Kai (Keanu Reeves) is an outcast who joins Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the leader of the 47 Ronin. Together they seek vengeance upon the treacherous overlord who killed their master and banished their kind. To restore honour to their homeland, the warriors embark upon a quest that challenges them with a series of trials that would destroy ordinary warriors.
In effort to maintain suspension of disbelief, 47 Ronin withholds the information that this film is based on a true story until it is over. Japanese audiences will be way ahead, knowing already that Carl Rinsch’s version of the 18th Century real-life tale of 47 former samurai remaining loyal to their dead and discredited feudal Lord Asano has been sliced and diced and tossed around like a salad with lots of inappropriate dressing. But the Japanese are a forgiving lot. The grafting of horned monsters, a shape-shifting sorceress and a mysterious 'half-breed’ foreigner onto one of their culture’s most highly-treasured historical stories, is just the latest in a series of embellishments inflicted on this story over the years. The story has been re-told and re-shaped many times in many formats from kabuki theatre to ukiyo-e paintings. What’s one more set of distortions for a movie marketed for silly gaijin who don’t know any better?
lacklustre, stupid and that worst of cinematic crimes—dull
Filmed in England and Hungary (with a few scenes in Japan), Japanese actors, Kazakh horsemen and some LA imports line up beside Keanu Reeves who plays the grown-up version of a mysterious half-breed boy found in the forest by feudal Lord Asano (Min Tanaka of The Hidden Blade) at the film’s beginning. Being a 'half-breed’, the existence of Kai (Reeves) rouses jealousy and envy from the other subjects, but on the upside he wins the heart of Lord Asano’s daughter, Mika (Ko Shibasaki from Battle Royale).
This film reveals that the famous indiscretion of the Lord Asano’s attacking the visiting Kira (Tadanobu Asano, of Ichi the Killer, Mongol, Thor) was actually caused by Kira’s magical associate (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel) casting an evil spell. Handily, the un-named witch can always be distinguished by the fact she has one brown and one blue eye whether she is in the guise of a serpent, a wolf or a woman. Under Shogun’s orders, Lord Asano commits seppuku (ritual self-disembowelment) to restore honour and puts his son Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada of Wolverine, The Railway Man and Ringu), 45 samurai and Kai out of a job and into exile.
Oishi spends a year in a dungeon, but is conveniently released just before Kira is about to marry the reluctant Mika. Over the space of a superfluous sword fight, Yasuno liberates Kai from the offshore trade island governed by the Dutch and the two settle their differences before getting the old gang together and rescuing Mika from a fate worse than unwilling conjugation.
The witch keeps on taunting Mika, Kira wants to be Thane of Cawdor or something and there’s a big armoured champion warrior who looks like he is being held in reserve for a big finale fight scene that never comes. Narrative logic is thrown to the wind and Buddhism is ascribed to be the work of alien invaders with bald heads, bug-eyes and high-nostrils, and who really cares about facts or culture or character arcs? Bring on the swordplay and the 3D effects! Unfortunately, with the exclusion of the swirling and unfurling of the witch’s garments and the floating tendrils of her bouffant, the CGI effects are mostly just rocks and wood splinters rushing at the screen (yawn). There’s clearly been a lot of money spent and a lot of effort (not least by the Japanese actors struggling with their English dialogue), but the results are lacklustre, stupid and that worst of cinematic crimes—dull.
For those who’d like a more sensible (though admittedly much more talky) introduction to the 47 Ronin story, watch Kenji Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin (Parts I & II). That 1942 version applies its own WWII propaganda distortions on to the original story, but it’s much more stimulating than this silly effort.