Left without a lord and master, a samurai becomes a “ronin,” a man without a purpose who possesses the sort of training that can really only be applied to very specific purposes (you know, like ass-kicking). In Carl Erik Rinsch’s long-delayed 47 Ronin, a powerful group of samurai is wrenchingly turned into ronin when their beloved master commits seppuku after being bewitched into breaking the honor code that he has lived his entire life by, all thanks to the machinations of an evil rival and his powerful concubine. The leader of the ruined ronin is thrown into a literal pit for a year in order to break his spirit, and yet he emerges from his prison ready to restore the balance of the universe (read: totally murder the evil rival lord), all alongside his cherished fellow ronin.
Populated by a cadre of talented Japanese actors – including Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, and Rinko Kikuchi – Rinsch’s 47 Ronin attempts to bring a beloved cultural legend from the 18th century to the big screen, a tale presumably ripe for consumption by both Japanese audiences and people who love a good action film with a moral message at its center. Instead of delivering that film, however, 47 Ronin is a needlessly “fantastical” feature that dilutes its powerful story with some dunderheaded (and wholly inexplicable) magic elements, all jumped up with bad CGI and worse 3D.
Also, for some reason, this film stars Keanu Reeves.
Despite being ostensibly based on a real Japanese legend, the film is peppered with all sorts of magic and mysticism that’s never explained in even the most general of terms. Still worse, it’s kitchen sink when it comes to its out-of-this-world elements, as the film is populated with beasts, ghosts, witchcraft, giants, and a group of people who appear to be aliens (or, at the very least, willfully alien-related). The story of the forty-seven ronin has been embellished over the years, but this just seems like a wholly unnecessary addition, especially considering how compelling the “true” story of the ronin is on its own, a daring and dedicated tale about bravery and honor that feels deeply diminished by the use of witchy elements to make it, what, more cinematic?
Reeves stars as Kai, a “half-breed” who was saved as a child by the beloved samurai leader Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) and taken into his home where he was treated, well, just okay – at least by Asano and his lovely daughter Mika (Shibasaki). Otherwise an outcast, and yes, one called “half-breed” a lot, Kai remains loyal to the Asanos and tries his hardest to dig through an otherwise unsatisfying life. Kai, of course, has hidden fighting skills that show themselves at opportune times (he kills a beast!) that don’t quite pan out for him (head samurai Oishi takes credit for the kill). These fighting skills prove essential later on: once Asano bites it, Mika is stolen away by evil Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), and Oishi has a change of heart and employs Kai’s skills to get the ronin revenge.
The film boasts some big time visual appeal – from the landscapes to the colorful costumes and intricate hairstyles to a selection of some battle scenes – but whole chunks of it look flat and unfinished, and an essential CGI fox looks laughably inserted. The film’s violence and action is surprisingly tame, and scenes frequently cut before blood can be spilled, instead relying on lots of yelps, yells, and crunches to convey what’s going on. If you’re at all interested in hearing shiny metal slicing noises, 47 Ronin delivers that in spades, however, and there’s plenty of gazing at glimmering samurai swords to keep you satisfied. The world of 47 Ronin is surely imaginative, but it’s not even close to be fully realized or fleshed out, and the result is something that feels stagey, dragged out, and bloated.
47 Ronin does, however, benefit from a very satisfying final big screen battle – one that’s inventive, fun, and flat-out entertaining. It’s got the sort of punch and theatrical appeal (it’s juxtaposed against the performance of a traveling theater troupe) that the entire film so desperately needs. It’s just plain clever, which isn’t the sort of adjective that can be ascribed to much else in 47 Ronin. Scenes that start to build into beauty and power are diminished by cliché lines, like Kai breaking up what should be an emotional scene between the ronin by declaring, “this ends now.”
The film has gone through a number of very public release date pushbacks, a round of reshoots (including the addition of new scenes), a ballooned budget, and a nasty rumor that Rinsch (who makes his feature debut here) was forced out of the editing room late last year, and it’s clear from the finished product that there was trouble behind the scenes. The editing, particularly in the first half, is choppy and nonsensical, as if scenes have been cut in two and entered in the latter bit, leaving a strange sense of truncation and confusion that’s hard to shake. An important sequence of scenes is also distractingly pieced together, with its bad craftsmanship made obvious by costume changes that don’t line up correctly.
47 Ronin, for all its rough road to the big screen, isn’t a wholesale disaster – it may be wrong-headed, badly put together, and filled with nonsensical lines and plot movements, but its got a bold visual sense and brief moments of wonder. For a first feature, this could be a fine feather in Rinsch’s hat, but it seems doomed to be remembered as a failure, simply because this entirely “just okay” film took five years and cost $225 million to make. And, no, it was not worth it.
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