'47 Ronin’ Review: Keanu Reeves and Delays Can't Rescue Feudal Samurai Tale

'47 Ronin' Review: Keanu Reeves and Delays Can't Rescue Feudal Samurai Tale

Universal's much delayed 3D release is flat and often confusing, but at least the swordplay's dramatic

There's so much wrong with “47 Ronin” that I'll start with what Keanu Reeves’ samurai tale does have going for it: Kinetic action scenes with swords blazing and colorful mythical beasts.

Alas, those scenes are too few and far between to make up for a flat and often confusing movie. There will be no “Avatar”-style happy ending for “47 Ronin,” a much-delayed 3D production that has already opened to underwhelming box office in Japan.

In retrospect, Universal was unwise to entrust such an ambitious undertaking to unproven movie director Carl Rinsch, whose background includes commercials but not big spectacles.

Also read: Universal Pulls '47 Ronin’ From Director as Budget Swells to $225M (Exclusive)

47-ronin-inset“47 Ronin” starts with a historic Japanese event and re-imagines it as a fantasy tale complete with ghosts, demons and a half-breed named Kai (Reeves). The movie gets off to a tepid start, introducing a young Kai in a prologue shot like a TV movie before flashing forward to show a grown up Kai in Reeves form.

The part was tailor-made for the actor, who has mixed ancestry, and he gamely throws himself into the role of a stoic outsider who springs into action when circumstances demand it.

At first, he's shunned by nearly all save Lord Asano's comely daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki) due to his demon roots. But Kai's mixed blood eventually comes in handy when battling evil in the form of power-hungry Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), who's got an eye for Mika and support from a shape-shifting witch (portrayed by Rinko Kikuchi of “Babel” and “Pacific Rim”).

See video: Keanu Reeves Is Abandoned, Enslaved and Beaten in New '47 Ronin’ Trailer

Samurai Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) brushes off Kai’s observations about a strangely menacing white fox with one brown and blue eye, but he knows better. (As do, of course, we the viewers.)

Then Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) gets poisoned and shamed into committing seppuku by visiting Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), causing his samurai to be stripped of their land and to become the 47 ronin (leaderless warriors) of the title. This historic act from the start of the 18th century sets the rest of the plot into motion.

Mika is pledged to marry the dread Lord Kira in a year, and the rest of the samurai are outcast or imprisoned. In order to get their revenge, they must battle more beasts and otherworldly creatures.

And their reward? Well, I won't spoil it, but let's just say “47 Ronin” doesn't have a traditional Hollywood ending.

The plot hinges on the intricacies of feudal Japan and samurai code, but the movie, co-written by Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini, doesn't do a great job explaining them to casual viewers lacking a solid grounding in either. Adding the fantastical elements only makes things more confusing, and appears to have offended Japanese purists to boot.

Also read: Keanu Reeves’ '47 Ronin’ Debuts at No. 5 at Japanese Box Office (Video)

Rinsch's lackluster direction doesn’t help: There are lots of scenes of pretty but inert pageantry, as well as flat exchanges about honor, sandwiched between bursts of dramatic swordplay. Viewers are left to wonder what “47 Ronin” (the real-life tale has inspired five previous films) would have looked like in a more experienced director’s hands.

Kikuchi has lots of fun as the slithery witch, but the other Japanese actors don't seem nearly as comfortable here; Shibasaki's scenes with Reeves seem especially stilted. As for Reeves, he acquits himself well, but is unlikely to win new converts to his low-key acting style.

(One treat for sharp-eyed American viewers of a certain age: Gedde Watanabe, aka Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles,” makes an appearance toward the end.)

The plot leaves an opening for a sequel but Universal would be well advised to think twice. Samurai fans should also modulate their expectations: Just enjoy the beasts and swordplay and then call it a day.

 

  • avlisk

    This reminds me. Do yourself a favor if you haven't seen the DiNero movie, Ronin. Not only do you get a great story, well told, but 3 of the best car chases you'll ever see in a movie.

    • frank

      and one of the best uses of a cup of coffee.

      • avlisk

        Yes! So much good stuff in that film.

  • Redman

    LOL~ Frankly, knowing of the “Feudal Tale” and the difference between John Wo's “CTHD” and Kurasowa's “7 Samurai” or any other of his Historically themed films I am taking it as I might most films of this style with the suspension of disbelief and acceptance. This is not Stephen Chow's “Kung Fu Hustle” it will be a blender. Something along the lines of “Young Detective Dee” and its predecessor which oddly were released backwards. The second film followed by the first in chronology order. It will play homage to the likes though I am sure its meant to be taken a given way and won't be. And I will go… and enjoy it if its action packed full of fabulous affects and good characters… and yes, plenty of good sword play. I am hardly expecting Masaki Kobayashi's “Harakiri”~ or Kwaidan ~ as I said a “Blender” ok!

  • Mani

    This is such a bastardized and self glory review and nothing to do with movie
    I was at the cinemark and all the audience enjoyed the movie
    These critics must be toasted who write without any equilibrium and fair balance of issues and writing such nonsense
    Must be watched in HD or on the big screen

  • JIM

    I went into this movie knowing nothing about the movie. I didn't even see the trailer.
    So, I was surprised about it. Yes, it did drag a bit, but it is a beautifully shot movie.
    I am shocked to learn that the director backed away from the movies shooting schedule halfway in.