The eagerness of the major studios to cozy up to Asian markets yields awkward results in 47 Ronin, a lumpy 3D epic from Universal that fuses Japanese historical legend with generic CGI-heavy action fantasy. While the reported $175 million budget is evident in the handsome production values of Carl Rinsch‘s ambitious first feature, it falls short on character definition, emotional involvement, narrative drive and originality, with a protagonist played by Keanu Reeves who often gets bumped to the sidelines. Following its soft start in Japan, the English-language film may prove too Hollywood for Eastern audiences and too Asian to crack the American commercial mainstream.
As we hear in reams of opening voiceover, the saga of the 47 ronin dates back to early 18th century feudal Japan. The disenfranchised samurai avenged the disgrace and death of their master, Lord Asano, by killing Kira, the villain responsible for his dishonor, in direct defiance of the ruling Shogun’s orders to refrain from retaliation. Their quest of loyalty and sacrifice would cost them their lives, either in battle or in enforced ritual suicide as punishment for their transgression. Numerous accounts of the tragedy, many of them elaborately fictionalized, have been produced for theater, opera, film and television over the years, including screen versions by Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa.
Arguably the biggest problem with this retelling is the conflicted impulses of the hybrid screenplay by Chris Morgan (a regular on the Fast & Furious franchise) and Hossein Amini (whose recent work has included Drive and Snow White and the Huntsman). It strives to be respectful of source material deeply embedded in Japanese popular culture, while at the same time juicing up the story for Western audiences raised on action blockbusters, videogames and broad-strokes melodrama.
Given the inscrutable nature of the samurai code, the key concession to international sensibilities is the introduction of a fictional outsider to find redemption on a hero’s journey in which he leads the stoical warriors to victory. That would be Kai (Reeves), scorned as a “half-breed” (just like the Cher song), believed to have been raised in the forest by demons. Rescued by Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) as a boy, Kai grows up deeply devoted to the feudal leader, sharing a secret love with Asano’s beautiful daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki).
Kai’s most excellent swordsmanship is demonstrated in a frenetic hunt scene that seems lifted out of The Croods, during which he saves a resentful samurai by slaying a blurry CGI creature with six eyes and lethal antlers.
Meanwhile, treacherous Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), of the neighboring province, and his shape-shifting sorceress advisor (Rinko Kikuchi) plot his rise to power and Lord Asano’s downfall. Kai’s warnings of witchcraft go unheeded, leaving the samurais robbed of their leader and exiled, Asano’s top-ranking deputy Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) imprisoned in a pit to break his spirit, and the heartbroken Mika promised in marriage to Kira. But when Oishi is released, he tracks down half-mad Kai, sold into slavery in a Dutch island freak show where he’s forced to fight monsters for spectator sport. Regrouping the ronin, they plan their attack on Kira.
Oh, and to stock up on weaponry, Kai takes them to the trippy Tengu forest, where Lord Voldemort, or actually some kind of creepy supernatural bird-man monk with no ears or nose (Togo Igawa), tests their will before handing over the blades.
Reeves plays Kai’s chronic low self-esteem, his troubled soul and his burning hunger for justice with the same permanently furrowed brow. That fits with Rinsch and the screenwriters’ prevailing solemnity and inexpressive approach to character. But while much is made of the star-crossed lover angle between Kai and gentle, personality-deprived Mika, as well as his gradual earning of the acceptance and respect of the ronin, Kai seems grafted onto the story.
Oishi is by far the more compelling character as well as the legend’s legitimate protagonist, and Sanada gives the film’s most nuanced performance. (Speaking of bastardized Japanese archetypes, Sanada is one of two actors on board who played Emily’s samurai mentor on ABC’s archly ludicrous Revenge, along with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who turns up here as the Shogun.) With the exception of the fat comic relief (Takato Yonemoto) and Oishi’s son (Jin Akanishi), a pretty boy-band refugee with sculpted eyebrows, the other warriors are interchangeable, giving the audience little to invest in as the stakes get raised. Not that the wooden dialogue allows them much of a chance.
The fascination with cyborgs that Rinsch showed in his high-concept futuristic commercials and his robot espionage short The Gift is evident in Kira’s armor-clad fighter giant — one of many elements that make this a mishmash of too many disharmonious influences. The director at one point was rumored to be in line for Prometheus until Ridley Scott signed on, but his long-awaited feature debut is very much a mixed bag. Some of the action sequences demonstrate bold assurance, notably the climactic clash when the ronin infiltrate Kira’s fortress. But while the buildup to that battle gathers steam, too much of the poorly paced movie either bogs down in exposition or marks time, and Rinsch displays scant interest in working with the actors to develop their characters.
A lack of faith in the material is suggested by the relentless use of Ilan Eshkeri‘s tumescent symphonic score. Cinematographer John Mathieson does a classy job, however, bringing majesty, composure and impressive depth of field to the visuals, shot on Hungarian locations and at Shepperton Studios in England. Production designer Jan Roelfs and costumer Penny Rose clearly had lots of cash to play with, and the result is sumptuous if at times borderline suffocating, overloading on color. The use of 3D is mostly quite restrained, but perhaps inevitably seems a superfluous flourish when slapped onto a noble tale of loyalty, honor and the ancient ways of bushido.
Opens: Wednesday, Dec. 25 (Universal)
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi, Ko Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Neil Fingleton, Togo Igawa, Rick Genest, Masayoshi Haneda, Hiroshi Sogabe, Takato Yonemoto, Hiroshi Yamada, Shu Nakajima, Masayuki Deai, Yorick van Wageningen, Gedde Watanabe, Natsuki Kunimoto