47 Ronin: Lacklustre and surprisingly dull

castshot-47-ronin1-1024x680WHAT do you expect to see in a movie about 47 samurai regaining a city? Do you expect to see them defeating an army while Keanu Reeves slays a witch using his demon power sword tricks? You’d at least expect a film filled with amazing action, right? A movie that really pumps the adrenaline? Yeah, that’s what I expected. What we’ve ended up with is a film that focuses way too heavily on a clichéd story that we’ve all heard before, and not enough time on the action or characters.

If you’re not familiar with the story let me fill you in. 47 Ronin is based on a true story during the Japanese feudal era: 47 samurai are disgraced and banished from their town after they fail to protect their lord from being murdered (or seppuku, either way). Instead of living with the shame and moving on, they regroup, take back the town and take revenge for their fallen master, thus regaining their honour. However, this is an American retelling of that story which adds witches, demons and strange colourful beasts. Within the film, this all played very straight as the witches and magic are just everyday occurrences.

Keanu Reeves plays Kai, a half-English, half-Japanese man who was abandoned as a child and raised by demons. At an early age Kai runs away from his demon keepers and is found by a very high-class samurai clan who then proceed to treat him way worse than the demons ever did. The samurai beat him, call him half-breed and generally belittle him at every turn. It’s not all gloom, however: Kai is shown kindness by the Lord’s daughter throughout his life and they soon develop the dreaded forbidden love cliché.

While hosting guests from a fellow high-class clan, Lord Asano (Kai’s master) is tricked by magic to attack one of his guests, thus disgracing him in the act. He is offered the chance to regain his honour by performing seppuku; upon his death, his loyal samurai, along with Kai are banished from the land, apart from Asano’s right hand man Oishi who is thrown in a pit for a year. After Lord Asano’s death, the ruler of the region forces his daughter Mika into marriage with the lord of the visiting clan (Kira), providing the condition that she be allowed a year to grieve for her father. A month before the wedding Oishi is set free. Upon his release he flees the town in search of Kai and the other samurai to retake the town and stop the wedding.

All of that is quite a long introduction for any single movie, which would be fine if then it started to pick up the pace soon after, and it did… for one scene. When Oishi reunites with Kai there is a great fight scene, magnificently shot with great choreography, giving me some hope for the rest of the film. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the few interesting scenes; by my count there were five or six fight scenes in the whole film, three of which were good but incredibly short, while one was so dark and poorly edited I hadn’t a clue what was going on. The majority of the second act is just cutting between the samurai crossing the countryside and seeing Mika being mistreated in her home.

The problem stems from paying way too much attention to the aspects that the audience really didn’t care about, like seeing Kira mistreat Mika. Considering that he killed her father, banished her love interest and is forcibly marrying her for her estate, she really doesn’t need any more motivation for hating him. This problem extends to the supernatural elements they’ve included. It’s not that writing in these supernatural elements is the problem here; it’s that, despite adding these in, you’ve still ended up with a film that is dull.

Now, performances. Keanu Reeves is not a great actor, but I still consider him to be a good actor. He’s not about to do Shakespeare any time soon, but he’s talented in an action role. He’s good physically and knows how to work a scene. A lot of credit needs to go to Hiroyuki Sanada who plays Oishi, an actor who deserves a lot more recognition; he really gave it his all in this film and gave a great performance, as did many of the Japanese actors in this film. I would imagine, considering how highly respected the tale of the 47 Ronin is in Japan, they felt the need to take the roles very seriously. Unfortunately, it’s not all great. There are some terrible performances in this flick, the worst offender being Rinko Kikuchi who plays the witch. She’s an actress who has a history of voice acting and it really shows; though the script wasn’t great, she really didn’t seem to know how to play the character.

Despite all of these issues, I can’t label 47 Ronin as an awful or even a bad movie. I heard a lot of criticism that called this movie a white-washed and westernised version of a Japanese tale that people in Japan still to this day pay their respects to. I disagree; even with all of the Hollywood gimmicks it still treats the original source material with great respect. Viewing this movie you begin to understand the hardship that the samurai must have faced, their bravely and their motivations. It also isn’t Keanu Reeves leading a load of samurai or being the greatest samurai that ever lived like you may have heard; it’s actually Oishi that leads them. Essentially, Kai is a fictional character who hunts down another fictional character, while all the other samurai are in charge of doing anything that is genuinely based off historical events. Another strength of this film is how beautiful the scenery is: Japan has some of the most exquisite countryside in the world and it really shines through in the scenes involving any outside setting.

The most annoying issue about this movie however is the wasted potential. This could have been a great period drama, a character story or an action movie; instead it tried and failed to balance all of these elements. If this movie was stretched into two parts, it could have easily managed all three with great effect. Plus if the movie was in two parts they have included a lot of things they hinted at but never used, like when they gain their swords it’s suggested that the swords have different abilities depending on the person holding it, but then it’s never mentioned again. There’s also a lot of questionable decisions made with this movie, like: why include the supernatural elements if you’re not going to use them to much effect? And why does everyone in a film set in Japan, during the Japanese feudal era, with a 99% Japanese cast, speak English?

Ultimately, however, there are better action movies, better samurai movies and better period dramas, and this movie doesn’t come anywhere close to becoming a mentionable movie in any of these categories. I’d recommend skipping this one and wait for that one fight scene to be available to view on Youtube.