There are several incredible samurai films that have come from Japan over the years. While they don't all hit it huge overseas, they usually manage to find the target audience in which they seek. Now, what happens when Hollywood makes an attempt at bringing a famous Japanese tale to the silver screen? It's exactly the mess that one would expect it to be. However, this is only made worse by putting the inexpressive and awkward Keanu Reeves in the leading role. While the story itself is most certainly an intriguing one that's worth exploring, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. If you're searching for a well-crafted and beautifully-told piece of Japanese storytelling, then you can keep looking, because this most certainly isn't it. Instead, this is a lifeless and dull Hollywood flick that never manages to engage its audience.
A band of samurai are furious when their master, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), is framed. If Asano wishes to keep the honor of his people, then he must follow through by committing seppuku in front of everybody. Before his death, he appoints Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) to take over as the new master. Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) imprisons and separates the band of samurai and their people. Oishi has no choice, but to get them to all band together and take their revenge in the name of Lord Asano by killing those who framed him, regardless of the cost. They're forced to partner with Kai (Keanu Reeves), who is a village outcast. He's incredibly powerful and fast, but is a humble fighter who will never give up on this group of warriors. However, they won't make it easy to work with them, as he's been outcast due to the fact that he's a "half-breed."
The issues that I discussed in the introduction only scratch the surface. There are so many problems that plague this feature, that it's overwhelming. To begin, 47 Ronin is a tonally confused mess. It's never sure of what it wants to be. It tries to draw us in with its "big" action sequences, but attempts to be relatable with its shallow dramatic elements. Then, writers Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini suddenly incorporate lame humor. Not only is it inappropriately timed, but none of it is actually funny. There isn't a single genuinely well-crafted joke or gag to be found. The transitions between each of these different tones simply don't exist here, making for awkward shifts. It's clear that it wants to bring this interesting story to the big screen and display Japanese culture, yet so much of it is "American-ized." This is such a fake representation of the story being told, that you would be better served simply reading about the original tale yourself.
Universal Pictures advertises 47 Ronin as being a huge action flick, as it displays a band of samurai battling demons in order to exact their revenge. I was hoping that this would at least be an entertaining venture. Unfortunately, the action itself is so incredibly weak that it isn't even able to work on the level of a popcorn flick. It's all very generic and there aren't very many demons or battles to begin with. Did Morgan and Amini not pay any attention to either the protagonists, nor the antagonists? The samurai are supposed to be so noble and brave, that we're able to easily look to them as examples of impeccable loyalty. However, the writing is so bad that we're never given much of a reason to care about them. On the opposite end of things, the antagonists are incredibly non-threatning and stereotypical. With such fascinating source material, one would think that the characters and their adventures should be one of the film's strong points.
This story speaks of eternal loyalty and undying love. This is told through the dangerous and thrilling journey that these men went on in order to get revenge. However, 47 Ronin makes this journey seem so small and insignificant. This is most certainly the abridged and uninteresting version. Instead of taking the time to explore the picture's themes and characters, it simply displays it as text on the screen towards the end of the running time. The filmmakers constantly manage to take every shortcut possible, making this feel like such a huge copout. I can just picture the writers submitting the final draft of their screenplay, just praying that it will be acceptable for a filmmaker to bring to the big screen. That "lucky" man is Hollywood newcomer Carl Rinsch. He doesn't have a single feature film to speak of on his resume before this action flick. I wish him the best of luck with his future projects, but this is a poor debut.
The acting is about what one would expect from one of these generic action films. While it isn't all too horrible, there isn't anything special about any of the performances. Keanu Reeves is an odd choice as Kai. While he's only in this role in order to help market the film, he does no favors for the character. He's just as inexpressive as I remember him being. It's difficult to root for a character that simply doesn't seem to have a personality. Hiroyuki Sanada isn't too shabby as Oishi. While this role doesn't call for anything very dynamic, he's convincing enough for us to sympathize with him. Kô Shibasaki fits in the character of Mika, but the picture's portrayal of her is so disappointing that it doesn't give her a lot to work with. Rinko Kikuchi could have been excellent as the Witch. Instead, she's simply passable, since she isn't given very much to work with. I was never expecting any award-worthy performances, but most of this cast could have done more with a stronger script.
Even if you hadn't seen any of the promotional trailers, you could easily guess what Hollywood did to this story. That's right, they filmed it in 3D and pumped it full of CGI. The result is a sloppy and surprisingly dated-looking motion picture that does nothing to capture our attention. There are only a few demons, yet the creature designs are still incredibly weak and generic. The CG work that puts them on the screen fails to make them appear threatening in the slightest. The landscapes aren't much better, as one could easily find a motion picture that makes a stronger use of environments with half the budget. Surprisingly, the 3D is a different story. It's actually quite effective. It provides a decent amount of depth and doesn't utilize the cheap-looking 3D where everything flies out at the audience. Instead, it uses the environments and the set pieces to place us in the world of the film. Unfortunately, it still doesn't make the CG-work and the landscapes look any better.
Needless to say, 47 Ronin is an absolute disaster. As the film continued to play, I found myself just hoping that it would get better, or at least become somewhat entertaining. Unfortunately, it does no such thing. Despite having an interesting story to work with, screenwriters Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini make this an absolute snoozefest. Both the protagonists and the antagonists are quite boring, making it difficult to care about any of them. The filmmakers have taken every easy way out that they could possibly take. There are only a few action sequences to speak of, and the ones that are present aren't executed well. This doesn't even work as mindless entertainment. The visuals are shockingly disappointing, as well. Surprisingly, one of the only positive comments I can make about this picture is that the 3D does what it's supposed to do. 47 Ronin is a lazy, dull, and lifeless motion picture that never manages captivate its audiences on any level. Skip it.