If you’re too late to get under the mistletoe and need to take your mind off the credit card bills you’ve racked up, director Carl Rinsch’s “47 Ronin” is sure to remind you what Christmas is all about: love, deception, swords, CG and, of course, ritual suicide. The deception comes in before you even step into the theater with the posters and trailers leading you to believe that Keanu Reeves is the star, but I guess that’s another story.
“47 Ronin” is based on a legend of 47 rogue samurai who avenge their fallen master. In this version, the story begins as a tween half-breed demon Kai (and he’s often reminded of it) is found fleeing from an unknown force in the forest. Despite his assistant Oishi’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) insistence on killing the exhausted Kai, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) brings him back to the village. Although Asano treats Kai (played as an adult by Reeves) with respect, the rest of the village treats him like a second-class citizen.
Kai’s humble life of servitude (and secretly sharing glances with Asano’s daughter Mika, played by Kou Shibasaki) is interrupted when Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and his delegation come to visit. He brings with him the maniacal Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), who, along with a beautiful witch (Rinko Kikuchi), concoct a scheme to trick Asano into attacking an unarmed Kira, a crime punishable by execution or a more honorable ritual suicide called seppuku. Adding insult to injury, the Shogun allows Mika a year of mourning, at which time she must marry Kira.
No sooner does the Shogun leave town does Kira makes his presence known by banishing the samurai, selling Kai into slavery and setting out to mentally and physically destroy Oishi. Before you can say “Didn’t this happen in ‘300‘?” Oishi sets out to get the old band of samurai back together for one last battle to avenge his fallen master and free Mika from Kira’s clutches. He’s outnumbered, outgunned… I mean, outsworded, and his only chance is reuniting with the man he looked down upon, Kai.
Samurai movies may not be everyone’s favorite yuletide entertainment, but there’s something to be said for “Ronin 47.” Lost in the inevitable detractors focusing on why a film rumored to cost north of $200 million was given to a first-time director is a story with noticeable flaws, but a background so enticing that you’ll almost overlook them.
“Ronin 47” touches on everything from love, to loyalty, to racism in its lengthy 119-minute running time, but sometime in covering that much ground, they forgot to make some key stops. Despite the love story of Mika and Kai being at the heart of the film, they’re never onscreen long enough to show any real chemistry. The theme of fighting for honor for honor’s sake is likely to lose many audience members, not to mention those turned off by suicide, no matter how much it’s draped in the archaic definition of honor. Audiences may be a bit annoyed by Keanu getting the marquee, despite him not being the main character of the film. It’s clearly Oishi’s story, although Keanu isn’t just there for the ride. Nonetheless, whether it’s ethnocentric or star-driven marketing, it’s bound to irk more than a few.
The fight scenes are a bit underwhelming at times, as when Oishi first encounters Kira’s men, but brilliant in others, such as the final battle. That unevenness can only be chalked up to letting a less experienced hand in the director’s chair.
Keanu’s been a bit of a martial arts movie icon since the “Matrix” trilogy, but despite his fondness for martial arts and the zen mindset that often goes along with it, “47 Ronin” is his second martial arts film this year where he’s a bit too stoic to fully connect with the viewer. Just as in the well done “Man of Tai Chi,” he unfortunately replaces brooding for a performance that’s emotionally moving. Lack of onscreen humor aside, his sword moves in “47 Ronin” will remind you (just as in “Man of Tai Chi”) that at 49, he’s in better shape than most guys half his age.
Countering Keanu’s onscreen stiffness is Rinko Kikuchi as the evil witch that sets all the pieces in motion. Her fluid and teasingly wicked moments touch on the mystically erotic, leaving no doubt that she can turn any saint into sinner. Kikuchi is the best kind of temptress, powerful and constantly moving as she verbally tortures Mika every chance she gets. It’s almost a disappointment when she has to give way to her costly CG-based incarnation.
The 3D effects won’t blow you away, and this is also where the topic of a first-time director and a bloated budget will become a topic of conversation. As a revenge drama, “47 Ronin” more than fills the bill, but as the intended epic it was marked to be, it comes up short, making Hollywood look more incompetent in giving foreign epics their due.