47 Ronin is based on a traditional Japanese story called the Chushingura, which retells the efforts of 47 masterless samurai (ronin) in avenging their slain master (Strangely enough, a direct mention of the story pops up in 1998’s Ronin in a scene between Robert De Niro and Michael Lonsdale). The Chushingura has been retold in multiple iterations in film, TV, radio, and on stage, and the most immediate comparison in terms of popularity of replication would be Les Miserables. The nearest American counterpart to it would probably be the entire canon of folk legends, or prominent points of history like the Civil War.
Keanu Reeves plays Kai, a man of low stature, often referred to as a “demon” by his samurai compatriots because of his sketchy past and his mixed blood heritage. He was rescued as a child by a Japanese noble, whose samurai are led by Oishi, played by Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine). When their master is killed by a rival lord with the help of a witch, they rally the troops for a revenge mission. Along the way, they face enchanted forests, giant beasts, and rival clans with swords in hand, which should be loads of fun, if nothing else.
However, 47 Ronin’s primary sin is that it’s boring.
|We still don't like you, white demon.|
It’s obviously not this movie’s responsibility to be any of these other movies or to necessarily compete with them, but what’s frustrating is that it never is its own thing. The plot lacks any weight or momentum, the characters are uselessly one note, and the movie spends too much time in transitions, with people riding horses to a new destination or brooding grim faced about what happened before. The narrative weight getting split over too many characters doesn’t help either. The hero is either Keanu or Sanada; Reeves because he has the mystical box office draw, or Sanada because he has the most developed back story, but neither is the focus of the story and the movie suffers for it. Even the villainy is split between the rival Japanese lord and the witch, played by Rinko Kikuchi, who didn’t make me drift off thinking about other movies because she looked like she was actually having fun.
|Not as much fun as Pacific Rim. Probably.|
One of the reported reasons for the delay of 47 Ronin was that Keanu Reeves was working on his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, which is inspired by the background of one of Reeves’s stuntmen, “Tiger” Chen.
In the story, Tiger Chen is the very belligerently named sole disciple of tai chi, a martial art known mostly for its internal health benefits and old people congregating at local parks. Tiger practices tai chi with his master every morning before going off to his very ordinary job as a delivery man, and along the way, decides to enter a martial arts competition, not for glory, but to prove that “tai chi isn’t just for exercise. It can be very powerful.”
Keanu Reeves (the crazily named Donaka Mark) runs a lucrative underground fighting club, and notices Tiger’s performance in the competition; he decides that corrupting a naïve and morally decent tai chi practitioner into a killing machine is exactly the new challenge he and his profit margin need. Through a series of accidents, Tiger is forced to enter Donaka Mark’s fight ring, quickly finding his martial prowess improving, but his moral integrity crumbling away.
Tiger Chen, a sprightly 5’9”, is not as short as some other martial artists (Jet Li is 5’6”) but every fighter he battles in this movie is either taller or bulkier, so it is genuinely impressive when he defeats his physically more imposing opponents. The story seldom drives toward moments which require varied emotions from him, so Chen’s stoical face comes off as a man going about his business, rather than awkward emptiness. He is quicker and smoother in his movements, and he adapts to the fluid, deflective movements of tai chi as well as the more powerful and frenetic martial arts forms he adopts as his character arc darkens further into the movie.
|It's not just exercise.|
Although Reeves’s character is the one pushing the action in the movie, it is little more developed than the unremarkable empty vessel he is in 47 Ronin. In both movies, his presence is counted on to bring in an audience, but where 47 Ronin tries to tack him onto an already established story to bring in American dollars, Reeves smartly steps aside from most of the spotlight in his own Man of Tai Chi, and that movie is better for it. It also helps that Man of Tai Chi has some competently choreographed action, some relatable characters, and a bit of story with stakes involved. I’m happy to see that creators of martial arts movies continue to want to market their films for American audiences, but wondering when they’ll stop thinking that slapping a well-known American name will help them break into new markets. Or even worse, in the case of the The Grandmaster, that dumbing down the content into a markedly different cut will make it more palatable. The unexpected success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon taught some bad lessons along with the good about martial arts cinematic success in the U.S., but it did show that a martial arts movie with foreign, unrecognizable faces dubbed in a foreign language can still be compelling storytelling.