Film Review: 47 Ronin

A sloppy East-meets-West hybrid in which outcast samurais battle fantastical creatures while seeking revenge for their master's death, this Keanu Reeves-headlined epic is both torturously slow and unjustifiably convinced of its own profundity.

Equally clumsy and lazy—and thoroughly, unintentionally funny—47 Ronin combines samurai-sword clichés with Hollywood-style CG mayhem. Carl Rinsch’s would-be holiday blockbuster is inspired by the 18th-century legend of 47 Ronin who—having previously been memorialized in Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1941 film of the same name—lost their status as samurai after the murder of their lord, whose death they subsequently sought to avenge. That basic narrative framework is maintained by this big-budget retelling, albeit with a heavy dose of mystical mumbo-jumbo thrown in for good measure, as feudal Japan is here depicted as a fantasy world of magic and mystery. In other words, the land is populated not only by noble warriors and treacherous rulers but also outlandish monsters, including an enormous horned beast with a rainbow-colored mane that director Rinsch shoots only in fast, blurry motion so as to mask the slipshod quality of his special effects.

That creature is felled in an opening set-piece by Kai (Keanu Reeves), who as a child escaped an evil forest where he was marked as a “demon” and was then taken in by samurais who, years later, relish every opportunity to slander him as a “half-breed.” Despite his outsider status, Kai wins the heart of his lord’s daughter Mika ( Shibasaki). Unfortunately, their love is thwarted when Mika’s father is compelled by a shape-shifting witch (Rinko Kikuchi) to attack rival lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and, as punishment, is sentenced to commit ritual seppuku suicide—which in turn results in samurai Ôishi (The Wolverine’s Hiroyuki Sanada) and his brethren being banished to a nomadic life as master-less ronin. Ôishi, in fact, is cast into a pit by Kira. However, after a year of imprisonment, he escapes without any trouble—just one of many plot points that Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini’s script handles with an almost baffling lack of care.

Ôishi soon finds Kai fighting gargantuan ogres in the hull of a docked merchant ship and convinces him to join the quest to avenge their master’s death and save Mika, who’s now set to marry Kira. Gathering up the rest of the titular 47-man crew, the men set about acquiring swords from strange birdlike forest demons and then laying siege to Kira’s compound—all of which involves recurring images of inhuman figures swirling about the air like bed sheets caught in a strong breeze. This signature sight is repeated so frequently that it almost immediately loses its impact, though that’s far less enervating than the stoic pronouncements of the characters, who speak each line with such a monumental sense of import, it’s as if their dialogue were written in ALL CAPS.

As a man of few words, Reeves proves a dull blank of a hero who suffers intolerance by turning the other cheek, and combats evil with a sense of righteous invincibility. The rest of the cast fares no better, yet it’s Rinsch’s direction that truly sabotages 47 Ronin. Slicing his action sequences to ribbons via spastic edits, and pacing his material so slowly that the proceedings quickly prove inert, Rinsch drenches the film in faux profundity that renders it a laughably inept, affected West-duplicates-East pantomime.