Strange – I’m having a bit of déjà vu sitting here trying my hardest not to make the obvious joke of Keanu Reeves knowing kung fu. Weren’t we just exposed to a movie where Keavu tries to display his ancient fighting knowledge? Oh yes, that was Man Of Tai Chi, a more modern film compared to his most recent effort, 47 Ronin. First time director Carl Rinsch certainly is starting on an incredibly ambitious note, tasked with helming a 3D movie heavy with mystical witchcraft, choreographed battle sequences, and fantastical creatures conjured using CGI technology. Opening against heavy hitters like DiCaprio, Stallone, and De Niro, will Keanu’s moves be enough to score a Christmas box office miracle? Honestly, I don’t know, but when I think Christmas, I think Keanu Reeves fighting dragons with enchanted swords – don’t you?
47 Ronin is based on a true story that dates back to 18th century Japan, about 47 samurai who seek revenge after the death of their master. Among these samurai is a half blood named Kai (Keanu Reeves) who is first looked down upon by the native warriors he associates with. After their master is murdered by a visiting clan, the samurai and their group are cast off their own land after a powerful Shogun appoints the rival group’s leader to rule both clans. This doesn’t sit well with Kuranosuke Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), who assembles his fellow samurai, now considered Ronin (masterless samurai), and with the help of Kai, he hopes to restore honor to his disgraced master’s name – even if the mission means certain death for him and his warriors. Can honor be regained and order be restored over what used to be Kuranosuke’s home?
Confusion – that’s the most prominent emotion I experienced while watching 47 Ronin. Here we are watching cinema based off of a Japanese tale centuries old, taking place in the fabled samurai-filled times of early Japanese culture, yet all the characters are speaking English? Authenticity plays a huge part in period pieces, but hearing these “native” characters speak without subtitles gives the whole film a lackluster remake vibe, only furthered by Keanu’s inclusion. I’m not saying the actor puts forth an abysmal performance or anything, but he seems incredibly out of place, more so than his character arc calls for. Moments without Keanu feel like an entirely different movie – then he’d waltz back on camera like he wandered onto the wrong movie set, mumble a few lines, and fight some gigantic rainbow-colored beast – um, what?
Not to be ignored are the terrible miscues that run rampant throughout Ronin 47, like the staleness of ideas and horribly misguided comedic attempts. Which comedic attempts, you ask? Why, just the usual exploiting of the one fat character’s weight for every possible calorie-filled moment. Oh look, the fat guy has his shirt off in the lake, look at how he jiggles when he waves “hello,” isn’t that hilarious?! Sure, you want your audience to have fun, but why not try something witty, intelligent, or actually funny – instead of approaching comedy like a middle school aged bully. Comedy isn’t the only victim here, though, as our story feels like a weird mix between M. Night’s The Last Airbender and every other Japanese samurai movie in eternity. Rinsch’s film sparks the briefest moments of magic and utilizes the laziest fits of rage in an attempt to blow away viewers, worried more about playing it safe for mass appeal over taking kung fu risks and grasping for glory.
Visually, the heavy CGI and lavish set-pieces do try to build a cultural atmosphere with a magical twist, and Rinsch does show he can set a big-budget production with a keen eye for beautiful aesthetics, but the more frantic scenes show a bit of inexperience. When the chaos kicks in, Rinsch flails the camera about to convey just how massively intense Keanu’s battle or Kuranosuke’s chase is, but especially when CGI creatures are involved, it’s incredibly hard to make certain scenes out, and the CGI work becomes nothing but a blur.
On top of this, Rinsch’s fight sequences seem a bit more slapstick than explosive, again hitting on a strange tone that doesn’t ever permit the feeling of an action epic, staying somewhere in easy-to-watch territory. It’s rather bland, pulls the least amount of punches possible, and especially considering the Ronin’s final plan, it’s more silly than anything. There are certainly fun-filled moments, but when it becomes time for a true battle, 47 Ronin remains unfavorably goofy, wasting so many opportunities for truly stylized martial artistry.
With an all-star cast of Japanese actors, it’s a shame to say 47 Ronin isn’t a fitting adventure for true martial arts film fans. Most of the problems I’ve mentioned above stem from an awfully underdeveloped and watered-down script whose only motivations appear to be Americanizing samurai cultures and making a 3D movie to cash in on the heightened price of admission – failing at both. There’s a reason the best samurai films come from overseas, subtitles and all – and without this American 3D obsession. There isn’t a single scene found in Rinsch’s film that begs for the pain of wearing those bothersome, cheap 3D glasses, but this is just one of the many wrong moves 47 Ronin makes. Why don’t we just stick to our gun-slinging Westerns and let the true masters worry about making quality samurai films – which will just end up being remade, anyways.
The best samurai films come from overseas, with the sadly underwhelming and horribly misguided 47 Ronin proving exactly why.