Standard warnings about spoilers apply.
I recorded this movie off HBO mostly because I wanted to see the costumes and the special effects. My expectations going in where extremely low. In the end, surprisingly, it was a lot better than I expected. I won’t say it’s a great movie (even saying it was good may be a stretch) but I actually enjoyed it.
Before I get into more specifics, I have two tangents to make about why my expectations were so low.
First, Keanu Reeves. In the past (as my friends and families can attest) I was so vociferous in my criticism of Keanu Reeves that it was occasionally uncomfortable. I just hated his acting, and couldn’t understand why he was in so many movies. (Beyond the “looks good when well-lit” argument.) In recent years I’ve mellowed. First, because I’ve seen multiple accounts that amply demonstrate that Keanu Reeves has had more than his fair share of sadness and misfortune, and that he’s a genuinely considerate guy. There are several stories of him buying gifts for every member of a movie’s crew, or quietly donating significant sums to charities. All of which has made me feel some empathy for him as a person, which easily transfers to the characters he plays. Second is that I’ve grown as a person. I used to resent Keanu Reeves because I considered him to be untalented, and it just felt unfair that he should be living a life I could only dream of. I implicitly discounted the hard work he put in, the dues he paid that I couldn’t be bothered to. It was unfair and immature of me, and I now regret it.
As far as the movie itself goes, I think the marketing for it completely missed the mark. They focussed on the fantastical elements and special effects shots to the exclusion of all else. This movie was well-paced and occasionally contemplative, but you’d never know it from the way it was marketed. From the commercials and previews I saw, I was expecting Suckerpunch, only set in Japan, and not as good. And I did not think Suckerpunch was good. At all. The first preview I saw for 47 Ronin actually kind of made me mad, because the original, historical story of the 47 Ronin is a long-time favorite of mine. (I still think it deserves to have a straight-up period movie made from it.)
Instead 47 Ronin is much more like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, only set in Japan, and not nearly as good. But the story is interesting, if a bit predictable. The villain characters were two-dimensional and devoted most of their time to chewing the scenery. On the other hand, the three main protagonists had more depth and were well portrayed. Plus, all three of them had a real story arc where they grew and changed and sacrificed and struggled. There were some really beautiful landscape shots and sets, and the costumes were really good. The magic elements were well-grounded in actual Japanese folklore. I especially liked the make up for the Tengu. It made them feel otherworldly while maintaining enough human elements to keep them from being shallow CGI boogymen.
One last note about Keanu Reeves’ character. In the story he’s a half-breed (the son of a Japanese peasant woman and an english sailor), and I will give kudos that the producers cast a multi-racial actor. But I think they could have easily made this movie without bringing in a western star. In the end, I think the character’s history and story arc were interesting enough that I’m willing to overlook this. I just get frustrated when Hollywood does this kind of white-washing. (Or similarly, when they cast two Chinese actors as the (Japanese) lead characters of Memoirs of a Geisha.) I understand why they do it. People go to see their favorite actors. But I’d rather see Hollywood focus on telling good stories and casting actors who fit organically into those stories, and less on who has enough name recognition to make their opening weekend projections.