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Troubled shoot doomed ‘47 Ronin’ from the start

I finally got around to reviewing "47 Ronin," which is exactly the kind of movie that I like to see when I expect nothing from the experience. Even so, I should have been prepared for just how quickly the film would fade from my consciousness. Following is the review that I wore for Spokane Public Radio:

I’m not sure what’s more interesting: the historical incident behind the movie “47 Ronin” or the real-life struggle involved in the movie’s production. One thing, though, is clear: Both are more intriguing than the actual movie itself.

The tale of “The 47 Ronin” so embodies certain aspects of Japanese culture that it’s hard to separate truth from myth. The film is based on an incident that, records say, occurred in the early sixteenth century. Feeling insulted, a Japanese lord named Asano attacked another samurai, Lord Kira, in the presence of the Shogun. This, being prohibited, led to an order of ritual suicide for Asano and confiscation of his lands, which left his followers as masterless samurai – or ronin. One of these now-ronin, Oishi, schemed to avenge his dead master. And, after fooling everyone by pretending to be drunk and dissolute, Oishi led his 46 followers in a successful secret attack that the Japanese still celebrate as an example of supreme loyalty.

Universal Studios began production on a movie version of the tale some five years ago. The studio hired a virtual unknown, Carl Rinsch – whose main talent, to this point, had been in making video ads – to direct. Moreover, the project would include the mixed-race American actor Keanu Reeves. Cast as Kai, Reeves plays the quote-unquote “half-breed” who, as a young boy, is adopted as a kind of pet by Lord Asano. Following Asano’s death, Oishi – who until then had resented Kai – enlists the half-breed’s help. Reports were of a troubled shoot involving a number of delays but an even more-troubled post-production. Some stories say Universal even removed director Rinsch from the editing room – leaving executives to make the final cut.

Either way, what results is less a mess than a mere curiosity. For one thing, the script – which was co-written by Chris Morgan, one of the “Fast and Furious” series authors – adds in an ample doses of magic and witchcraft, which serves not only to excuse Asano’s initial, seemingly cowardly attack, but also to explain why the lesser-caste Kai exhibits such great sword skills. For another, Morgan’s script shoehorns in a romance between Kai and Lord Asano’s daughter, Mika (played by Ko Shibasaki) – which, though understandable from a plot point, is so far from something historically possible as to be emanating from “Harry Potter” land.

Of course, the real reason why anyone would go to see a film such as “47 Ronin” has nothing to do with historical or cultural importance, much less romance. It would be to see the fight scenes, especially rendered in 3-D. But as in so many other contemporary action flicks, Rinsch’s “47 Ronin” emphasizes quantity over quality. So much goes in each frame that individual moments, not to mention actors, get lost in the seemingly endless blur. As a contrast, watch any of Akira Kurosawa’s non-CGI films – “Sanjuro,” “Yojimbo” or, especially, “Seven Samurai” – each of which serves as a master class in how to direct movie action.

As for Reeves, who has been largely absent since the 2008 remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” … well, I admit it: The man can sure swing a sword. At the same time he proves, yet again, that mere presence does not a movie actor make.