Found in the forest as a preteen and raised as a servant, Kai (Keanu Reeves) is a mystery to the household he serves in Feudal Japan. Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) took pity on Kai but others in his service hate and fear him, thinking he’s a demon. Many years later, Lord Asano is hosting the leaders of all the territories in Japan for a tournament involving their samurai. Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) is one of the leaders bringing his champion to compete. He’s also bringing a witch who serves him named Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi) that is capable of incredible feats of magic. Lord Kira has designs on taking over Lord Asano’s territory with help from his witch. At the tournament, the leader of all of Japan, Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is in attendance. Lord Asano’s samurai is bewitched by Mizuki and is unable to fight. Kai puts on the fighters’ armor and faces off against Lord Kira’s fighter, a giant who wears solid silver armor. Had no one come out to face Kira’s man, Lord Asano would have been shamed. Kai is holding his own against the giant but gets hit so hard his helmet flies off. Lord Asano is shamed and Kai is beaten severely by the other samurai, who are led by Kuranosuke Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada). That evening, Lord Asano is bewitched by Muzuki into thinking his daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki) is being raped by Kira. Lord Asano cuts Kira with a sword. When the spell is broken, Asano sees that Kira is alone and Mika wasn’t in the room at all. Shogun Tsunayoshi rules Asano will be allowed to commit ritual suicide so he may retain his honor. After Asano’s death, Tsunayoshi orders Mika and Kira to marry, after she observes one year of mourning for her father, to maintain the peace between the two territories. He also decrees Oishi and all his samurai to be without a master, known as ronin, ordered not to seek retribution for their master’s death and to be banished from the territory. Kira orders Oishi to be thrown in a pit to break his spirit and Kai to be sold into slavery. After a year, Oishi is released from the pit. He returns to his village and enlists his son Chikara (Jin Akanishi) to find his former soldiers while he hunts for Kai. He plans on ignoring the Shogun’s orders and take revenge on Kira for the death of his master.
At times lush and beautiful while at other times painfully slow and dull, “47 Ronin” is a film in search of a direction. There are times when the action is spectacular and the special effects glorious. Sadly, these moments are too brief and too few to save what could have been an interesting movie.
The biggest issue with the movie is its star, Keanu Reeves. His performance, as is often the case, is wooden, lifeless and one-note. His face, even in the midst of a battle for his life, remains locked into the same blank stare that has been the defining characteristic of his acting. It works well in the “Bill and Ted” movies but not so much here. Reeves character sticks out like a sore thumb. He doesn’t look the least bit Asian and the idea of Kai being a half-breed is so beat into the ground, especially early in the film, that it makes Reeves lack of ethnicity even more glaring. I have to wonder if the production couldn’t have found an Asian actor to take the role and give the film a tiny bit of believability. Perhaps having Reeves attached is the only reason the production company could find financial backing to get the movie made. Whatever the reason, Reeves doesn’t work at all in the part.
The story is also a big problem. It moves at a glacial pace that makes the first “Hobbit” film look like a hyperactive child. There are long sections that do very little to propel the plot forward. These scenes give the actors a chance to chew the scenery which is sadly some of the better acting in the movie. The bad guys constantly have sneers on their faces and their evil intentions are obvious from the moment they first appear on screen. The characters in general are so one dimensional it’s like watching a bad Saturday morning cartoon.
The only saving grace of the movie is the special effects and the fight choreography. The scenes featuring the witch and her powers are very interesting to look at as she transforms into a flowing silk scarf and flows from one room to another. Her long braids also act like octopus tentacles and she uses them as extra hands. There are other scenes of magic that are visually interesting. The fight scenes are done with sword play, not martial arts. There are several sword fights that are scattered through the film and they are often very exciting. There are also displays of archery, silent attacks and precision knife work. These and the magical scenes are the only ones that make the film interesting at all. They are way too seldom to save the film from being a largely mind-numbingly dull experience.
“47 Ronin” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, some disturbing images, intense sequences of action and thematic elements. There are numerous battles with most of them being pretty bloodless. There are about three beheadings, one more graphic than the others. We see one character shot with several arrows, a brief scene of a man fully engulfed in flames. There is a large mystical animal that kills several people by goring them with his horns. We also see a person commit ritual suicide but it is relatively bloodless.
The movie is based on a true story that occurred at the beginning of the 18th century. Much of what appears in “47 Ronin” is pretty close to the real story, minus Kai, the witch and the other mystical characters. This could have been an exciting action movie if the film makers had just been able to trim back the unnecessary elements and put out a movie that had some actual momentum. With those changes, perhaps the presence of Keanu Reeves might not have been such a distraction. As it is, the movie just doesn’t work.
“47 Ronin” gets one guitar out of five.
There are two new movies to start the year. Vote for the next film I see and review.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom—The remarkable life of South African revolutionary, president and world icon Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) takes center stage. Though he had humble beginnings as a herd boy in a rural village, Mandela became involved in the anti-apartheid movement and co-founded the African National Congress Youth League. His activities eventually led to his imprisonment on Robben Island from 1964 to 1990. In 1994, Mandela became the first president of democratic South Africa.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones—Family and friends try to save a young man who seems to be a magnet for malevolent supernatural forces.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres or On Demand.
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