'47 Ronin' Makes Costly Samurai Fantasy Into a Vapid Mess

Directed by: Carl Rinsch; Runtime: 118 minutes
Grade: D+

Several optimistic possibilities rush through one's mind while watching the trailer for 47 Ronin, Carl Rinsch's costly feature-length debut. Could it be visually interesting in the vein of Asia's native martial-arts fantasies? Or, will it offer enough swordsmanship and wizardry within it quasi-historical Japanese context to become something of a guilty pleasure? Maybe it'd even spark a surge in Keanu Reeves' work, finding a medium for his intense stoicism that plays well for him in the way that The Matrix did. Alas, director Rinsch unveils a surprising disappointment: instead of glossy visuals and sword duels crafting something with energy, most of 47 Ronin's merits were, regrettably, crammed into that three-minute trailer, a tantalizing abridgment of its sparse enchantments, even sparser combat, and an overcooked perspective on Japanese honor. Hopes fizzle of the film manifesting into at least a B-grade spectacle, replaced with a tedious two hours that make it abundantly clear why it flopped at the box office.

It's easy to get behind the idea for 47 Ronin: to adapt Japan's legendary tale of forty-seven samurai who rebel against a domineering court official after their master, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), is forced to commit seppuku (ritualized suicide), then restructure the events to involve elements of folklore and magic. Shapeshifters, demons, and malicious witchcraft converge around a Japanese-British warrior, Kai (Reeves), who struggles to find a place within Lord Asano's domain, observing the samurai's rigid class structure as an outsider while falling for Asano's daughter, Mika (Kou Shibasaki). When a ceremonial gathering between rivaling districts to host Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) ends in tarnishing Asano's reputation, sparked by the spells cast from a devious witch (Rinko Kikuchi) working alongside Asano's adversary, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), the region leader's mandatory suicide leads to the disbanding of his samurai -- led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) -- as their master's rule is consolidated. Despite not trusting the half-breed, Oishi and his men find themselves in a position where they must seek out Kai while mustering a plan to overthrow Lord Kira's imposed reign, despite the shogun forbidding any retaliation.

Emerging after five years of development hindered by reshoots and delays, 47 Ronin operates on a script cobbled together from Chris Morgan, the scribe behind the two most recent Fast and Furious films, and Hossein Amini, whose penmanship can be found in The Four Feathers and Snow White and the Huntsman. In retrospect, perhaps the film's take on Chushingura fiction needed to be faster and more furious instead of echoing the dull faux-historical fantasy one can find in Rupert Sanders's take on the Snow White fable. Bland, unconvincing representations of Japanese nobility and the samurai code clash with overstated English-delivered dialogue, despite most of the cast being of Japanese descent, while a surprising lack of energy sets in due to the absence of action. It results in dreadfully unexciting world-building for the first forty-five minutes or so, lacking the dramatic authority needed to absorb it as anything beyond a potential catalyst for whimsical conflicts. The only sparks come from Rinko Kikuchi and her character's handful of bewitching tactics, barely discovering a pulse over the lethargic pacing.

While the story almost inherently gravitates towards the leader of the ronin -- and, by extension, the very capable Hiroyuki Sanada -- as the hero, 47 Ronin goes against the grain by trying to thrust Keanu Reeves' character into the spotlight, whose battle prowess and awareness of mystical forces are crucial to their dutiful vengeance. This opens a door for a potentially deeper character story about Kai's conflicting lineage and his affection for Lord Asano's daughter (a familiar commoner-royalty romantic angle), but the film stumbles with Keanu Reeves' taciturn demeanor, shaping Kai into an aloof outsider by emphasizing the wrong side of the actor's standoffish essence. Almost none of the fire or frank determination Reeves expresses in The Devil's Advocate and Speed are present in his scruffy, sulking non-samurai, while also resulting in a void of chemistry between he and romantic interest Mika. Everything built around Kai feels like an anachronistic interruption in the story of the forty-seven, unhelped by persistent close-ups on Reeves that artificially emphasize his role as the lead.

In fact, 47 Ronin constantly feels as if two different films -- an inspiring historical epic and a visceral eye-candy fantasy -- are dueling against one another instead of collaborating, distorting one's perception of what this take on the legend really wants to be or whether it'd benefit from more barefaced action or restrained historical folklore. Like this, despite the best efforts of John Mathieson's opulent cinematography, the fantastical action touted in its advertising feels sparse and unengaging right up to film's big payoff, gaining little momentum as it messily sets up a climactic storm on the castle. Even the covert streaming of arrows and the twisted flight of a huge mythical beast against a snowy setting doesn't have the gusto to justify the slumberous events that precede such a vigorous ending, as Carl Rinsch's bloated debut remains in conflict with itself until the bitter end. Strangely, those whimsical touches that once garnered interest in this project end up generating both 47 Ronin's surface-level appeal and becoming the worst enemy to authenticty, where dethroning usurpers who employ witchcraft and dragons still wouldn't earn the masterless samurai a satisfying reprieve from punishment.

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