The tale of the Forty-seven Ronin is one that has enthralled generations of readers and scholars for centuries. The myth, which deals with how forty-seven masterless samurai enacted an elaborate revenge for the disgrace and subsequent suicide of their leader, is no stranger to the stage and screen, but 47 Ronin marks the first time it has been adapted specifically to appeal to a Western audiences. Brought to life by first time director Carl Rinsch and starring Keanu Reeves and a number of well-known Japanese actors, Universal’s 47 Ronin is lushly ambitious, but can’t quite decide what it wants to be.
While 47 Ronin takes considerable liberties with the legend on which it is based, introducing elements like witchcraft and giants, it does stick to the overall structure and the broad strokes of the story. We get the condemnation of Master Asano to death by seppuku after he is tricked (via a hallucinogenic concoction by a sorceress) into attacking a guest of his court. That guest is Lord Kira (Tadanobu Sato, who at least gets more screentime here than he did in both Thor films), a fiend so dastardly that he–along with his shape-shifting, magic wielding adviser, Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi)–has eyes for Asano’s daughter…and her father’s land. Asano’s retainers are condemned to wander as masterless samurai, until their leader concocts a plan for revenge, and the acceptance of all the consequences that entails. The overall legend is recognizable, but there are some additions which clutter and complicate matters.
The first, and most glaring, is the addition of Kai, played by Keanu Reeves. Kai is a “half-breed” who isn’t looked on as an equal by the samurai, despite his impressive fighting skills and romantic attachment to Asano’s daughter Mika, played by Ko Shibasaki. Keanu isn’t going to win any converts with his performance in 47 Ronin. Whether this is the fault of Mr. Reeves or the result of a poorly-realized character getting unnecessarily foregrounded in order to give the studio a bankable star to appeal to Western audiences is up to you. The rumors of reshoots to make him more prominent throughout the film become apparent during a truly awkward romantic epilogue and a climactic scene where Kai battles a CGI monster while the story’s actual climax rages on elsewhere. Whatever other uncomfortable issues the insertion of Kai (who appears in none of the original tellings of the story) raise, the real sin here is how his presence takes screentime away from Kuranosuki Oishi, masterfully played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who is the real hero of the story, and an infinitely more interesting character than the taciturn Kai.
The other issue is the addition of mystical elements like demons, magic swords, and shape-shifting witches to the mix. The film’s special effects are executed competently (although the 3D leaves much to be desired), but few of these extraneous bits of supernatural trickery ever feel particularly necessary. There are exceptions: Rinko Kikuchi’s spidery witch treats audiences to a handful of legitimately creepy moments, but despite being an integral part of the plot which sets the samurai off on their path to revenge, is never really present enough to be anything more than a side threat.
Undoubtedly, the supernatural stuff is bound to annoy the purists, but even when you set such prejudices aside, the film never feels like it fully commits to the presence of the magic, which doesn’t permeate every scene. The result is a hocus pocus afterthought. And then there’s that nagging question of whether a story that has endured for over three hundred years particularly because of its appeal to the human spirit really needs any of these CGI bells and whistles in the first place. And really, there are a number of impressive sword and stuntwork sequences on display throughout the film, any of which are more exciting than most of the more elaborately rendered mystical creations.
Fans would do well not to let the stories about the film’s troubled production (director Carl Rinsch was reportedly removed during post-production, reshoots that took place as recently as September, the poor opening in Japan) keep them away. The doom-and-gloom surrounding 47 Ronin isn’t entirely deserved. There is a fine adventure film contained somewhere in there, if only the film could make up its mind what it wants to be. Thankfully, there’s no attempt to “Hollywood” the story’s ending, and by the time we get there, there are hints of what this film should have, and perhaps could have been. For such an “epic” story, 47 Ronin has a deceptively modest two-hour running time. In an era where a book of less than 300 pages can be turned into three movies of three hours each, the restraint on display here is actually commendable.
On the other hand, if you’re going to add magical elements to a semi-historical epic with a tremendous cast of characters that takes place over a span of years, why not indulge yourself a little? 47 Ronin would have done better to pick a direction and commit to it. As it stands, 47 Ronin is neither the fully-realized big-budget version that the story so richly deserves, nor is it the fanciful and fantastic Lord of The Rings style epic that it seems, at times, to want to be.
Still, 47 Ronin is beautifully photographed and its commitment to elaborate costumes, intricate suits of armor, and practical battle scenes between large groups of people feels positively old-fashioned. It’s those moments where 47 Ronin is at its very best. As it stands, though, the clutter on display make this a missed opportunity to create what could have been a definitive cinematic take on a timeless story.