Blade of the 47 Ronin

You know me – I’ve always been fascinated with DTV sequels. One of their endearing qualities is that their modest budgets allow for a different type of crass commercialism than regular Hollywood – they try to cash in on familiar (or even unfamiliar) titles that would never fly on the big screen. That gave us the miracle of the UNDISPUTED sequels, but mostly just stuff where it was funny that it existed – loosely connected followups or branded rehashes of CRUEL INTENTIONS, WILD THINGS, ROAD HOUSE and HOLLOW MAN, for example, many of which I reviewed for The Ain’t It Cool News at the time.

Thanks to Universal’s direct-to-video division, 1440 Entertainment, that tradition is still going strong, and arguably making a comeback. Back in the aughts they brought us SCORPION KING and DEATH RACE sequels, they revived Chucky in the great CURSE OF CHUCKY, they started making JARHEAD sequels for some reason, and brought to life such unlikely part 2s as THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS 2, KINDERGARTEN COP 2 and HARD TARGET 2. In 2018 they even made a DTV sequel to UNBROKEN, that war drama directed by Angelie Jolie, and in 2019 they did BACKDRAFT 2, INSIDE MAN: MOST WANTED, DOOM: ANNIHILATION and UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2. That last one I tried to watch because Michael Jai White is in it, but I gave up when his character went into a coma near the beginning. Still, I appreciate its existence because it keeps me on my toes. It reminds me that any movie, no matter how old, no matter how forgotten, no matter how how-the-fuck-would-you-make-a-sequel-to-that, could suddenly have a DTV sequel. And it would already be filmed and have cover art by the time I found out they were doing it. You gotta be aware at all times.

So a couple months ago they released sequels to two different expensive 2013 flops that I don’t think you can even call notorious because most people never knew they existed. To date I have not seen R.I.P.D. 2: RISE OF THE DAMNED, but I’m happy to report on BLADE OF THE 47 RONIN, not to be confused with BLADE, OF THE 47 RONIN, which would be similar but different. This one does not have any daywalkers but instead is an official sequel to the Keanu Reeves version of 47 RONIN.

Here’s what I remember about the first film: I was genuinely excited, because I had seen MAN OF TAI CHI and was now convinced Reeves was a legitimate martial arts icon with great taste in movies. It came out on Christmas, so I probly saw it the next day. It had cool monsters, but I was very bored and disappointed. No problem – I’m still down for a gratuitous way-after-the-fact sequel, particularly one that takes place 300 years later.

The opening establishing shot includes rotating hologram advertisements above the buildings, which seems like shorthand for “you guys like cyberpunk?” or “it’s like BLADE RUNNER!,” but otherwise it doesn’t necessarily seem like it’s meant to be futuristic. It must not be set too far from now, because one character makes a bunch of Harry Potter references, and another mentions “that ‘80s ramen western TAMPOPO.”

Filmed and set in Budapest, the sequel begins with a meeting between the last descendant of the 47 ronin, Lord Arai (Chris Pang, I, FRANKENSTEIN), and a self-proclaimed witch named Lord Hurano (Dai Tabuchi, credited as “Advisor” in the first film, but probly not playing the same character). They’re “breaking a 300 year old protocol” by meeting to discuss how “the Tengu sword was split so that neither samurai or witch could abuse its power,” but “we have to unite them again” because it’s the only way to stop this fucker called Yurei (Daniel Southworth, BROKEN PATH) in his quest for power or whatever. (From reading the Wikipedia summary I don’t believe this LORD OF THE RINGS backstory stuff they’re talking about happened in the last movie.)

Before they can come to any kind of an agreement they’re jumped by ninjas and have to fight side by side, so the movie is off to a good start. It’s a cool sword battle with speed ramping and exaggerated primary color lighting effects (cliche now, but looks cool). The highlight is when Hurano sends a ninja flying through a window and Arai slices him before he hits the ground, splattering digital blood on the camera lens. But Yurei isn’t as impressed by it as I was – he’s there, sitting on a couch, and reveals himself with the ol’ sarcastic slow clap. What a dick. I like that he talks in the same sort of voice he would if he was dubbed.

Exhibit B that it’s off to a good start is when you see that Yurei’s lead henchman Sun (Yoshi Sudarso, BULLET TRAIN) looks like a bad guy from an old street fighting video game.

Yurei kills them both, but senses that “there is another.” That would be the heroine of the movie Luna (Anna Akana, ANT-MAN), an American visiting to collect her inheritance – one of the two mystical swords in question. Her purplish hair, knit cap, hoodie, combat boots and army style jacket signify “streetwise tough girl” in movie language. (I’m not complaining, I support it.) I like the way they establish that she’s a bad girl but a good guy: she’s eyeing a guy’s wallet, contemplating stealing it. Then some dick runs into a woman pushing baby strollers and yells at her. The mother drops her wallet on the ground and doesn’t notice, so Luna walks over and pretends to be tying her boot so she can pick it up.

