Several optimistic possibilities rush through one's mind while watching the trailer for 47 Ronin, Carl Rinsch's costly feature-length debut. Could it be visually interesting in the vein of Asia's native martial-arts fantasies? Or, will it offer enough swordsmanship and wizardry within it quasi-historical Japanese context to become something of a guilty pleasure? Maybe it'd even spark a surge in Keanu Reeves' work, finding a medium for his intense stoicism that plays well for him in the way that The Matrix did. Alas, director Rinsch unveils a surprising disappointment: instead of glossy visuals and sword duels crafting something with energy, most of 47 Ronin's merits were, regrettably, crammed into that three-minute trailer, a tantalizing abridgment of its sparse enchantments, even sparser combat, and an overcooked perspective on Japanese honor. Hopes fizzle of the film manifesting into at least a B-grade spectacle, replaced with a tedious two hours that make it abundantly clear why it flopped at the box office.
It's easy to get behind the idea for 47 Ronin: to adapt Japan's legendary tale of forty-seven samurai who rebel against a domineering court official after their master, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), is forced to commit seppuku (ritualized suicide), then restructure the events to involve elements of folklore and magic. Shapeshifters, demons, and malicious witchcraft converge around a Japanese-British warrior, Kai (Reeves), who struggles to find a place within Lord Asano's domain, observing the samurai's rigid class structure as an outsider while falling for Asano's daughter, Mika (Kou Shibasaki). When a ceremonial gathering between rivaling districts to host Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) ends in tarnishing Asano's reputation, sparked by the spells cast from a devious witch (Rinko Kikuchi) working alongside Asano's adversary, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), the region leader's mandatory suicide leads to the disbanding of his samurai -- led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) -- as their master's rule is consolidated. Despite not trusting the half-breed, Oishi and his men find themselves in a position where they must seek out Kai while mustering a plan to overthrow Lord Kira's imposed reign, despite the shogun forbidding any retaliation.
Emerging after five years of development hindered by reshoots and delays, 47 Ronin operates on a script cobbled together from Chris Morgan, the scribe behind the two most recent Fast and Furious films, and Hossein Amini, whose penmanship can be found in The Four Feathers and Snow White and the Huntsman. In retrospect, perhaps the film's take on Chushingura fiction needed to be faster and more furious instead of echoing the dull faux-historical fantasy one can find in Rupert Sanders's take on the Snow White fable. Bland, unconvincing representations of Japanese nobility and the samurai code clash with overstated English-delivered dialogue, despite most of the cast being of Japanese descent, while a surprising lack of energy sets in due to the absence of action. It results in dreadfully unexciting world-building for the first forty-five minutes or so, lacking the dramatic authority needed to absorb it as anything beyond a potential catalyst for whimsical conflicts. The only sparks come from Rinko Kikuchi and her character's handful of bewitching tactics, barely discovering a pulse over the lethargic pacing.
While the story almost inherently gravitates towards the leader of the ronin -- and, by extension, the very capable Hiroyuki Sanada -- as the hero, 47 Ronin goes against the grain by trying to thrust Keanu Reeves' character into the spotlight, whose battle prowess and awareness of mystical forces are crucial to their dutiful vengeance. This opens a door for a potentially deeper character story about Kai's conflicting lineage and his affection for Lord Asano's daughter (a familiar commoner-royalty romantic angle), but the film stumbles with Keanu Reeves' taciturn demeanor, shaping Kai into an aloof outsider by emphasizing the wrong side of the actor's standoffish essence. Almost none of the fire or frank determination Reeves expresses in The Devil's Advocate and Speed are present in his scruffy, sulking non-samurai, while also resulting in a void of chemistry between he and romantic interest Mika. Everything built around Kai feels like an anachronistic interruption in the story of the forty-seven, unhelped by persistent close-ups on Reeves that artificially emphasize his role as the lead.
In fact, 47 Ronin constantly feels as if two different films -- an inspiring historical epic and a visceral eye-candy fantasy -- are dueling against one another instead of collaborating, distorting one's perception of what this take on the legend really wants to be or whether it'd benefit from more barefaced action or restrained historical folklore. Like this, despite the best efforts of John Mathieson's opulent cinematography, the fantastical action touted in its advertising feels sparse and unengaging right up to film's big payoff, gaining little momentum as it messily sets up a climactic storm on the castle. Even the covert streaming of arrows and the twisted flight of a huge mythical beast against a snowy setting doesn't have the gusto to justify the slumberous events that precede such a vigorous ending, as Carl Rinsch's bloated debut remains in conflict with itself until the bitter end. Strangely, those whimsical touches that once garnered interest in this project end up generating both 47 Ronin's surface-level appeal and becoming the worst enemy to authenticty, where dethroning usurpers who employ witchcraft and dragons still wouldn't earn the masterless samurai a satisfying reprieve from punishment.
