Credit where its due. For all its faults, 47 RONIN doesnt Hollywood-up the traditional ending to the legend that inspired both it and the several other treatments filmed over the years. It also, in those final moments, finds a sweeping, bittersweet poetry that had been missing in the rest of the film. Not that it hasnt been spared that other Hollywood-ization, namely a slew of special effects that are eye-popping.
No denigrating intended, the effects are nicely integrated into the story, which has taken a left turn into fantasy while still hewing to the action-adventure genre. One cant help but think that it is, in its own eccentric way, an Asian answer to THE HOBBIT, with just a dash of Pirates of the Caribbean. Alas, there is no Captain Jack Sparrow as the latter, nor a sense of emotional resonance as in the former.
This incarnation of the legend finds the same basic story. The good and kind Lord Asano (Min Takaka) is betrayed by a rival Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) into being forced to commit seppuku to regain his honor, and his loyal samurai, the titular enumeration, take it upon themselves to avenge him despite success bringing with it the necessity of their own seppuku. Add to this is Kai (Keanu Reeves), a mysterious wild child brought up in the forest, so the rumor goes, by demons. There is also the issue of his mixed Asian and European heritage that prevents him from being fully accepted by the ci-mentioned samurai, led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) of the ci-mentioned lord who took him in, nor from being able to find happiness with the love of his life, Mika (Ko Shibasaki), the only child and heir of that much ci-mentioned lord. Naturally Mika, now alone in the world, is forced into betrothal with the loathed Kira with only a year of mourning between her and the prospect of fulfilling her nuptial duties. Naturally even though the Shogun himself has forbidden it, Kai and the samurai arent about to let this happen. Adding to the fun is a scenery-chewing witch (Rinko Kikuchi) with prehensile hair, a dramatic way with wafting kimono trains, and campy take on the whole femme fatale character. As is the way with villains, she is the most interesting person in the film, some of that can be attributed to the dissipated and debauched costume and coiffure choices made by the filmmakers, but most of that can be attributed to the bold choices made by Kikuchi herself, who always looks like shes on the verge of a profound sexual release.
And this gets to the heart of the what is wrong with so much of the film. The plot clicks along at a sprightly pace, the effects dazzle, but the characters are of a distinctly stock variety, and the dialogue a bundle of stale clichés unfettered by the sparkle of wit. Reeves is a bit wooden at times, but finds strength in Kais humility, born as it is from equal parts wanting to belong in a society that has no place for him, and, of course, his pure and noble love for Miko. That he also looks rakish while swinging a samurai sword is a plus. Even with the efforts of and the rest, including Asanas walking sneer, and Sanadas innate nobility, they are undone by the writing. As for director Carl Rinsch, he has a flair for spectacle, be it rampaging beasts with six eyes, a forest of wispy wafting ghosts, or the choreography of action sequences, but is less reliable with the intimate moments that should propel so much of the action.
Lovely to look at, imaginative its use of fantasy elements, and respectful of its source material, 47 RONIN is a near miss, but one not entirely lacking it virtues. Its no substitute for the 1962 version called CUSHINGURA by Hiroshi Inagaki, but then again, its hardly trying to attract the same audience. As is the way with the retelling of legends, aspects of the story are emphasized or smothered in reaction to the temper of the times, that this one eschews politics for romance and spectacle is no more or less valid than earlier versions, just far less well told.