'47 Ronin' Review: The Best Fantasy Film of this December
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'47 Ronin' Review: The Best Fantasy Film of this December

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film Reviews | December 27, 2013 | Comments ()


To look at the reviews floating around the Internet, you’d think that 47 Ronin was as bad as Getaway, which is in fact the worst movie ever made. 47 Ronin is currently sitting at 10% on Rotten Tomatoes. Even snuff films reviewed exclusively by the victim’s family members tend to get at least 15%. So this movie must be monumentally bad, right? A colossal and abject failure?

No, 47 Ronin is a perfectly serviceable fantasy adventure. It’s certainly a better movie than The Hobbit Part Deux, which will make twenty times as much money and enjoys nearly unanimous critical praise. It’s that sort of inexplicability that keeps us getting up in the morning I guess, else the world be too boring.

It is filled with gorgeous visuals, creative ones that draw a world of deep mysteries that its characters do not understand, populated by creatures that slink out of myth without any attempt to categorize them into neat little boxes of explanation. The movie portrays a deep world, the sort that you imagine any number of stories could emerge from.

It’s a nice little story, one that focuses in on a more personal story, on the story of men who take up arms in order to set things right, without hampering the story with the fantasy movie insistence on making every story about preventing the end of the world. And the alien nature of feudal Japan is a refreshing setting. This is not Japan on the decline, the last gasp of the samurai, and it’s not the typical movie version of feudal society that gets updated to reflect our modern sensibilities.

This is a world in which an honorable man kills himself for disobeying an order for the greater good, and thinks it is a great honor to do so. I do not agree with that. I think it’s wasteful and stupid and a society I would rather die than live in. But I respect the hell out of a movie that allows its characters to actually have values different than a 21st century American, and has the balls to respect them for it rather than injecting it with a sly sideways wink of how we know better now.

The characterization is also quite interesting. Keanu Reeves’ character Kai has no character arc, and no development. This, in addition to the tried and true criticism of a story set among samurai that naturally has a white dude playing the lead, has been the focus of a great deal of criticism. It’s criticism that’s unfounded. Kai is not the protagonist of the story. The other Ronin are. They are the ones with character arcs, who learn things about their world, evolve and change as a result of events. Kai is static, because he’s not the protagonist.

Kai is explicitly presented as an outsider, as much a part of the fantastic backdrop as the visuals. He’s an infant abandoned and raised by demons. He could as easily be half-black instead of half-white, or even be Japanese but with something physically distinct to mark him. His “whiteness” is completely irrelevant to the story. Those that are injecting race into the discussion have either not seen the film, or had already made up their minds before seeing it.

It’s natural to focus on Reeves because he’s the big name. But he’s not the star of this film. Of course we live in a world that thinks Aragorn is the protagonist of The Lord of the Rings, so I suppose we have to be a little patient with the film critics who are incapable of wrapping their minds around a film where the tall brooding white guy isn’t the protagonist.

This isn’t a movie that should be winning any Oscars, but neither is it an abysmal joke of a movie that deserves the critical beating that it’s taking. It is a creative and interesting fantasy action movie, set in a distinct and deep world that feels fully formed as opposed to being but a series of set pieces for the director to fill with interminable ADD-riddled CGI fight sequences. And it tops it off by having the decency to try to tell a story about something, while not planting tongue firmly in cheek in the opening scene and winking at the audience for 90 minutes of cartoon action.

I’ve written before about how most people don’t like science fiction or fantasy. They think they do because they like the good stuff, and then look down on all the rest of it. But to love a genre is to love the lesser entries as well, to see them for what’s good in them. I’ve given up caring what critics think about science fiction and fantasy movies (and I’m aware that you’re reading this from the point of view of thinking of me as a film critic, but really I doubt they’d let me into their club even if I applied), because once you’re past either the crowd-pleasers like Star Wars, and the top 1% of exquisite stuff that would be good in any genre like District 9 or Children of Men, they just can’t see any good in them. So Tron 2: We Don’t Need Story We Have Techno gets positive reviews and Repo Men eats a shit taco.

So screw ‘em. If you like science fiction and fantasy, go see 47 Ronin. If you don’t, go see The Hobbit 2: Bilbo Who? and keep pretending you do.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • muscleman

    Excellent movie. Great story, excellent 3D visuals and a witch to boot.....can't wait for the 3D Blu-ray to see it again.

  • J4Sho

    That was an awesome rant and I love you.

  • Thanks for a good out of the mainstream review.

  • JedRow

    Reminded me of the 13th Warrior. Entertaining story, perfect for a Sunday afternoon.

  • hapl0

    It was worth the price of admission just to see Keanu Reeves get shit on by almost everyone in this movie.

