Directed by Carl Rinsch
Starring Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Kou Shibasaki
Japan’s national myth gets the Pirates Of The Caribbean treatment, eschewing fidelity to the source material for blood and thunder action, shaky CGI and muddled meditations on honour in this debut – and, let’s face it, probably final – feature film from commercial director, Carl Rinsch.
In some cheerfully anachronistic part of Japan’s feudal period, the warrior retinue of Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) are reduced to the status of ronin – masterless samurai – when Asano is tricked and betrayed by the scheming Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano, familiar from Ichi The Killer) and his evil witch/concubine Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi, paying the bills). Not the sort to take this kind of thing lying down, the ronin – who number well over 47 and are led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) – plot their revenge. Along for the ride is Kai, a half English, half Japanese outcast who both loves Mika (Kou Shibasaki), Lord Asano’s daughter, and gives dumb people a white guy to root for.
In all fairness, Reeves isn’t that bad, and his studied woodenness could be mistaken for bushido stoicism in the right light, but he’s symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with the film. A freewheeling, high fantasy, Japanese-set action epic could be wonderful, but this is a paint-by-numbers affair, numbly checking the boxes until the climactic battle and – spoilers for a centuries-old, world famous story – downer ending. There’s a whole subplot involving the ronin acquiring magic swords which is quickly jettisoned once they actually get their hands on them. In fact, pretty much all the fantasy elements could be dropped without affecting the story at all.
Still, it’s not all bad. Some of the action sequences are inventive, the production design is great and, if you’re a fan of chambara flicks – as I certainly am – the promise of some hot samurai action will probably put your bum on the seat, anyway. Rinsch, a Ridley Scott protégé, draws not only from his mentor’s style guide but also, fittingly, from Kurosawa’s, particularly in his use of colour – there are tableuax that draw directly from Kagemusha and Ran. That aside, the only other thing that Kurosawa and Rinsch have in common is that they’re both bipeds, but it is a very pretty film.
The most recent cinematic point of comparison is Disney’s megaflop The Lone Ranger, which 47 Ronin resembles not only in its ham-fisted execution, but also its bloated budget and dark rumblings of post-production fiddling by the studio (47 Ronin was shot back in 2011 – parent studio Universal spent a long time trying to salvage whatever Rinsch initially handed in). If your genre fetishism – and your ability to stomach a white guy playing a character of another race – was strong enough to forgive that film its many problems, then you might find something to enjoy here. Otherwise, skip it.