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.