47 Ronin is a film that struggles to decide what it is. It is very much so two movies in one; on the one hand there is the story of the 47 Ronin a story so old and well-known in Japan that it has a cliché attached to it that goes: To know the story of the 47 Ronin, is to know the story of Japan. The movie actually includes this saying in their film at the very beginning during an awkward opening that resembled 300 more than it did the rest of the film. This was a mistake as it sets the precedence that the movie is going to tell that story, but so many liberties are taken along with all the changes made to fit the second aspect of our film into the same world. As I said this is a two-in-one film and so now we know the first part, the 47 Ronin, and as for the second… Keanu Reeves. Not only is everything about Reeves’ storyline completely out-of-place, but he is bigger than the movie or at least according to the cover for the home release which has his name floating above the title. I wish I was exaggerating when I say that Reeves is the entire second movie, but I’m not. With the inclusion of his character are all the fantasy elements that never quite fit with the story and fight against the fairly decent tale of the 47 Ronin that’s going on whenever Reeves isn’t on the screen.
What is the story of the 47 Ronin? Well in this version there are two lords: an old lord with a prosperous kingdom and a young lord whose land seems to always be covered in darkness. The young lord works with a sorceress to shame the old lord in front of the Shogun, the result is the old lord committing Seppuku to retain his and his people’s honor. The young evil lord gets his land and his grieving daughter (after a convenient one-year mourning period). The old lord’s samurai become Ronin (samurai without masters) and their leader is thrown in a hole for the entire year until a few days before the wedding. He gathers the remaining samurai and they plot to kill the young lord and regain their master’s true honor. Oh and possibly return sunshine to the land?
Interesting right? In fact I bet you're wondering why Keanu is even involved in the movie and where they fit all the fantasy elements of the film. And what about that Pirate with the skull tattoo on his face??? What’s up with that guy?!? He’s in the movie for maybe thirty seconds and he just asks what someone is looking for… that’s it.
Keanu plays a half-breed that was raised by Tengu (forest demons of Japanese lore) that escaped after not wanting their life of killing to be the only thing he knew. Well now he’s a bad-ass killer and that’s actually all he does when he's not being beaten by the people he's trying to help. He falls in love with the old lord’s daughter and her with him. He’s treated like shit because he’s a half-breed even though everything he does and I mean everything he does, is for the lord and the people.
Keanu’s story feeds into the main story because they suddenly need him after shunning him for so many years. They use him to get swords which they have to get from the Tengu who look like alien bug creatures dressed like Buddhist monks. This journey to obtain the most powerful swords in the land replaces planning, strategy and money from the original story so you can probably guess how important it is to the overall plot of the film… not very. The swords that can cut through whatever you want are never brought up again except for a joke after their attained.
Here’s the real kicker of the story… the fantasy elements work with the exception of the Tengu. The CG for the film was actually some of the most impressive CG I’ve viewed in a live-action film. The sorceress receives a heavy amount of it when she changes forms, but there’s also a few other creatures shown along the way. Had that been the only addition the film would have been far better.
As it goes in Hollywood everything needs star power and though Reeves has been box office poison as of late, they still mashed him into the film. The silliest part is that they don’t let him act. Say what you want about the man’s performances over the years, he can actually act. Instead they barely let him talk and you could describe his mannerisms as “scared child” they’re that generic. As it stands the only actor to give a decent performance was Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim). Her performance as the sorceress (credited as Witch) was a great addition to the story. She steals every scene that she’s in and continues to do so even after her character’s motivation stops making sense. As for Hiroyuki Sanada, the real star of the film as he has the bulk of the screen time, his performance is slightly better than the one he gave in The Wolverine. The story for his character was devoid of the range that the original tale had for his character which is the real shame. Think of it as if his character was asked only to make pizza and he makes great pizza, but then they come to him and say “okay now make just cheese pizza.” Well he makes a good cheese pizza, but we all know that it really means “safe and for everyone.”
It would honestly be interesting to see a new edit of this film in which Keanu Reeves is mostly cut out thus reducing his role to a minor support role. At that point I think the story of the 47 Ronin would actually pop and the beautiful CG could be appreciated. Somehow I don’t see that happening and so a potentially good movie will remain average at best.
Director: Carl Rinsch Writers: Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini Studio: NBC Universal Run Time: 119 Minutes