Review: 47 Ronin
PLOT: In 18th Century Japan, an outcast group of samurai and a half-breed orphan team together to avenge the death of their master, who died unfairly after being plotted against by a treacherous Lord and the evil witch who advises him.
REVIEW: And a sad Keanu shall lead them - boringly, glumly and utterly without expression or insight. Jeez, if you want a bummer of a good time this holiday season, you can't go wrong with 47 RONIN, a 200 million dollar Hollywood-ized take on a classic Japanese legend so unexciting that Universal would do well to throw some money our way so we'll all forget it exists. It's not that it's a complete disaster - although signs of post-production tinkering and ill-fitting parts are certainly apparent. It's just that it's so monotonous, so oppressively dull. Not until the last 20 minutes or so does this thing actually come alive, but by then it's far too late. The boredom will have weighed you down into a somber slumber not even a phantom dragon can lift you out of.
There are plenty of people to blame for this miscalculation, but most of it is going to fall on director Carl Rinsch's shoulders. And that is perhaps unfair. Perhaps best known for an intriguing short film called "The Gift" (not to mention being married to Ridley Scott's daughter), Rinsch has been a hot property in Hollywood for several years, finding himself attached to numerous start-and-stop projects (LOGAN'S RUN, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and the film that would eventually become PROMETHEUS among them). He may have an interesting vision, but is he the man to give hundreds of millions to when you're looking to dramatize an obscure Japanese legend? Should a movie like this even cost so much? No, so the blame must fall upon whoever gave it the green-light, since it's clear from very early on that there is much trouble afoot in the conceptual department. The meandering execution just confirms that this is a project that needed serious rethinking at the drawing board phase. Either that, or no one found any enjoyment in the making of this clunking thing.
I won't pretend I'm familiar with the actual tale of the 47 Ronin, which took place at the beginning of the 18th century and is perhaps the most famous example of the samurai code of honor. But seeing how the screenplay was co-conceived and written by Chris Morgan, who is in charge of steering the FAST & FURIOUS franchise, we can assume this won't be the proper version of the ronin's justifiable crusade of revenge. Instead, magical elements are added to the proceedings; witches, beasts and monsters are here to lend the story something in the way of a LORD OF THE RINGS vibe. And it says a lot about 47 RONIN that these supernatural additions bring zero fun or excitement. The fantasy angle isn't the most egregious of the movie's faults; it's the fact that with or without it, we'd still be bored.
A "ronin" is a samurai without a master. As indicated by the title, an unfortunate fate befalls a couple dozen samurai when their master, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), is falsely accused of striking a fellow Lord, Kiri (Tadonobu Asano), and therefor must kill himself for the dishonor. The truth is, Asano's striking of Kiri was engineered by Kiri's advisor, a devious witch (Rinko Kikuchi) who is able to manipulate, well, everything it seems. Bottom line, the samurai - now ronin - know their master was framed, and hence plot a revenge that will be two years in the making.
This is all, for the most part, faithful to the original Japanese event. (The account varies, of course, as with all events that become legends.) Added is Kai (Reeves), a "half-breed" orphan found by Asano when he was a child and raised to be a servant and whipping boy. Kai has special powers and keen fighting skills that he largely keeps hidden from the rest of the men, who don't respect him (naturally), as well as a simmering romance with the Lord's daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki). Kai too is banished after Lord Asano is gone, but his assistance in avenging the Lord's death is sought out by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada); once Asano's right-hand man, now the leader in attempting to regain their village from the devious Kiri and his witchy assistant. (Oh yeah, Oishi is also Kai's lady-friend's fiancé. Awkward.)
If the set-up sounds like a trudge, it is. The film's first act is dreadfully slow, exposition-filled and humorless without any tangible drama or conflict beyond what is told to us. The middle act drearily alternates between the ronin coming together and organizing (with a side trip to Kai's demonic foster family in order to acquire super swords), while Kiri and his witch plan… what? There's no real end-game for them. They wanted to acquire Asano's village, and there's vague talk of them eventually ruling Japan, but they are barely sketched villains who hardly register. Kiri has his sights on Mika, but isn't very threatening, and she never appears all that worried about whatever ideas he might have. Every subplot is tension-free, the stakes barely recognizable.
Reeves, as can be counted upon, doesn't give much of a performance. I don't inherently dislike the actor, never have, but there are strong and silent types, and then there are just silent types. Looking sullen and less than interested, Reeves' can't do anything with a character who, despite his backstory (he was raised by demons for crying out loud!), has nothing to offer us. Whenever the film attempts to pull the "love story" card in regards to Reeves' Kai and Shibasaki's Mika, the audience is forced to imagine what romance there could possibly be between these two; certainly the movie forgets to gift us with any compelling proof that they're meant to be together.
The rest of the cast hails from Japan and they fare better than sad sack Keanu, but there's no getting around the fact that no one has interesting material to grab hold of - save maybe for Kikuchi, who has a little bit of over-the-top fun with her witch character. She's acting in a B-movie while everyone else stoically (and admirably) holds their heads high. I do like Hiroyuki Sanada (whom you might have seen in THE WOLVERINE or "Lost") and he serves as a much more engaging protagonist than Reeves.
The third act does bring a bit of entertainment, if not exactly ingenuity. When the ronin (ronins?) finally put their plan into action, it's done in a mildly engrossing siege upon their old village while they masquerade as a performance troupe. Rinsch manages to evoke a spirit of adventure here, as we see the samurai skillfully take out their foes, but where was this fun in the preceding 90 minutes? Probably sleeping, like the rest of us.