Movie Review: 47 Ronin

I saw this the same day as Saving Mr Banks. I struggle to think of a greater contrast.

Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi
Carl Rinsch (Newcomer)
Rating: M

When I was in Tokyo late last year, I was understandably surrounded by more larger-than-life advertising than I could shake a Pocky stick at. Though anime, J-Pop and fashion billboards dominated the urban landscape, the one Western film that seemed to be getting enough coverage to register amongst the madness was 47 Ronin. Such a presence is understandable, as the film claims to present a fresh, more visually appealing and more fantastical interpretation of one of Japan’s most well known and highly celebrated historical legends than has ever gone before (many, many times, mind you). Yet this latest take on the beloved Japanese tale ends up disappointingly flat despite some cool moments.

The way I understand it, the basic story of the 47 Ronin isn’t exactly “Hollywood friendly” to say the least. It is really only emotionally satisfying under a set of cultural norms and expectations that don’t really exist outside of Japan. I don’t want to spoil it for those who don’t know the basic gist of the tale, but suffice to say you need to accept that honour is more valuable than anything else if you are to get any of the action movie closure you might normally expect out of proceedings. The fact that this very Western retelling of the story keeps things as close to the original tale as it does is definitely admirable, but first-time feature film director Carol Rinsch and the army of executives behind him also saw fit to add in three big American twists to the picture, which unfortunately don’t fare so well.

The first and most noticeable of these is the introduction of a token white guy, played here by Keanu Reeves. Amongst an all-Japanese cast, Reeves provides a Western point of entry for audiences into the revered story as the mysterious “half-breed” Kai, functioning primarily as a relatable face for the other characters to throw exposition at. He’s also supposed to be a mysterious figure raised by demons, but this aspect of his character is brushed over at best. Reeves doesn’t need to do a whole lot of talking in the role, which is just as well because he is no better here than he has been in any of his other multiple action blockbusters. He is 90% concerned stares as per usual.

The second thing is related to said demons – the introduction of a fantasy element into the normally straightforward samurai vengeance fable. Monsters and magic join steel and armour onscreen and aside from the opportunity this grants Pacific Rim‘s Rinko Kikuchi to ham it up something fierce as a heterochromatic witch who seems to be the only character who knows what fun means, the story doesn’t really gain anything from the choice. The lavish costumes and feudal Japanese sets already drench the screen in glorious colour without the added special effects, and the far too rare fight scenes are already well choreographed and fun enough without the addition of flashy jumps or dragons, which are sparingly used within said fights anyway. It’s easy to pick up evidence of conflicting visions behind the scenes, which did in fact exist (the film’s production cycled through personnel over a long development period that included several reshoots).

The third addition is the appearance of a love interest for Reeves, who isn’t even the main character of the story (that honour goes to the disgraced samurai Oishi, played here to scene-dominating effect by Hiroyuki Sanada of The Wolverine fame) but apparently for him to relatable to Western audiences he needs to have a love interest. She appears in the form of Ko Shibasaki as Mika, whose stilted and wooden line delivery is probably best forgotten.

There probably isn’t really any one part of 47 Ronin obnoxious enough to stop fans of fantasy action romps from finding some enjoyment in it, but everyone else should probably steer clear. Sanada gives the lead role a real shake and there are some enjoyable individual sequences, but they are drowned in a lengthy and uneven slog that takes itself way too seriously nearly all the time and tries to achieve far too many different goals. There are plenty of much better adaptations of the legend of the 47 Ronin out there.



Looks gorgeous, cool choreography, Sanada
Some awful acting, joyless tone, disjointed elements

2.5 VsA L R I G H T

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