47 Ronin (film review)
47 Ronin (2013) Universal Pictures
2 hrs. 7 mins.
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Rinko Kikuchi, Ko Shibasaki, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano
Directed by: Carl Rinsch
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy/Drama/Action & Adventure
Critic’s rating: ** stars (out of 4 stars)
Okay folks…here is the riddle of the moment: what do you get when an expressionless Keanu Reeves moping around in a tedious and stiff-minded Hollywood-made Japanese actioner period piece featuring avenging samurai warriors out for retaliatory blood? The answer: nothing much. Sure, the riddle may not be as clever or intriguing as expected but it certainly does have the lame tendencies and aimless outcome of director Carl Rinsch’s flimsy feudal fantasy about Reeves’s mystical mastermind fighting machine joining forces with forty-six other battling brave hearts in the name of honor and revenge.
In reality, 47 Ronin is dull and delusional while serving up nothing more inventive than witnessing a middle-aged Reeves stoically parading around in this monotonous martial arts dud while waxing philosophical mumbo-jumbo among mechanical action-packed sequences in atmospheric 18th century medieval Japan. This cockeyed costume drama awkwardly revisits the conventional confines of this familiar genre: a disgraced and evil opportunistic warlord, a respected master meeting an untimely fate, a conveniently packaged Japanese-style folklore, some selective lavish CGI flourishes to enhance the action-oriented confrontations and an angst-ridden outsider (Reeves) wallowing in quiet despair and redemption.
Rinsch does try to cough up 47 Ronin as a sophisticated and contemplative spectacle but the film has all the exciting bite of a rusty samurai sword and the convincing edginess of Reeves’s decorative hairpiece. Surprisingly, the film is slow-moving and there is a lackluster connection between the characterizations and the sluggish momentum of the storyline. Surely 47 Ronin does not compare to the vibrant texture and tension of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1941 original movie that based its concept on the real life events that took place in ancient Japan. The stagnant rhythm, despite the serviceable opulence of the set designs and costume creations, hampers 47 Ronin to its creative unevenness.
The tale of combat and consciousness involves half-breed soldier of fortune Kai (Reeves) who is one of the forty-seven samurai warriors (a.k.a. “ronin”) that becomes disillusioned when his beloved master Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) is tricked into committing “seppuku” by the dastardly warlord Kira (Tadanobu Asano). Naturally, Kira would love to take over the territory as he flexes his evil-minded authoritative muscles.
However, there is some doubt about how skilled and defiant Kai actually is when it comes to his combative instincts. His fellow warriors have some serious doubts about Kai’s capabilities. We do learn of Kai’s unorthodox battle training and survival techniques through the presence of forest-bound snake-men. Plus, Kai possesses some sorcery skills that may come in handy when facing the devilish Kira and his outlandish cohorts that include a shape-shifting, wily witch (Rinko Kikuchi) and an assortment of bizarre beasts in the fold.
Overall, it seems like a relentless chore watching the trivial sleepy-eyed goings-on in 47 Ronin. As Kai, Reeves demonstrates minimal dialogue and has all the emoting prowess of a red brick (which is an acquired taste if you are a Keanu Reeves admirer of his movies). Of course his alter ego Kai gains the respectability of his skeptical ronins by slaying Kira’s henchmen and creatures alike but that is the only animated juiciness that one will get from Reeves in an otherwise sleeping pill-induced performance. It helps that Reeves is surrounded by an ambitious Japanese cast that embraces the talents of Asano’s Kira, Kikuchi’s unctuous witch, Kira’s lead warrior and sidekick in Hiroyuki Sanada’s Oishi, Tanaka’s perished Lord Asano and Kai’s childhood love interest Mika as played by Ko Shibasaki.
Still, 47 Ronin leaves much to be desired as the movie feels scattershot and shamelessly borrows from such dependable vehicles that range from both the entertainingly cheesy and well-constructed samurai sagas to the influences of filmmaker Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth-leanings in The Lord of the Rings films via the distinctive countryside scenery and colorful creepy monstrous cretins that lurk about in ominous fashion.
No one doubts Reeves’s attraction for active martial arts giddiness as evidenced in his wildly popular Matrix movies or perhaps as witnessed in his indie-directed Man of Tai Chi. In the by-the-numbers bore 47 Ronin, one might want to relegate Reeves to his earlier cinematic incarnations where bothersome small-time crime capers and tepid romantic dramas reminded us just how much this box office action star had overstayed his welcome.
NOTE: Focus of New York film critic Frank Ochieng is a member of: