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.
“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”).
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.
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.