The weathered feudal Japanese tale of ronin seeking revenge for their fallen lord, one would think, lends itself nicely to the themes of fantasy. Samurai, their unwavering courage and swordsmanship intertwined with magical elements and mystical creatures represents a marriage made in heaven. Unfortunately, in director Carl Rinsch’s 47 Ronin, this marriage does little justice to spice up this beloved story for the masses hungry for such imagery.
The foundation starts off well enough, though. After a fast-paced hunt for a multi-whiskered, wild maned bull-like creature ravaging the countryside, the cast of characters is introduced. Of them, the only standout is Kai (Keanu Reeves, “Man of Tai Chi“), and that’s only because he is a half-breed — part Caucasian, part Japanese and raised by demons it’s whispered — and is reminded of his standing on a constant basis. Oh, there are others too, like master samurai Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada, “The Wolverine“), lord of the lands Asano (Min Tanaka, star of various Japanese films) and his lovely daughter Mika (Kô Shibasaki, also a star of various Japanese films and television shows) who just so happens to have a secret (that’s not so much of a secret) love for Kai.
Evil is afoot, however, coming in the form of a shapeshifting witch (Rinko Kikuchi, “Pacific Rim“) who serves a scheming warlord named Kira (Tadanobu Asano, “Thor: The Dark World“). He wants the lands of Asano and the hand of his daughter in marriage. Some suspect CGI in the form of a poisonous spider gets the ball rolling that ends with a magical samurai golem besting Kai in a tournament battle and Asano committing hari-kari for breaking contest rules and offending Kira. Asano’s force, now masterless, are banished to the outlying countryside as ordered by Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, “Balls of Fury“). At least the expanse of the Japanese outdoors is picturesque enough and framed well by John Mathieson’s cinematography because it’s one of the few things well done in 47 Ronin.
It is a quick realization that 43 (and it could be argued even more) of the ronin, while mesmerizing to watch hack and slash to exhaustion, are of no importance to the audience so when they sacrifice themselves for the cause there is no emotional response. The movie could have just as easily been called “13 Ronin” or “650 Ronin” and viewers would be none the wiser to the change. There is also some narrative trickery at play. Reeves — who enjoys star-billing in his movies even if undeserved — is given the focus, but technically his arc is secondary to that of Ôishi who is responsible for regrouping and leading the revenge. Reeves’ character is clearly an addon to the story, in place to give a name American audiences can recognize, create an unnecessary forbidden love element that literally goes nowhere (again for the American audience) and introduce white magic to versus the black magic of Rinko Kikuchi.
Coming off what I believe was a poor performance in “Pacific Rim,” Kikuchi shows she can at least tackle a sexy evil role light on dialogue. Much of the big budget effects of 47 Ronin are in support of her (which also made her part all the more palatable) — the aforementioned spider scene is started with a finely crafted smoke and fabric metamorphosis and later in the movie her grand transformation comes in the form of a fiery dragon that isn’t afforded nearly enough air time.
And therein lies the biggest offense of 47 Ronin — it doesn’t do the fantastic or the serious well enough. Many scenes due a punch from powerful visual effects are either neutered (the climax unmistakably being one) or poorly crafted (a temple encounter with supernatural monks is jaw-droppingly awful). And the “factual” parts try just a little too hard to be poignant. There’s probably enough collectively in the movie to please some in the D&D crowd but the majority will feel cheated. Unlike the ronin it depicts, 47 Ronin does not deliver on what it promised.