to itself.

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