But she doesn’t steal the wallet – she slides it back into the woman’s bag (not taking credit for returning it) and bumps into and pickpockets the guy that yelled at her.

The Morpheus of this non-Keanu movie is Lord Shinshiro, played by the great Mark Dacascos (CRYING FREEMAN). At one point Luna calls him a “JOHN WICK fanboy,” I guess just an in-joke about him being in part 3, but I don’t know what her comparison is. His thing is walking around in traditional robes as if he’s a time traveller from the past. He looks fuckin cool getting out of cars in slow motion and strolling like a VIP, trailed by a trio of his sword-wielding female students, whose gender causes disrespect from the other clans though they’re the best fighters in the movie.

They’re at a hotel for a meeting of samurai clans about what to do to protect themselves from Yurei after the death of Arai. One of the leaders is Lord Nikko (Dustin Nguyen, RAPID FIRE), representing a machine-gun-toting modernized clan and arguing “We can protect ourselves by finding and destroying the blade.” He seems like the bad guy, and I like that he’s not, he just has a different point of view (and fashion sense, looking great in a white turtleneck and tan trenchcoat). They all agree to vote on the proposition the next day.

But Shinshiro has also heard about a vision of the American descendant with the sword, and his true believer student Onami (Teresa Ting, one episode of Orange Is the New Black) goes rogue to find her. She teams with former-student-now-ronin Reo (Mike Moh, the guy that played Bruce Lee in ONCE UPON A TIME …IN HOLLYWOOD), because he’s a good tracker, and they find Luna trying to sell the sword at a dance club. Once again, they’re attacked by Yurei’s ninjas, and a nice touch is that there’s a costume party going on, so there are fighters dressed as a cowboy and a jester.

(Also I like that the costumes explain why nobody bats an eye at Onami wearing robes and carrying a sword, but I get the feeling she’s like Blade, she just walks around like that anyway.)

Before the vote the next day they get – you guessed it – attacked by ninjas, so they’re on the run and gradually convince Luna that she and her father’s sword are part of an ancient prophecy. They go to find “The Keeper,” a psychic who archives the ancient secrets, but since it’s modern day he’s some hyperactive computer kid named Dash (Nino Furuhata) who lives in a warehouse surrounded by breakdancers, skaters, graffiti artists, and a towering pink-haired bodyguard named Hana (Eniko Fulop, a stuntwoman from WONDER WOMAN, TERMINATOR: DARK FATE and BLACK WIDOW) who dresses like she’s in a ‘90s rave movie.

According to Dash’s visions, Luna is gonna have to win a duel against Yurei in a couple of days, so they need to get her ready, and we get a good training montage with blindfolds, swordfighting in a swimming pool, and more.

The plot is very convoluted, with more mythology dumps (one on a tablet, complete with illustrations), past secrets, disagreements, betrayals, twists, and what not. They lighten the mood with lots of jokey dialogue, much of which didn’t work for me (Luna can only call people “dude” so many times before it loses its power), but there are some legit laughs too. Whenever Luna curses, Shinshiro says “Language!” – the most prudish of samurai mentors. And here’s one calling attention to a goofy thing they do in these movies joke that really worked for me:

I wouldn’t put BLADE OF THE 47 RONIN on the canonical Great Works of DTV shelf with the Hyamses and the Florentines, but it’s absolutely fulfilling the duties of a fun, goofy DTV sequel. It rarely goes long without a big battle popping off, and they’re well done, bloody, acrobatic, pumped up with a score by Joe Hahn (the DJ for Linkin Park I guess) and Alec Puro (KILL ‘EM ALL, Black Summer) that updates the MORTAL KOMBAT/BLADE-era techno = martial arts code by throwing in some trap beats. The fights vary in style and weaponry, happen in many different cool locations, and show a profound respect for the importance of cool poses and the proper camera moves to emphasize them.

It’s such a stacked cast of legit screen fighters playing colorful characters that they have plenty in backstock even after they kill off a bunch of them. Maybe the best fight is on the subway, our heroes moving their way through long cars kicking, slicing and shooting an endless supply of ninjas. Reo kicks one ninja’s sword and makes it slash a second ninja.

The high quality of the action doesn’t surprise me, because the movie is directed by stunt veteran and my favorite character from THE PAPER TIGERS Ron Yuan. The screenplay is credited to actress Aimee Garcia, pro wrestler A.J. Mendez, and John Swetnam (STEP UP ALL IN). Southworth is credited as action supervisor, with fight designers James Newman (Adam Driver’s stunt double in THE DEAD DON’T DIE) and Zack C. Roberts (fight choreographer for Yuan’s STEP UP CHINA, which this movie made me look up again and learn was available in the U.S. – so I will be reviewing it tomorrow!)

Like R. Zombie’s THE MUNSTERS and some of the other Universal 1440 pictures, this came out on DVD and blu-ray and then on Netflix shortly thereafter, so it’s pretty accessible for most home video participants. Give it a shot if you enjoy this type of business like I do.

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