  • Adía

    I saw this movie a few days ago and really enjoyed it. There was a lot less gore than I would have expected from a samurai movie. And because of my western upbringing it was very difficult to understand how committing suicide was considered honorable. I very much enjoyed all the fantasy creatures.

  • Jiffylush

    Try Twilight Samurai. It's a family drama with a great story and great characters. Really changed how I thought about "Samurai" movies.

  • Ghani

    I love Twilight Samurai so much!:-)

  • Well okay then. I was on the fence about this - likely to go because the visuals are so nice and the mythology is interesting - but your review makes this seem like a good date night movie, which the Hobbit Deux was not.

  • Jiffylush

    Children of Men is an example of the 1% that completely destroys an amazing book to make it appeal to the lowest common denominator. Not an example of an "exquisite" anything.

  • Agree.

  • While freely admitting to not having read PD James' book, I don't think Cuaron's film has mass appeal, let alone appeal to a lowest common denominator. It's slow(ish), dark, small (inasmuch as it remains tightly focussed on the protagonists), and the world-building is apparent through illustration rather than in-your-face exposition. It's a good film, sitting in that non-mainstream SF vein.

  • Jiffylush

    The book is fairly light sci-fi with interesting ideas and a very different style of delivery. I assume that is due to her being in part woman and having a long history of writing mysteries.

    The only thing that the movie shared with the book could be found on the book jacket. As far as mass appeal goes, you clearly missed the internet exploding about how wonderful it was.

    The movie made no sense at all, something just happened and no one knew why. In the book it made perfect sense.

    The main character in the book (Clive Barker in the movie) was a miserable lump of a man that made the people around him miserable. They showed this in the movie by having Clive make two snide remarks that sounded more like he was trying to be cheeky. They don't even show what he did (the only important fact in the development character) and why he was divorced and why he was sulking around with all that guilt.

    I really hope that someone makes Children of Men into a movie one day.

    *****Five+ down votes from people that can sit on the internet all day but not take a couple of hours to read a good book*****

  • Richard Eng

    I liked Children of Men. It stands on its own as a good film; it need not be a realization of the book. If you're arguing that they shouldn't have called it "Children of Men", then maybe you have a point. But it did help to sell the movie. Nothing wrong with that. Hollywood does it all the time.

  • semiotheque

    Downvoted for tone.

    And because I read the book years before I saw the movie, and the book is serviceable while the movie is an accomplishment.

  • Jiffylush

    I'll give you the tone, I am a little sensitive about that particular movie. I honestly wish it had been named something else.

  • semiotheque

    Man, I get it. I graduated with a degree in Latin & Greek right when all those terrible, wildly popular movies about Gladiators and Alexander of Macedon and the siege of Troy were coming out and I. Was. Insufferable.

  • It's entirely possible the downvotes are from individuals who completely disagree with your opinion, not because they haven't read the book.

    I read the book before the movie. The novel is an adequate stab at an interesting and original idea. The film takes that premise, jettisons the majority of the plot and characterization, and transforms the story into one of the best science fiction films ever made.

    Obviously you disagree with that opinion, and that's fine, but slinging accusations of ignorance is unfounded in this forum.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Accusations of ignorance are especially unwarranted from someone confusing Clive Owen with Clive Barker.

  • Evolve Today

    I read the book before I watched the movie, and I still liked the movie better. So enjoy a downvote anyway.

  • kirbyjay

    Don't know if it makes a different in the "tall white dude as star" theory but Keanu Reeves is English, Hawaiian and Chinese, so not exactly white.

  • Yocean

    He is like a quarter Asian. Too white, in blood and looks, to be a "half breed"

  • firedmyass

    What an impressively unpleasant statement.

  • Yocean

    I have been a "half breed" (the term in the movie) or hapa all my life and have known many many like me and Keanu looks nothing like us. He looks more like my nephew who is a quarter Japanese. I love what Keanu is trying to do but to say he looks Asian enough is erroneous and possibly dangerous. We are not color blind yet.

  • Yocean

    Really? Because I'm a half Japanese half white male who looks more Asian and is tired of whitefication of Asian in Hollywood movies. Keanu represents "Asian enough but white enough to be marketable" Hollywood Asian. Evidently I would be too Asian to play Asian in any movie, let alone be a lead. It's waaaaaay more unpleasant experience, believe me.

  • firedmyass

    I hope there was no implication that I found YOU to be "unpleasant." That was in no way my intent. The personal context adds some layers that weren't there on the initial reading. Apologies if my comment seemed to be a direct attack.

  • Yocean

    All good sir. Thank you for clarification. I see how my statement could be misconstrued.

  • Ryan McLaughlin

    "Even snuff films reviewed exclusively by the victim’s family members tend to get at least 15%." - awesome.

    And while I completely disagree about Disctrict 9 and Repo Men (as they both sucked... well Repo Men was at least fun to watch) excellent and well written review, regardless.