Video and Audio:
A wealth of resources (read: an out-of-control budget) went into composing 47 Ronin's vibrant Japanese setting, from elaborate digital effects and stunt sets to scattered blasts of vibrant and rich palette choices in costumes, so at least that glossiness translates to a ravishing experience in high-definition. Universal's 2D Blu-ray, framed at 2.35:1 for its 1080p AVC encode, fires on all cylinders in that regard: colors are vivid and deep without losing control; blasts of white and shadowy night sequences showcase a deft grasp on contrast; and the more energetic digital effects and brawls capably follow the range of motion without a pixel out of place. The sprawling expanses of digitally-rendered countryside and Rinsch's plays on light beams lend themselves exceptionally well as eye-candy. The digitally-shot cinematography has moments where details aren't as crisp as expected, notably in one or two close-ups, but they're few and far between in what's essentially an immaculate high-definition transfer.
The clank of blades, the rumble of fire, and the slam of a ball and chain against splintering wood hallmark the more vigorous moments in this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, a vigorous affair when it tries to be. There are moments -- namely during the kirin hunt -- where the bass gets a little out of control, the dull thuds of hooves filling the sound space without the assertive punch to back it up. Other baass-heavy sequences are much more under control, though, creating dynamic and spirited fight scenes and explosiveness that frequently stretch to the rear channels. The English dialogue stays legible and aware of both high- and low-end spectrums, coexisting with the score and ambient effects where it's needed. Altogether, there's very little that becomes truly remarkable about the high-definition audio once it's said and done, but it's suitably clear, without distortion, and supports the visuals quite well. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
47 Ronin comes equipped with close to a half-hour of press-kit Featurettes that are light on substance, but makes up for it in optimistic behind-the-scenes perspectives. Reforging the Legend (6:44, 16x9 HD) crams a lot of material -- adapting the Japanese story, set design, costume work, the brutal finale -- into a brief nearly seven-minute overview complimented by interviews with Carl Rinsch and his actors, highlighted by glimpses at crafting the armor and before-after shots of the digital effects. This is backed up by Myths, Magic, and Monsters (7:35, 16x9 HD), which discusses incorporating Japanese folklore into the historical setting and fusing digital renders and practical effects, including body stand-ins and physical acting around CG beasts. Keanu and Kai (4:00, 16x9 HD) briefly touches on the process of adding this outsider character into the fantasy aspects of the film, alongside Keanu Reeves' admirable dedication to the role, while Steel Fury (5:54, 16x9 HD) elaborates on getting Keanu Reeves trained with two-handed swords, a process greatly enriched by Hiroyuki Sanada's traditional training.
The Blu-ray also includes seven minutes of Deleted Scenes (7:42, 16x9 HD) that fit snugly in that territory between negligible plot interest and dragged-down pacing: an attempted assassination on Lord Kira, the stipulations behind releasing a slave from ownership, and another expression of Rinko Kikuchi's character's magical prowess. A DVD Copy has also been included, which comes with the deleted scenes and the Reforging the Legend featurette.
47 Ronin, Carl Rinsch's $200m feature-length debut, is a perplexing bit of business, filtering the renowned historical tale of a band of vengeance-seeking samurai through Hollywood's big-budget, story-altering machine. The swordplay, the digital witchcraft from the fingers of Rinko Kikuchi, and the addition of Keanu Reeves' shunned half-breed warrior looks as if it might satisfy on some surface level while embellishing the simple story of Japanese heroism. But that's not what manifests within this incredibly sluggish hybrid of fantasy-action and samurai drama, where the additions to the original story come across as the director and writers trying to have their cake and eat it, too, and that doesn't mesh well with a largely stoical protagonist and monotonous battle situations. The visual effects look decent, some of the sword choreography faintly gets the blood flowing, and the aura around Rinko Kikuchi's character draws one attention, but there are too many fundamental issues to spruce up its creative clashes. Universal's Blu-ray looks and sounds great, but this is a samurai yarn I'd pass over. Skip It.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site