Several questions occur to you throughout ”47 Ronin”. The fact that even happens is bad news – a film’s primary task is to keep you interested enough in what’s happening on screen that you forget you exist. You should be living what the characters are going through, your own self-aware faculties suspended.
But the questions that occur to you are even worse news for the endlessly delayed, reshot and tinkered-with epic. Did they shuffle a set of cards with every feudal Japanese warlord movie cliché, deal them out and staple them to pages of the script at random? Is this the first draft of all the dialogue? Is it a giant prank played on Hollywood to show how some clever director could completely miscast a movie and get away with it? And with no gigantic Lord of the Rings-style battle scenes, only a handful of CGI creatures, backgrounds and cityscapes and nothing remotely eye-popping or new, what the hell did they spend $175 million on?
It’s unclear how much the original legend of the 47 Ronin legend is kept intact in the script. As the opening narration tells us, it’s one of the most important myths of Japanese culture (after this treatment of something so supposedly precious to their country, they’d be justified in declaring war on America all over again).
Word has it the character of Kai (Keanu Reeves) as the half-blood ward of a local nobleman was considerably beefed up for Western audiences, which might account for some of the delays and revisits. Reeves has never been much on an awards-botherer, but here he’s particularly one-note, never changing expression and hardly raising his voice.
Raised and trained by demons in a mystical forest, Kai was taken in by warlord Asano (Min Tanaka), as a boy, fell in love with the daughter of the house (Ko Shibasaki) and draws the ire of the official house samurai- led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) – because of his impure blood.
But when slimy neighbouring warlord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) jostles into position to take over the province assisted by dark magic and steal the girl, Lord Asano is put to death, Kai and the samurai jailed and expelled to wander the lands as ronin (samurai without a master to serve).
When Oishi is released from a year in a hole, he’s determined to avenge his master’s death and reclaim his land, so he gets his men back together, swallows his pride and rescues Kai (who’s fighting skills he’ll need) and hatches a plot. Meanwhile, Kira’s rule is backed by the witchcraft of a sorceress (Rinko Kikuchi), so the 47 ronin Oishi assembles will have their work cut out for them.
There are a few cool swordfights and some CGI monsters – although nothing you haven’t seen before – but as with Kikuchi’s last blockbuster ”Pacific Rim”, looking between the joins reveals performance and scripting that should have been workshopped a lot more. In fact for a movie this expensive, the acting and dialogue are at times quite abysmal.
It doesn’t help that there’s no distinctive or main antagonist. As Kira, all Asano does is stand around and scowl until he finally gets to pick up a sword against Oishi during the climax (and just to make sure we get a sense of how moustache-twirling evil he is, he trains against two underlings and clobbers them after the fight is over just for fun – a characterisation device that was corny half a century ago).
As The Witch, Kikuchi does her best to appear snake-like and seductive, but her doe eyes and cheeky grin are just too prominent, making her seem like a little girl playing dress-ups as a Disney-style evil queen.
Disaster descended on ”47 Ronin” like a pall with the news that the Japanese release had yielded only a little bit over $1m. So far it’s taken $106m worldwide. It might claw its production budget back when it hits DVD, but one is reminded of Universal president Ron Meyer’s 2011 comment that his studio ‘makes a lot of shitty movies’. Who knows, maybe he didn’t mean it was something he intended to change any time soon – ”47 Ronin” certainly makes it seem so.