Come with me now on a journey back through the churning mists of time… It is the year 2000, and I am – holy shit, am I actually doing a misty flashback to the year 2000? Living in the future is weird. Anyway, it’s January 2000 and I’m turning 24. My preferred birthday celebration is going to the movies with a bunch of friends, but the problem with a birthday in January is that all the good films came out a couple of months earlier in time for the Christmas break – by mid-January, you’re left with the stuff that’s either too obscure or just too crap to be allowed to clutter the holiday schedule. What’s around this year that we haven’t already watched? Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Skipping ahead through the years, my birthday hijinks would end up exposing me to a fairly even mixture of hidden gems (Enemy at the Gates, A Very Long Engagement) and banal shit (Battlefield Earth, The Spirit). This year, having let the tradition slide somewhat, I decided to give it a go – with 47 Ronin.
there’s nothing more evil than a sexually confident woman.
Come with me now on another journey back through the churning mists of time… It is now feudal Japan with samurai and honour and massive shoulder pads but also witches and demons and shit. Let me say at the start that I’m not sure how I feel about an action movie that doesn’t have Dwayne Johnson or Jason Statham in it. How do we even know it’s an action film? On the other hand, there are 47 of the buggers – one of them’s bound to be Statham in a wig. Probably two or three. Headlining the film is Keanu Reeves as Kai, a half-Japanese outcast with magical powers taught to him by demons that he almost never uses for fear of blowing the FX budget. Kaianu is pretty much Japanese Neo, which is to say he’s pretty much any Keanu Reeves character who isn’t Ted “Theodore” Logan*. It’s debatable whether or not he’s the main character – equal weight is given to Oishi, the leader of the eponymous Ronin, who is actually central to the story, as opposed to being bolted on to provide a white face and a supernatural angle.
The plot is based on the classic tale: A bunch of samurai are made ronin and exiled after the death of their lord. Their leader is thrown in a hole for a year, gets out and after a brief detour to swipe Kaianu off the set of a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, he assembles the rest of the crew and they organise an assault on the bad guys to avenge their master. The bad guys in this case are a rival lord, whose face appears to have been welded into a permanent evil sneer, and a powerful witch, who we can tell is evil because she acts kind of slutty and shows a lot of leg and we all know there’s nothing more evil than a sexually confident woman. As well as enemy soldiers, the ronin have to contend with demons, both CGI and half-CGI. (I get that Tengu are supposed to be bird-like, but why do they have four nostrils? Seriously, their beak/nose combo gives them bird nostrils at the top and human nostrils at the bottom – I’m not lying when I say that bothered me the entire time they were on screen.)
And, yeah, the good guys win, but then of course they all have to commit ritual suicide because honour, so Kaianu can never be with the woman he loves. With the amount of “I’ll find you in another life” pining, I was 95% sure that the movie was going to manufacture a happy ending with a flash forward showing the reincarnated lovebirds being reunited in the present day – instead it ends on a silhouetted fist-pumping ronin on horseback, which was one freeze frame and the opening bars of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” short of a Breakfast Club remake**. As a film, it’s not good enough to gush over, nor is it bad enough to mock satisfyingly – there was only one thing that really stuck out to me, but to explain it, you’ll have to…
Come with me now on a journey back through the churning mists of time, not as far as the last journey but a bit further back than the one before it… It’s 1991 and I’m playing the game Magic Pockets on my Amiga 500. I almost included this game on my list of life-defining gaming experiences, but its significance to me doesn’t really relate to gaming per se. See, when you complete a level, all of the goodies you collected spray out across the screen, and when I saw that my reaction was “wow, that’s an impressive number of objects on screen at once – that would have been hard to do on an Amiga,” which was the first time I noticed myself paying attention to the behind-the-scenes technical details of a piece of entertainment at the same time as I was supposed to be sitting back and enjoying it.
The more I learn about how movies are made, the more I find myself doing this. I’ve mentioned before not being able to unsee Teal and Orange or badly written action scenes once I knew how they work; more recently, Cracked.com’s podcast “Why Every Movie Plot Follows Weirdly Specific Rules” saw me analysing the timing of every film I saw after it. Back on topic, while watching 47 Ronin, I found myself thinking “hmm, that CGI’s OK; that CGI’s a bit dodgy; I’m assuming that background is CGI; good integration of CGI and real life in that bit” and so on. I don’t know why CGI sticks out more than, say, stop animation or miniature work – maybe it’s because it’s used to achieve things that you know can’t be real. On the other hand, maybe I just didn’t pay as much attention to how things worked back before CGI became commonplace – I do watch older films now and think “ooh, that’s a nice model.” Am I just going to destroy more and more of my movie watching experience the more I know about how movies work? Should I be actively avoiding any more discussions of film-making? Should I be scientifically hitting myself in the head with a flatiron to dislodge what knowledge I already have?
I could come to some sort of conclusion here, but I know that most of you stopped reading after “flatiron” to jump to the comments section and say “yes you should” so I’m just going to stop typing now.
* Of course, since he has access to a time machine, you can make the case that any time Keanu Reeves appears as a character in a period piece, he’s actually an older Ted taking a breather from being a rock god. Hell, he’s even got the beard in this one.
** Needless to say, that would have been awesome.