47 Ronin is the latest in a string of blockbusters that have suffered from overblown budgets and production delays. Much like World War Z and The Lone Ranger, 47 Ronin attracted negative buzz long before it was ever released. Universal was in desperate search for the next big thing, one that would line their pockets the way the Fast & Furious franchise has. After costly failures like Battleship and R.I.P.D., the studio was probably banking on 47 Ronin to reverse their misfortunes as well as appeal to the lucrative Asian markets that are so important today. Originally scheduled for release November of 2012, it was pushed back twice to accommodate extensive reshoots and special effects work amidst rumors of producers clashing with an overwhelmed, first-time director. The fact that 47 Ronin collected only $2.8 million in Japan, despite being based on a renowned legend in that country, says a lot about the movie's quality.
47 Ronin is set in 18th century Japan though it was primarily shot in Budapest and London. The city of Ako has grown prosperous under the rule of the benevolent Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). However, the power-hungry Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) covets everything Asano has, including his beautiful daughter, Mika (Kou Shibasaki), who is in love with the orphaned Kai (Keanu Reeves). Half-British and half-Japanese, Kai was found running through the forest as a boy and taken in by Asano though almost everyone else treat him as a lowly half-breed.
During a visit by the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the witch Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi) casts a spell on an unsuspecting Asano that causes him to mistakenly attack Kira. Humiliated in front of the Shogun, Asano is forced to commit seppuku in order to save his family from further disgrace. All his lands are given to Kira while Asano's loyal samurai, led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), are disbanded and forbidden from taking revenge. After spending a year of imprisonment, Oishi seeks to reunite his scattered brethren, avenge their fallen master, and rescue Mika from the clutches of Kira.
47 Ronin is an awkward fusion of the classic jidaigeki with the modern Hollywood blockbuster. The filmmakers attempted to stay faithful to the original legend while making it appealing to Western audiences by introducing mythological beasts, black magic, and a wealth of computer generated images. It's clear they were aiming to create another Lord of the Rings. Instead, the tone is so dour and self-serious that 47 Ronin fails to be the rousing fantasy the studio envisioned.
Carl Rinsch, a former commercial director, makes his feature debut here and he's certainly no hack. Yet, it's clear that he is a visual filmmaker without a firm handle on emotional beats. 47 Ronin only truly shines during the climax in which the samurai raid Lord Kira's compound. There's also a chaotic sequence ripped straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean, where Oishi rescues Kai from a Dutch trading post. Unfortunately, these exciting moments are few and far between.
While Oishi is nominally the lead protagonist, the narrative doles out an equal share of screen time for Kai. Not only is he a less interesting character, Reeves turns in another stiff performance and he's a couple decades too old to be playing the part. And let's not get into a convoluted origin story that involves a sect of bird-like monks with mystical powers. At least, Sanada is a strong enough actor to provide the dramatic gravitas that 47 Ronin desperately needs. Aside from those two, you would be hard pressed to pick any of the other ronin out of a line-up. None of them are allowed to display any distinct characteristics aside from a handful of tired archetypes. There's the jolly fat guy, the babyfaced rookie, and the jerk that eventually learns to respect Kai. The only other memorable cast member is the beautiful Rinko Kikuchi vamping it up as a shape-shifting seductress, who can change into a dragon or a flurry of undulating fabric.
A major studio production with a predominantly Asian cast is always welcome at the local multiplex, just too bad it had 47 Ronin, a thoroughly forgettable and uninspired affair.
Rating: * ½ (*****)