The Book of Void

The key player in this saga gets his promi­nence di­min­ished to make way for a big star whose char­ac­ter is ... su­per­flu­ous.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - Re­view by DAVIN ARUL en­ter­tain­ment@thes­tar.com.my

STICK­ING a Big Name in the cast to sell a movie is noth­ing new, but some­times those names don’t fit snugly into the story. In this case, it’s not just the case that the big un’s lack of range causes his scenes to stick out like a sore thumb. It is also be­cause his char­ac­ter’s pres­ence de­tracts con­sid­er­ably from the man whose real story this is, which is a bit of a crime against that in­di­vid­ual’s mem­ory. But more on that later.

This is a retelling of the fa­mous leg­end of the 47 ronin (mas­ter­less samurai) in feu­dal Ja­pan, who avenged the death of their lord as a mat­ter of hon­our; only with fan­tasy el­e­ments like de­mons, dragons and witches thrown in.

The names of the main play­ers are largely the same, even if ev­ery­thing else is pure fic­tion. There was a feu­dal lord named Asano who was tricked into as­sault­ing a ri­val lord, Kira (played here by Tadanobu Asano), and then forced to com­mit sep­puku (rit­ual sui­cide, al­though the lo­cal sub­ti­tler had it as sepupuku, or death by an­noy­ing cousin).

Asano did have a loyal re­tainer named Oishi (the qui­etly charis­matic Hiroyuki Sanada), who be­came a ronin af­ter his mas­ter’s death and later led other loyal men on a mis­sion of re­venge. And by most ac­counts, Kira was some­thing of an asshat, be­ing cor­rupt or ar­ro­gant or just plain petty.

What his­tory isn’t ready to con­cede is that Asano’s court also had a half­breed out­cast named Kai (Keanu Reeves) dwelling on its fringes, hated or at least re­garded with con­tempt by the lord’s samurai. Nat­u­rally, Kai has to go and fall in love with Mika (Ko Shibasaki), the lord’s daugh­ter – and she with him. Just so, you know, one char­ac­ter af­ter another can dan­gle it con­temp­tu­ously in his face that they can never be to­gether.

Kira and his Witch With No Name (Rinko Kikuchi) engi­neer Asano’s death, the shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Ta­gawa) ar­ranges for Kira to marry Mika af­ter a year of mourn­ing her fa­ther, and Oishi and his men are deemed ronin – and hence­forth, ban­ished.

Right, so Kai’s long-sup­pressed true na­ture (con­ve­niently for the story, he was an aban­doned child raised by su­per­nat­u­ral be­ings known as tengu to be a highly ef­fec­tive killer) comes to the fore af­ter he is shipped off to some left­over sets from Pi­rates Of The Caribbean. Oishi res­cues him from a life of fight­ing in blood­sport for the en­ter­tain­ment of drunken Euro­pean sailors, and en­lists his aid to avenge their mas­ter – also so Kai can save his beloved from be­com­ing Mrs Asshat. This is where Kai rises to the oc­ca­sion, steal­ing Oishi’s thun­der ev­ery chance he gets. You re­ally won­der what kind of mess Oishi and his men would have made of things – in this movie, at least – if not for him; the loyal war­rior is de­picted as a guy who can’t even se­cure weapons for his troops or gather in­tel­li­gence prop­erly.

His­tor­i­cally, Oishi was a crafty in­di­vid­ual, able to throw Kira’s spies off for two years while he plot­ted his re­venge by act­ing like a man who had lost ev­ery­thing, even his dig­nity. Here, he gets thrown down a pit for a year and emerges with only one bright idea in his head, to go look­ing for Kai just so the out­cast can then pro­ceed to show him up at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. Maybe I wouldn’t have both­ered that much if the film­mak­ers hadn’t gone and opened the door by link­ing this to the ac­tual story of the 47 ronin.

Viewed as to­tal bull jazz, 47 Ronin comes across as a (mostly) watch­able out­ing where the big­gest fail­ing is its star’s in­abil­ity to muster any kind of emo­tional con­nec­tion with the viewer ei­ther in his sta­tus as a non-en­tity to the samurai, or as a star-crossed lover.

Sanada is com­mand­ing enough in a crim­i­nally un­der­mined role, and as usual it’s the vil­lains who chew up the scenery with rel­ish – es­pe­cially Rinko Kikuchi, who ex­udes enig­matic men­ace as the name­less she-thing and gets un­com­fort­ably in-your-face, Painted Skin style, with Mika on a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions.

The film could have done with a lot more of such campi­ness and a lot less of its pre­ten­sions to some kind of ac­tual sig­nif­i­cance – they might as well have just changed all the names and mar­keted this as a 100% made-up ken­jutsu fan­tasy-ad­ven­ture ... The Lord Of The Five Rings, so to speak.

Red red ronin: ‘aren’t you a lit­tle short for a de­mon-raised killing ma­chine?’

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