  • Snath

    Really, you disliked District 9? I don't think I've ever heard of anyone outside of my mom disliking that movie. What didn't you like about it?

  • Saw it on Christmas Day. The best way I can describe it is it's as close to the real tale of the 47 ronin as 300 is close to the real story of the 300 Spartans. That is, it's not at all.

    And Keanu is not the lead. Hiroyuki Sanada's Oishi is.

  • Yocean

    Phew. Yes as Kuranosuke should be.

  • Dan O'Neill

    Wonderful review. I actually didn't mind this one that much either, which is probably why most will laugh at me once my review goes up. But I'm glad to know that I'm not alone on liking this flick. Thanks!

  • Stephen Nein

    I continue to be absolutely convinced that the legend of the 47 Ronin, without significant alteration, would make an absolutely awesome movie or series; however, that it becomes the starting point of a truly good fantasy makes me quite interested.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Allegedly, Chushingura is very good. I really want to watch it, but I can't find it anywhere.

  • It is but I haven't seen it since the mid 70's or late 60's when it was shown at Haverford College.

  • JK

    It's available on DVD from Netflix. It's waiting somewhere in my ridiculously long queue.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    No Netflix in Old Europe, I'm afraid.

    Thanks to you, too.

  • Here you go, although if you're not in America, this will be of dubious worth: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb...

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I know. I can get the Region 1 DVD from Amazon UK, but that won't do me any good.

    Thanks anyway.

  • Morgan_LaFai

    Get yourself a tunnelbear account and then you can have either a US or UK ip address depending on your needs. That way you can watch and still have it be (mostly) legal cause you are watching on through the official site. Hope this helps.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Thanks. I finally got it via different means. Shitty quality, but the DVD is on my list should it ever come out.

    It's indeed a very good movie.

  • PDamian

    "I’ve written before about how most people don’t like science fiction or fantasy. They think they do because they like the good stuff, and then look down on all the rest of it. But to love a genre is to love the lesser entries as well, to see them for what’s good in them. I’ve given up caring what critics think about science fiction and fantasy movies [...] because once you’re past either the crowd-pleasers [...] and the top 1% of exquisite stuff that would be good in any genre [...], they just can’t see any good in them."

    And that, in a nutshell, is what it's like for me to be a dedicated horror fan. Switch out "science fiction or fantasy" for "horror," and you've hit the nail on the head, Steven. Many, many thanks for this review. And I do intend to see 47 Ronin this week, just to watch a pretty lady in a kimono turn into a giant silken dragon. The preview for this film was at least that intriguing. Thanks for assuring me that I'll have a good time.

  • This was a Good Review and you should feel good for having written it.

  • TheDevilYouKnow

    Y'all seem really worked up about the Hobbit. Not making any judgement on it because I agree, but yeesh.

  • manting

    Steve you have rapidly become my favorite reviewer on Pajiba. I look forward to seeing this movie and thanks for the review.

  • Yocean

    Ok. I'm a Japanese and if they didn't use that title and those character names for a story that has no resemblance whatsoever to the well worn popular story I grew up with, I would have probably loved to see this. Good to know Keanu is not the protagonist though. The trailer really was marketed like it was Keanu movie. I'm still on fence but your review kinda got me there from "absolutely no fucking way" so there.

  • Vivianne ValdeMar

    Yocean, that was my main problem with the film as well. Secondary was the marketing problem the film has, but mostly I was miffed at the bastardization of yet another story rooted equally in history and myth, and which needs no CGI and supernatural elements to be compelling and thought-provoking.

  • Yocean

    Right? Hollywood always think they know better when it come to adopting stories from other cultures and often fails miserably by making them more "entertaining" "easy on American palate" ( I.E. Dragon Ball: Evolution) when appeal of good stories are inherently universal. That being said, not that I learned Kuranosuke is the actual protagonist and it got many Japanese actors I like I might go check out. I might even welcome a fantasy interpretation of the old story. I still wish this was not the introduction of the Chusinguta, one of the most popular and enduring Japanese stories, for the most outside of Japan though.

  • Jiffylush

    I felt the same way about The Man of Tai Chi, but Keanu had a relatively small but important role. Definitely not the main character.

  • Stephen Nein

    This in combination with the AV Club giving a very respectable B grade has moved 47 Ronin to my Future Rental list.

  • BWeaves

    "This is a world in which an honorable man kills himself for disobeying an order for the greater good, and thinks it is a great honor to do so. I do not agree with that. I think it’s wasteful and stupid and a society I would rather die than live in. "

    Ah, irony. That was irony, right?

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Thank you, BWeaves.

  • $88871049

    my Aunty Amelia got a
    fantastic black Audi TT Coupe from only workin part time on a pc... i loved
    this B­i­g­2­9­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Big29?

    A big 29" whisker basket?

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