Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Directed by: Carl Rinsch
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano
There was a time when lavishing an excessive budget used to lead to at least a spectacular mess if it all went wrong. CGI has gone and changed that by inflating the cost of otherwise unremarkable B movies. Sure, it could grant the freedom to let the imagination run wild, but it’s usually squandered rehashing squalid genre touchstones. Here, the story of the 47 Ronin, a national legend in Japan, is ‘enhanced’ by the addition of Keanu Reeves and monsters that look like rejects from Peter Jackson’s early storyboarding.
First things first, Keanu has to be shoehorned into the plot because it would be unwatchable without a white man. Discovered as a small boy, Kai (Keanu Reeves), the son of a British sailor and a Japanese peasant who appears to have had a brush with the spirit world, is saved by Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) and grows up under his protection. This can’t keep him from the life of an outcast as he’s hated by Asano’s samurai who fear his origins. Hated, that is, by all apart from Asano and his attractive daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki), the obligatory love interest.
When devious Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), supported by witch Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi), tricks Asano into disgracing himself in front of the emperor, he is forced to commit ritual suicide, seppuku. Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the former head of Asano’s samurai is left to gather up his remaining men and bring down Kira before he can claim all Asano’s land. And thus these masterless samurai, these 46 Ronin plus Kai of course, come to embark on a loyalty tinged revenge quest that could have been good if it wasn’t all so dull.
Considering writers Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini have introduced fantasy elements to an adventure already dripping with violence, there’s absolutely no reason for it to be so slow. A ponderous start sees the general disgust with which Asano’s samurai react to Kai hammered home early on. In case we’d missed the point, Kai even has the opportunity to get verbally abused by a samurai after saving his life. Mika’s longing glances and the by now de rigueur much treasured gift handed over as a child are about as far as complex relationships go.
Even Asano’s death can do little to shake the paralysis that appears to have gripped the picture. The gradual development and implementation of a plan to take down Kira and save Mika is methodical in the same way flat pack furniture is constructed. It looks ok on paper but turns out to be a far longer and frustrating experience than anticipated.
A lot of the problem is caused by Kai. It’s not really Reeves’ fault. This is a revenge story that should have Oishi in the driving seat but Kai and his tedious love story splits the narrative halting any impetus that threatens to occur. Instead, Oishi’s unblinking loyalty and efforts to restore honour in the face of overwhelming odds must compete with Kai’s battles for acceptance amongst the very people we are supposed to be sympathising with from the start.
Just because Reeves is not responsible for this weakness, doesn’t mean he’s any good. His best roles usually involve characters that are in a semi or even permanent state of confusion. Here, he’s the one that knows more than the rest, a traveller who’s visited the world of angels, demons and mythical beasts. Unfortunately, he still looks pretty perplexed throughout. No one else is able to pick up this slack either. Stuck playing Japanese characters as imagined by a Hollywood that has only ever been there for location shooting, no one has much to work with. The one person who manages to achieve anything is Kikuchi who gets to have fun with her maliciously seductive villain.
Director Carl Erik Rinsch clearly has a visual trick or two up his sleeve. The final assault is well constructed, packed full of the zip that is so noticeably missing elsewhere. This also highlights the entirely unnecessary addition of fantasy elements even more. The monsters and creatures on display look like unimaginative rejects from that Blue Peter competition to design a Doctor Who villain a few years ago.
The central story underlying 47 Ronin is a well mined seam in Japanese culture. With a strong premise, an English language update didn’t have to be a waste of time. However, a drawn out plot, disappointing special effects and confusion over the lead character mean that it’s just that.