See It Instead: 47 Ronin Edition
Sometimes a movie comes along and makes you aware of an itch you never knew you had. Perhaps a review piqued your interest, or you’d rather stay in and pay yourself $10 for a small popcorn and watch a movie on the cheap. Perhaps you’re valiantly struggling through your queue on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and need a wise, cultured voice to direct you to where the real movie viewing gold is hiding amidst the shitty Christmas cartoons and serial killer biopics. Well, look no further. See It Instead is here to take today’s new releases and guide you to what you should really be watching.
Let’s just get something out in the open. I enjoy Keanu Reeves. He’s a bit shit as an actor, but if you cast him right, his beady stare and gravelly monotone are quite enjoyable. He plays the pissed off good guy at the end of his rope quite well, actually. His Bill and Ted movies are beyond reproach. If you attempt to reproach them, I will arrive at your door Jay and Silent Bob style and deliver my thoughtful treatise on his merits via the bottom of a pair of army boots. And his cheekbones. Oh those beautiful cheekbones. Some heathens may prefer Bale or McConaughey, but those filthy varlets have never gazed deeply into Keanu’s eyes and…er, ahem…he’s a handsome man, just leave it at that.
All that being said, I think 47 Ronin is going to be the biggest bomb of his career. I know, it hurts inside to say it. I need this movie to do well, or else Bill and Ted’s 3 ain’t never gonna happen. It’s just not in the cards. Keanu’s days as a bankable leading action star are pretty well behind him, though he is attempting to stage a latter day revival recently. Tom Cruise, a much healthier box office draw, barely clipped 100 million with his white guy samurai film, and 47 Ronin’s budget is reported to be the GDP of several continents. With all of the CG chicanery layered on top of what should have been a straight-forward period piece, it will have to out-hobbit The Hobbit…which is still in theater’s alongside it. You couldn’t make a better scenario for a studio hemorrhaging cash if you sat down with a team of accountants and a pack of Chestertons and actively tried to conjure one. It may be a case of life imitating art, a la The Producers, where they need to make the biggest bomb possible to actually cash in. Why not see these movies instead?
The Serious Pick: Sanjuro (1962)
If you want to see wronged samurai avenge their master by any means
A loose sequel to the legendary rogue samurai story, Yojimbo, Sanjuro continues the tale of an indolent and nameless wandering swordsman who manages to find danger and intrigue everywhere he goes. Toshiro Mifune is again cast as the gruff vagabond, giving a characteristically excellent performance. Despite having actual arrows shot at him by director Kurosawa during the filming of The Throne of Blood, the duo of Mifune and Kurosawa teamed up again to create another lasting masterpiece.
In a provincial city, nine samurai dare to speak out against a corrupt official, only to be betrayed and declared outlaws. Their lord is imprisoned, and his family put under house arrest. The nine young men, mostly green in the ways of combat and a bit naive, seem doomed to live a life of shame, unable to clear their names, until Mifune’s rogue ronin, going by the fictitious title Sanjuro Tsubaki, overhears their plight and offers to aid them, for a price. Sanjuro then sets into motion a series of plans which are mostly bungled by the well-meaning but inept young samurai. Eventually, justice is served, and Sanjuro leaves town, only to find his way barred by the deadly head-warrior of the corrupt official. The final scene is one of the best stare downs ever filmed, putting many westerns to shame. If you only watch the movie for the last 5 minutes, you still get more awesome than most films can muster in two hours.
The Lighthearted Pick: Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
If you want to see Keanu attacked by guys with swords. And Dolph Lundgren. And Ice-T. And Beat Takeshi. No reason not to see this, actually.
In a dystopian future where technology is everywhere…and barely better than what you could find in a 1990’s radio shack…cyber couriers carry data too sensitive to send over the unregulated tubes of the interweb. Keanu plays the titular Johnny Mnemonic, who has sacrificed his childhood memories in order to carry said info inside his thick skull. Taking one last gig before retiring (really, this trope is so overused. Does nobody have a bad day except for their last day on the job in Hollywood?) he goes in over his head when it turns out he may be carrying the cure for a neural plague ravaging the technophilic, and that several mega-corporations want to get that information out of said head, attached to his neck or not.
A fairly standard sci-fi jaunt, in lines with Sly’s Demolition Man or Van Damme’s Time Cop, the real fun (beyond silly action pieces involving ninja’s) is the amount of cameo’s to be seen. Like one last gasp of 90’s cool, Dolph Lundgren, Henry Rollins, and Ice-T put in appearances, and they even manage to bring in “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, though he stabs precious few people in the eye with chop-sticks. Did they not see his resume? If he doesn’t get at least two scenes of gratuitous violence in every film, he get’s depressed.
The Unconventional Pick: Izo (2004)
If you want breathtaking and bizarre visuals in a story about a wronged Samurai out for revenge.
The sheer amount of insanity in this film is hard to put into words. Here, try to follow this trailer and see if your eye-balls don’t turn around in their sockets and try to escape into your brain.
The basic story, such as it is, involves Okada Izo, a poor peasant who was made a samurai and assassin by a fanatical and cruel lord. He is betrayed and murdered, and his accursed soul carries it’s grudge throughout all time, attacking the very concept of Japanese society itself in it’s rage and confusion. Izo is dragged from one time period to another, murdering everything that stands in his way, howling like a mad banshee from hell. Which is not to say he always gets the best of each confrontation, as he is stabbed, crucified, stabbed some more, shot a bazillion time, and stabbed even more for good measure. But as the embodiment of rage, he just keeps going. Not even the merciful Buddha can seem to put his suffering to rest.
Izo is less about a coherent story, as it is a pastiche of amazing visuals, slick effects, haunting music, and mythological/social symbols strung together and held in place by lavish amounts of blood. Director Takeshi Miike is famous for his violent and image-heavy films, and Izo may be the film least tethered to a plot in the Miike cannon.
The main actor is a howling force of nature, though bit of an unknown. The supporting cast, is however awash in pretty much every big name in Japanese cinema, including our buddy, Beat Takeshi. In a movie that is all about over the top scenes, the quality of the acting is quite a feat to behold.
Another stand out element of the film is the gorgeous sound, including a rolling score of jangling acid-folk by Kazuki Tomokawa. His style is so mesmerizing, it is hard to draw comparisons, but it struck me as similar in depth and tone to Neil Young’s haunting electric guitar work in the film, Dead Man, another stylish and allegory-drenched classic.
If you can stomach a trip through the nine hells with a tormented samurai dressed like Batman’s darkest fantasy, Izo is a can’t-miss experience.