Let’s not pretend it doesn’t take some sand to make an amped-up CGI spectacle about the 47 ronin. This is one of the key national legends of Japan, already immortalized in film numerous times, notably in Kenji Mizoguchi’s spare, grim 1941 masterpiece The 47 Ronin and Hiroshi Inagaki’s splendorous Chushingura (1962). Attempting to demean such a glorious cinematic lineage with a fanboy-ized fantasy-action flick would be like someone making an Abraham Lincoln movie in which he fights vampires. Crazy talk! Or you could look at this way: The legend, about a group of leaderless samurai who reclaimed their dead lord’s honor and then committed ritual suicide, comes pre-debased. Every writer, filmmaker, playwright, or whatever who has tackled the subject over the centuries has added his or her own spin on the narrative. So why can’t Hollywood insert a little Pirates of the Caribbean–esque oomph to this tale of feudal honor and revenge?
In this variation, the ronin are joined by a half-breed named Kai (Keanu Reeves), who is discovered as a young refugee in the forest and taken in by the feudal lord Asano (Min Tanaka). It’s an obvious Hollywoodism: Kai is the scrappy half-white underdog, the guy without any pedigree who will predictably grow up to be a great warrior against all odds. But it takes the focus away from the person who should be the hero of this tale — Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the leader of Asano’s samurai. Oishi and the other warriors are cast adrift as ronin (the term for a masterless samurai) after their lord is framed for an assassination attempt and forced to commit seppuku. But after spending a year inside a dark, dank pit, Oishi emerges and gets the band back together, this time also including Kai, whom he had denigrated as a lowly urchin earlier in their lives. Along the way, the ronin must confront an assortment of challenges both natural and supernatural, including a mountain monastery full of Buddhist monk-demons and Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi), the octopus-haired witch-serpent-lady thingie whose power protects Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), the usurper who seized the dear departed Lord Asano’s throne.
The film doesn’t entirely shortchange Oishi, though Kai/Keanu the Movie Star gets the romantic subplot and the more fully defined character arc. Indeed, for its first hour or so, the film moves along quite elegantly, building up the feudal intrigue and effectively playing the multiple characters off each other. (It’s gorgeous, too, with imaginative, evocative production design by Jan Roelfs, who used to work with Peter Greenaway back in the day.) At times, it’s kind of like a big soap opera, only with fantastical beasts and trolls and crazy demon magic and lots of beheadings. Both Reeves and Sanada cut noble, heroic profiles, and Kikuchi, as the slithery, spectral villainess lying in wait at the end of the heroes’ journey, vamps it up with evident glee.
Would that everyone else shared her glee. What made something like Pirates of the Caribbean so engaging (the original one, not those ghastly sequels) wasn’t the addition of supernatural elements but the humor, which was the glue that kept all those disparate elements together. In 47 Ronin, however, the classic myth rests a bit too uneasily against the modernized one. Believe it or not, for all its additions, it’s too respectful. You want it to be funnier, crazier. You want more scenes like the one where Mizuki’s magic hair uses a pair of chopsticks. It’s hard, of course, to be irreverent with a story that’s basically about a bunch of brave warriors killing themselves out of stoic dedication to an outdated honor code. But this is the task the film has chosen for itself, and I’m not sure it succeeds.
Still, it’s competently put together by director Carl Rinsch, a first-timer. Up until the climactic battle sequence, most of the fight scenes have clarity and fluidity. (The final one, alas, is a bit of a mess.) Throughout, I couldn’t help but feel the guiding hand of Reeves himself, whose recent directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, evinced a similar attention to spatial logic and graceful movement; the man’s clearly got standards. But his earlier film also pulled off the seemingly impossible task of being a serious, almost stone-faced action movie that still managed to be loads of fun without straying into comedy. This one never quite decides if it wants to be a big, boisterous epic or a solemn retelling, and it nearly disappears into the crack between the two.