In Japanese, a ronin is a wandering samurai without a master or lord. As the title suggests, there are 47 such walking, talking, killing machines in Carl Rinsch’s directorial debut. Taking the phrase “based on a true story” very lightly, “47 Ronin” reimagines arguably the most famous Japanese legend of all time and places it within an 18th century feudal culture filled with dragons, witches, and wild beasts. Oh yeah, and Keanu Reeves is the star of the show. With some amazing, stylized swordplay and fight sequences, “47 Ronin” certainly has the brawns to become a box office smash. Unfortunately, it’s lengthy, sensationalized revenge plot bogs the pace of the story down and makes the film feel more like it’s destined to go straight to DVD. In the end, not even the most hardcore fans of the hack and slash genre will come away satisfied with their $15 premium 3D ticket purchase to see this picture.
Following in the same footsteps as Tom Cruise’s “The Last Samurai,” “47 Ronin” is a samurai movie set in Asia but starring a white guy—okay fine, a Hawaiian guy. It’s totally okay though, because as we are first introduced to the world of feudal Japan, a short, sweet, and to the point narration gives the audience the necessary backstory we need to feel comfortable about having Keanu Reeves in the starring role. The gag, or twist if you will, of the story is that his character Kai is a half-breed person. While not explained fully, essentially the character is part human and part demon or something of the demonic variety. We later find that he was abandoned and raised by shape-shifting Buddhist monk like creatures, but it is left very much ambiguous as to if he is related to such beings.
What is important, though, is that Kai has always been a loner in his community. Save for the secret love he shares with the village leader’s daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki) of course. After an opposing tribe seizes control of Kai’s estranged town, it becomes the duty of a group of exhaled samurai and, for no conceivable reason whatsoever, Kai to rescue power back. This entire lengthy set up quickly becomes a good ol’ fashion revenge story.
Of its two-hour long run time, a hearty portion of the plot is devoted to setting up the motive for the ronin’s revenge against Lord Kira (Tabanobu Asano) and the Witch (Rinko Kikuchi) for their treacherous deeds against their master. Screenwriters Chris Morgan (Wanted) and Hossein Amini (Drive) painstakingly introduce plenty of characters and side-plots in the opening segment of the movie without giving the audience any satisfaction of throwing in a sword fight or action scene. There are some fantastically rendered period specific villages and some eye-pleasing 18th garb, but for an action fantasy, there is hardly any of either until easily halfway through it.
When the action finally does commence, Keanu Reeves does what he does best—kick ass. In typical fashion, the star delivers a solid performance without becoming overly emotional. When he needs to show his sensitive side, he does so, but for the most part the actor is his brooding, sulking normal self.
Probably the most dynamic role of the film comes from co-star Hiroyuki Sanada. The Tokyo native plays Oishi, the leader of the ronins. Deadly with a sword, the character is given a fully realized personality through a side-plot dealing with his coming of age son who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a warrior as well. Oscar nominated actress Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) is also thoroughly terrifying and insane as the shape shifting Witch.
Kikuchi’s character isn’t the only mythical beast Rinsch puts into his film. His vibrant world, which he captures with plenty of long shots revealing all of its CGI rendered beauty, is filled with them. Giant armor clad warriors, grotesque bear like monsters, and even opaque, poisonous sleep spiders are just a few of the creatures the audience encounters.
Despite an expertly choreographed finale that is filmed to perfection by cinematographer John Mathieson (Robin Hood), there is simply not enough action in “47 Ronin.” Characters talk and talk and talk about pointless backstory and motivation without actually doing anything. Even worse, while these same characters are spewing dialogue that doesn’t add any value to the story, composer Ilan Eshkeri (Kick-Ass) inundates the audience with an overly emotional score. The deadly cherry on top of this most soapy of soap opera stories is that everything is presented in 3D.
First time director Carl Rinsch’s film is everything you’d expect out of a Keanu Reeves picture. Plenty over the top, about thirty minutes too long, and with a story so sudsy you could take a bubble bath in it, “47 Ronin” is nothing more than a guilty pleasure for anyone that enjoys mindless samurai movies.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, and thematic elements
By David Morris