Universal’s made an unusual and somewhat risky decision to make a samurai fantasy movie with 47 Ronin, and made the even riskier decision to give first-time director Carl Erik Rinsch about $175m to make it.
Loosely based on the Japanese legend of the same name, 47 Ronin stars Keanu Reeves as “half-breed” orphan Kai, who’s raised and trained in martial arts by demonic warriors in 18th century Japan. Subsequently taken in by the kindly Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), Kai falls in love with her daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki), though his outsider status means that they can never marry. Then, a power-hungry rival Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and his shape-shifting witch sidekick (Rinko Kikuchi) carry out a cunning plan to frame Lord Asano for murder, allowing Kira to seize control of the former’s kingdom.
When Lord Asano’s put to death, his personal retinue of samurai, led by a shame-stricken Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) are banished from the land on pain of death. Mika is forced to marry Lord Kira, while Kai is sold into slavery. Oishi, now a ronin (the Japanese term for a samurai warrior without a master), decides to exact his revenge, and reassembling his scattered men, he tracks down Kai – who he believes has magical powers – to help him end Lord Kira’s reign.
The story of the 47 ronin has been tackled before several times in film, but never by Hollywood, and certainly not at this budget level. This is unsurprising, since it’s an important part of Japanese history, and one of the country’s cultural touchstones – taking the tale and shoehorning in an American actor is vaguely akin to a Japanese studio heading to England to make a Robin Hood film with Ken Watanabe cast in the lead.
Even the story’s characters seem a little perplexed as to where Reeves came from. “Why is he here?” More than one warrior asks of Reeves’ Kai, and for at least the first hour, the audience would be forgiven for asking the same thing.
The studio’s deep pockets are all there on the screen, though, and 47 Ronin is colourfully designed and sometimes exquisitely detailed; just about every scene has another, beautiful new costume in it, or an elegant painting on a paper screen, or an imposing carved statue.
In terms of special effects, 47 Ronin is on less certain ground; the creatures don’t always look as though they’re in the same frame as the characters, and some sequences appear rushed. This is especially true in the opening reel, with an introductory sequence which looks as though it was added in at the last minute, some awkward and badly-dubbed child acting, and the somewhat depressing death of a forest monster that looks as though it’s stumbled in from Princess Mononoke.
It’s not entirely clear why the more fantastical elements were introduced to such a traditional story in the first place, since the movie’s at its best when it sticks to what it’s supposed to be: a historical samurai epic. Like the summer’s The Lone Ranger, it feels as though the demons and magical powers were ushered in to help endear the film to an audience not entirely sold on samurai movies, a bit like the use of the various ghosts in the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise.
Yet somewhere around the half-hour mark, 47 Ronin begins to find its pace. The rusty gears that crank the script into motion suddenly free up and spin into life, and the film emerges as a briskly entertaining – albeit downbeat – action movie. Keanu Reeves makes for a morose and monotone hero, but then, his brand of acting will be familiar to most audiences by now. He’s not really the star of the film in any case; he’s the eyes and ears for a western audience, while the heavy dramatic lifting’s done by such characters as Oishi and Rinko Kikuchi’s anonymous witch.
That all these Japanese actors are saddled with an English script surely hampers their ability to fully express themselves, but their strength of character and sheer presence shines through. Hiroyuki Sanada in particular has real screen presence, and like most samurai films, the story’s emotion is conveyed almost entirely through his noble, fearless expression rather than dialogue.
On the other side of the moral fence, we have a trio of cracking villains. Tadanobu Asano’s Lord Kira is an entertainingly smirking, smug bad guy, who stamps on people when they’ve fallen over and swaggers about in purple fabric. Backing him up is a wordless giant in chunky samurai armour – a truly formidable opponent. But the best boo-hiss antagonist of the piece is Rinko Kikuchi, who plays the absolute inverse of the softly-spoken heroine she brought us in Pacific Rim.
As the witch, Kikuchi gets to have all the fun, transforming herself into silver foxes and a menagerie of other animals, terrorising samurai warriors with her witchy powers and enchanted green spiders, and genuinely winding everybody up. Her performance could be described as a cross between Marion Cottillard’s femme fatale trickster in Inception and Maleficent out of Sleeping Beauty – a truly hypnotic creation who does something either amusing or disquieting every time she slithers onto the screen.
It’s characters like the witch, and a handful of imaginative set-pieces, such as a night-time fight illuminated by fire, or the stealthy take-over of a hilltop castle, which make 47 Ronin something more than a forgettable holiday spectacle. It isn’t in the same league as the best samurai movies from Japan, and it feels hobbled by the PG-13 stipulation that a swordfight can’t result in the spillage of blood, but Rinsch directs his set-pieces with flair for the most part, and it’s a handsome film to look at in its best moments.
Like the warriors of the title, 47 Ronin might have an uphill battle ahead of it at the Christmas box office, with the likes of The Desolation Of Smaug and Frozen still crowding audiences into multiplexes, but as an American attempt at a quintessentially Japanese genre, it fights valiantly to the very end.
47 Ronin is out in UK cinemas on the 26th December.
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