47 Ronin: An Exercise in Misunderstanding

Keanu Reeves was in a film that came out last year: 47 Ronin. I’d seen the trailers for it, and it seemed like it was right up my alley (minus the Keanu Reeves part): a Samurai action fantasy movie? Sign me up, right?

Well . . . it didn’t quite turn out as I’d hoped, on many different levels.

First off, let’s get the elephant out of the room: Keanu Reeves. The guy just has a talent for one note performances. It’s what made him such an excellent choice for The Matrix. Half of the fun was that “The One” turned out to be a bit of a wooden idiot. Bill and Ted succeeds because he’s so good at being that idiot. Put the idiot into a love story in medieval Japan? Um . . . not so much.

But let’s assume for a moment that Reeves could have done a perfect job. Let’s give the film the benefit of the doubt. Even then, it’s got one big, serious, glaring issue. The movie hinges on a white guy (okay, half-white) being able to save all these poor Japanese warriors who just can’t do it on their own. Worse yet, he has to teach them all that they’re all racist and need to get over their prejudices.

It’s not quite this blatant in the movie, but the whole time, it was bugging me, and it wasn’t until I thought it over in the middle (I watched the movie over several days, when I had time) that it became clear. I suppose this is a trope that’s used fairly often in film and pop culture. You’ve got the reverse that happens when Asian martial arts masters come over to America to take names and bring order to society. Or Crocodile Dundee, I suppose . . . But when you start looking to Crocodile Dundee to defend a trope, maybe you’re looking too hard.

And really, it felt different in this movie. With Crocodile Dundee, it was simply a fish out of water showing the rest of the fish what life could be like. With 47 Ronin, the white guy shows the rest of the world how he’s really better than all of them. It would be like having Crocodile Dundee show up and show Americans how to be better Americans. I’m flailing to describe it in words that make it clear, but hopefully you’re getting the point.

No. One more try. What if you had a story about a basketball player who’s a great basketball player, and he finds himself on a football team. And through the course of the movie, he shows the rest of the team how awesome he is at football, as well. He leads that football team to the national championship, because basketball is really awesome.

Does that illustrate the disconnect here? I give up.

I’m willing to give the movie a bit of leeway, because it sounds like it was a nightmare behind the scenes, with the studio coming in and getting all trompy during the editing process. So who knows what it was supposed to be before that happens. But it’s no surprise to me that the film absolutely bombed. Even taking out the racist undertones, it comes across as a movie that resulted when someone watched Lord of the Rings and came away thinking the reason the trilogy was successful was because it had great special effects.

Honestly, the production values in the movie were high. You can tell it cost a pretty penny to make. It’s just the acting, the story, the fantasy development, and the characters that derail it all. LOTR worked because it was a package deal. It had a lot going on so many different levels. This? It’s shiny, but once you get past the wrapper, it’s pretty rotten.

So in the end, this is one movie you should actively avoid. Yes, it’s PG13. Yes, it’s got some cool action sequences. But no, it’s not worth your time. Trust me. 4/10

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