"47 Ronin" Overcome Their Weaknesses with Epic Visuals Review

The tale of the forty-seven leaderless samurai, or ronin, who revenged their master’s death, is one of the most famous stories in Japanese history. The determination of the ronin to kill the man they held responsible for their lord being sentenced to death by ritual suicide is considered to be one of the greatest-ever examples of loyalty and honor, and has been told in numerous different mediums and variations since the early 18th century. The latest in this long tradition is 47 Ronin, a Hollywood blockbuster arriving just in time for the holiday season, starring...Keanu Reeves?

That’s right, Ted Theodore Logan himself headlines this big-screen, big-budget translation of the Japanese legend that is heavy on magic, myth and special effects and low on originality, especially when it comes to the stilted screenplay and the performances that result from it. The first feature from director Carl Erik Rinsch, the film is less of a historical telling and more of a fantasy film in the vein of the Lord of the Rings or Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, taking place in a feudal Japan where strange monsters abound and witchcraft can alter the fates of many.

Reeves stars as Kai, an outcast due to his half-Japanese, half-British ancestry who, naturally, does not exist in any other version of the 47 ronin story. He was raised in the woods by a group of frightening, magical creatures who taught him how to fight and shape-shift before he escaped to civilization under the rule of Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) and his beautiful, kind-hearted daughter, Mika (Kô Shibasaki), who falls in love with Kai despite society's disapproval. Under the influence of witchcraft, Lord Asano attacks the villainous Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), and as punishment is sentenced by the shogun to commit ritual suicide. Lord Asano's friend and the leader of his samurai, Kuranosuke Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), is held captive in a pit for a year, while the other samurai are declared ronin and banished. His power-grab complete, Kira takes Mika as his fiancee against her will and sells Kai into slavery. All seems lost, until Oishi is released from the pit and sets out to reunite the ronin for the purpose of avenging Lord Asano’s honor and killing Kira. Knowing Kai’s love for Mika and his talent for fighting, Oishi overcomes his prejudice of Kai’s mixed race and allows him to join the ronin on their seemingly doomed but honorable quest.

One of the biggest problems with 47 Ronin is the screenplay--both its quality and the fact that is is in English. The mostly Japanese cast are forced to speak their dialogue in heavily accented English despite not being very fluent, and as a result, the majority of the performances feel less like...well, performances, and more like strained, stiff line readings. It doesn’t help that most of the dialogue in the screenplay by Chris Morgan (responsible for installments 3-6 of the Fast and the Furious franchise) and Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove, Drive) is more Goofus than Gallant, riddled with predictable cliches about honor, prejudice and bravery that all sound cribbed from Screenwriting 101. If only Hollywood did not fear subtitles so fiercely, then perhaps we could have had a Japanese-language 47 Ronin with only Reeves being forced to act outside of his native tongue. His unique brand of continually monotonous acting means that not much would probably be lost if he had been forced to read his lines in Japanese.

Some performers do manage to overcome the stiffness to have a great bit of fun in 47 Ronin, with the standout being the always-amazing Rinko Kikuchi as the crazy-sexy shape-shifting witch who casts the spell on Asano that leads to his death. Kikuchi brings a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and zaniness to her role as Kira’s magical advisor that is refreshing every time she appears onscreen. Speaking of Kira: as portrayed by Asano, he is a great villain who makes being evil look like far more of a good time than being honorable. However, Sanada brings such charismatic gravitas to the role of Oishi that the audience will end up rooting for him and his ronin despite the fun that is to be had with Kira and his witchy lady. He is a far easier hero to root for than the emotionless Reeves, who is here more for the romantic subplot than the main quest.

Despite its aforementioned weaknesses, 47 Ronin is a visual marvel. The action sequences are epic, with 3D used to its optimum potential. You feel as though you are being enveloped by the action without things flying at your face for mere shock value. The final showdown between Kira and the ronin is beautifully executed with a theatrical flair and will have you on the edge of your seat. The cinematography, art direction and costume design are all Oscar-worthy; every frame is a vibrant, luscious work of art that looks as though it should be frozen and displayed in a museum, from the luxuriously detailed kimonos, hairstyles and headpieces worn by the actors to the ornate architecture of the estates. If the film were silent, and meant only as eye candy, then it would be fantastic. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Nonetheless, 47 Ronin is a decently diverting big-screen adventure, though like much of what we consume over the holiday season, it is all empty calories.

"47 Ronin" opens December 25, 2013 and is rated PG13. Action, Adventure. Directed by Carl Erik Rinsch. Written by Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini. Starring Hiroyuki Sanada, Keanu Reeves, Rinko Kikuchi.

Lee Jutton • Staff Writer

Lee attended NYU for Film & TV Production, but she now works mostly in PR. Her primary obsessions in life are Doctor Who, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Arsenal F.C. When not writing about things she's watched, she's running or kickboxing in preparation for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. 


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