Keanu Reeves stars in a fantasy action update of the true story of the 47 ronin samurai. Is this fictional account of history worth giving a look or is it a dud? 411's Jeffrey Harris checks in with his full review!
Directed By: Carl Rinsch Written By: Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini, and Walter Hamada Runtime: 127 minutes MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
Kai - Keanu Reeves Oishi - Hiroyuki Sanada Mika - Ko Shibasaki Lord Kira - Tadanobu Asano Lord Asano - Min Tanaka Chikara - Jin Akanishi Witch - Rinko Kikuchi Shogun Tsunayoshi - Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
A film like 47 Ronin will probably go down in history as one of those bizarre “how the heck did that get made” stories. The film is certainly an anomaly. It’s big-budget, Hollywood adaptation of one of Japanese history’s most famous, epic stories in that of the 47 ronin who set out to avenge the death and disgraced reputation of their master. At the very least, the film should make for a fun installment of the How Did This Get Made podcast.
The film marks the big screen, feature debut for commercial director Carl Rinsch. That in itself is a bit of a red flag. It’s surprising that Universal would put so much money and faith for a more Japanese-centric story and an unproven filmmaker who has never directed a feature length movie or worked with a budget of this size before. The other confusing element is spending up a reported $225 million for a story about Japanese history. While the story of the 47 ronin itself is an epic tale and the themes and premise are classic ones that could certainly make for a compelling cinematic presentation, spending such an exorbitant amount of money on a project like this is ponderous. The star Keanu Reeves has generally been stagnant, especially in terms of box office, in recent years, though arguably he does still seem to have some pull with overseas audiences. Perhaps the intent was to duplicate something similar to The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise. While the film did only decent business domestically, it made about $345 million overseas and about a third of that came from the Japanese gross. However, this film has already been released and did disappointing business in Japan.
This story is a supernatural fantasy update of the tale. So it takes place in a world where witches, demons, dragons, tengu, and other various creatures of Japanese folklore exist. The story begins with that of a young boy of mixed race named Kai who was said to be raised by demons. For some reason or another, he flees from his keepers. He’s happened upon by a group of samurai led by Asano (Tanaka), lord of Ako, and his men. Despite the reluctance of his men, Asano takes pity on the boy and shows mercy. Asano takes Kai in and allows him to live at a hut outside his palace as a lowly servant. Over time, Kai falls in love with Asano’s kind and gentle daughter Mika (Shibasaki) who also shares Kai’s feelings. Unfortunately, it’s a union that can never be allowed in the times they live. Time passes and Kai grows into an adult man (Reeves). Kai assists Asano’s samurai in the slaying of a dangerous beast and allows another samurai to take the credit. Oishi (Sanada), Asano’s second-in-command, appears to be aware that Kai was the one who felled the beast though. With the beast dead, Ako is now safe to play host for a samurai tournament that will be overseen by the Emperor himself (Tagawa). Unfortunately, the devious Lord Kira (Asano) and his evil witch minion (Kikuchi) are hatching a plot to disgrace Lord Asano and usurp Ako for themselves. Kira manipulates the tournament, which forces Kai to fight Kira’s warrior in disguise. The move disgraces and embarrasses Lord Asano. Mika protects Kai from execution, which embarrasses Asano further.
Later, Asano is manipulated by witchcraft into assaulting Kira. The act incriminates Asano in the Emperor’s eyes. As a result, Asano is forced to commit seppuku and turn over Ako to Kira to prevent war and further bloodshed. The Emperor also forbids Asano’s men to retaliate against and approves an arranged marriage between Kira and Mika. Kai is sold into slavery. Oishi is imprisoned in an underground pit for one year before he’s released and promptly plots his revenge against Kira. With Kira set to marry Mika soon, the clock is ticking to strike back. Oishi frees Kai and finds the remnants of Asano’s samurai to stand against Kira.
Now besides the fact that the appearance of the character of Kai is painfully obligatory, let me make it clear I am far from a hater of Keanu Reeves. With the right script, director, and premise, I tend to think Reeves can be a very good performer and do well. Unfortunately, this is not one of those stories. Rinsch as a director comes from a commercial background which shows in his work. Commercial directors are very good at telling complete stories quickly in short spurts with sharp, attractive visuals. The visuals, production design, and setting for this movie are impressive, but as a director, Rinsch comes off as completely out of his depth.
The characters in this movie are paper-thin, and they all lack any sort of resonance and substance. Reeves’ being the main protagonist is problematic as we are constantly forced to deal with these sharp close-ups as he stares blankly at…whatever. The character and performance of Reeves in this story simply do not belong. His presence in the movie is designed to justify for the story for a Hollywood budget and release, but Reeves’ performance and the writing of the character accomplish the exact opposite. Hardly anyone besides Kai or Oishi are given any significant development besides a couple token samurai characters who feel bad for how they abused Kai in the past for being different. The love story with Kai and Mika is also similarly forced and disappointing.
The movie does build to a decently paced and choreographed climax to some degree, but that’s after a second act of a lot of meandering and stumbling around. There’s a side quest in the second act in which Kai and Oishi travel to the homeland of the tengu demons who raised him to get some powerful, magic swords. The sequence is ultimately pointless because the swords and the overall sequence add nothing to the movie. The incredible properties these swords are supposed to have never come up or get mentioned again later.
In terms of the visual FX, there are some supernatural creatures that, while they have some nice visual design elements, look incredibly CG and fake. I believe this film was shot in 3D, but the 3D visuals seem to add little in the way of depth. I constantly found myself taking my glasses off and noticing how much brighter and clearer the picture looked without them, which is never a good sign. This could be a personal observation as 3D might look different for some individually, but here it did not do much to impress.
The 411: 47 Ronin will likely come and go within the week. It's either an odd experiment by Hollywood, or just one of those bizarre head-scratching exercises that will make for some interesting analysis in the years to come. For fans of Akira Kurosawa or classic Japanese samurai tales, this is likely not the movie for you. There's some decent visuals and action, but nothing at all worth a full price movie ticket. Keanu Reeves does not belong in a story such as this, but his presence is a result of unfortunate aspects of the film business that demand a character like Kai be included in a film like this to make it more financially appealing. But the formula will likely not be getting the desired results this time.