Movie Review: 47 Ronin (2013) (2D)

January 5, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Every Keanu Reeves movie can be summed up with one word: “whoa.” Unfortunately, his latest, 47 Ronin, is not a good “whoa.” It’s not a horrible “whoa” either. On the one hand it wasn’t as rubbish as expected, though on the other it lacked the excitement of the crazy samurai action I had looked forward to.

I’ve been a fan of Keanu since the Paul Abdul Rush, Rush days — actually, even before that, back to the Bill & Ted era (“Socrates!”), but these days all the news we get from him are from people posting videos of him giving up his seat on the subway.

Anyway, while Keanu has been in movies in recent years, none of them high-profile since the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. That alone was reason to get me excited about 47 Ronin, supposedly based on a Japanese legend (one I didn’t know about until the credits rolled). If you’ve seen the trailers, however, you’ll know this film is set firmly in fantasy land, with witchcraft, mystical creatures and demons all part of the norm in its world.

Keanu plays Kai, a mysterious half-breed (half British, half Japanese) who was discovered in the woods and raised by Lord Asano, who has a whole bunch of samurai under his command. While he is a master swordsman who can duel with the best of them, Kai is not officially a samurai and is looked down upon by the samurai in town. One day a powerful Shogun arrives in town with Lord Kira, an evil dude with ambitions of ruling all of Japan. Kira is aided by a witch played by Rinko Kikuchi (last seen in Pacific Rimwho is so obviously a demon because of her different-colored eyes and demonic behaviour.

Anyway, yada yada yada, and Kai and the samurai are left without a master, thus rendering them ronin (ie, samurai without a master). The rest of the story is how they, led by Oishi (played by The Wolverine and The Last Samurai’s Hiroyuki Sanada) set about plotting their revenge. And there is a love story somewhere in there, with Lord Asano’s daughter Mika, who is in love with Kai, betrothed to Lord Kira.

The thing with 47 Ronin is that its silliness is only matched by how seriously it takes itself. There are almost no jokes in this movie, and all the laughs are unintentional, with the biggest ones coming from Rinko Kikuchi’s over-the-top performance as the witch. When there are colourful giant monsters roaming the land for no reason, a whole clan of monks who look like Voldemort living in the woods and massive samurai dudes with no face and act like robots, you would think they might have a bit of fun with it. But no. Instead, 47 Samurai is as straight as they come, which makes a lot of the drama hard to engage and difficult to swallow.

Speaking of drama, there was way too much of it in proportion to the action. I had expected 47 Ronin to about a bunch of badasses who travel the land doing justice against demons or whatever, but there was a lot of poorly executed “character development” which was completely pointless for a film like this. As a result, large portions of the film have little action and are focused on the limp romance and a long arc where the samurai trying to find swords — which is moronic considering Kai had just been to a place where he was shot at by GUNS! Hello? How about getting some of those instead?

Another struggle I had was listening to the Japanese actors trying to speak in English. It’s not that I had problems understanding what they said, but it was so obviously a struggle for some of them that it felt awkward sitting through. I guess at the end of the day it’s easier to make 50 Japanese actors speak English than trying to get Keanu to speak in Japanese. The special effects were also just OK in my opinion, a little fake in some areas though not to the point there it became a distraction.

For all its faults, 47 Ronin is passably entertaining for its 119-minute running time, which is actually more than I anticipated. There are a few solid action and battle scenes (though fewer than I expected) and some cool ideas and creatures that fans of feudal Japan and samurai manga/video games should enjoy. It’s just a shame that the script and direction sapped all the fun or adventure out of it, effectively wasting the interesting premise and potential for genuine excitement and thrills. They may have had the basic concept pointed in the right direction, but in the end, 47 Ronin fell well off the mark.

2.75 stars out of 5

PS: I didn’t even know this was available in 3D.