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47 RONIN Movie Review

Production delays, budget overruns, multiple reshoots, release dates changes, all signs – usually of the non-positive kind – of a film all-but destined to box-office and critical failure. The rare exception (e.g., World War Z) only proves the rule: Badly conceived, poorly executed films generally suffer the fate they deserve. In the case of the long-delayed 47 Ronin, the first – and quite possibly the last – film directed by Ridley Scott’s one-time protégé, Carl Erik Rinsch, everything that could have gone wrong did, in fact, go wrong. From an underdeveloped storyline credited to Chris Morgan (the Fast & Furious series, Wanted) and Hossein Amini (Snow White and the Huntsman, Drive, The Wings of a Dove), to the decision to cast Keanu Reeves as a “half-breed” and haphazardly mix sword-and-sorcery fantasy elements to an otherwise straightforward retelling of one of Japan’s most important, history-based stories, 47 Ronin is an abject failure.

It’s not only the $175 million-dollar budget that deserves criticism – though given the poorly conceived, badly executed results onscreen, it’s a perfectly valid one – but the decision to recast the 47 Ronin with a non-Japanese actor in the lead role, a decision based on nothing intrinsic or organic to the reimagined story of the “47 Ronin” (masterless samurai, in case you were wondering), but financially necessary to justify the expected/hoped-for return on investment from a budget appropriate to a spectacle-driven summer tentpole. Unfortunately, Morgan and Amini never found a way to justify Reeve’s presence in the film. Not that they didn’t try. They did, slotting Reeves into the role of the singularly named Kai, a “half-breed,” the product of a culturally and socially unacceptable physical relationship between a British sailor and a Japanese woman. They also throw in a reclusive race of hawk-faced sorcerer-monks – seriously – as Kai’s protectors and caretakers before Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), the powerful leader of a feudal clan, saves a teenaged Kai from certain death, much to the displeasure of Lord Asano’s other men (the 40+ ronin of the title).

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Kai grows up to resemble a longhaired, bearded Keanu Reeves. Asano’s samurai treat him with condescension and contempt, forcing him to live alone in a wooden shack outside Asano’s castle. Despite his ill-treatment, Kai remains Asano’s humble, patient servant. Essentially, he lives the samurai code a true samurai, even if no one seems to acknowledge his true worth or value. When Kai saves Asano from a gigantic forest-dwelling (CG) beast that stumbles out of a Princess Mononoke outtake, another samurai takes credit for the kill. Kai’s outsider status makes a romance with Asano’s daughter, Mika (Kô Shibasaki), impossible. Kai and Mika’s romance becomes tangential when a meet-and-greet with the Japanese leader, Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), and a rival lord, Kira (Tadanobu Asano), goes sideways thanks to the intervention of Kira’s Lady Macbeth-inspired, right-hand woman (and shapeshifting witch), Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi). Mizuki bewitches Asano into attempting to murder Kira, leading to Asano losing his title, his life, and his samurai a master, making them ronin and forcing them into exile. Kai fares even worse: Kira sells him into slavery.

47 Ronin jumps ahead an entire year. Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the leader of the ronin, decides to avenge Asano’s honor and name by killing Kira. Revenge, however, puts the ronin in direct conflict with the shogun’s orders, meaning any Ronin who participate in Ôishi’s plan face certain death. Finally seeing his worth as a fighter and potential demon-hunter, Ôishi frees Kai from slavery. Together with his son, Chikara (Jin Akanishi), Kai, and the other ronin, the number equals the 47 of the title. 47 Ronin segues into an unadventurous, undramatic quest for weapons (swords) among Kai’s former protectors before finally seguing back to the planning and execution of the attack on Kira’s stronghold on the night of his arranged marriage to Mika. Shot with practically no imagination or inventiveness, the final battle between blandly good and dully evil proves to be a major disappointment. Even Kai’s face-off with Mizuki proves underwhelming. She shapeshifts exactly once (into a dragon) while Kai’s supernatural abilities extend to … moving really fast, like the Flash (minus the red costume).

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Then again, there’s nothing in 47 Ronin that can’t be described as underwhelming (and that’s putting it mildly). From the sluggish pacing, repeated shifts in narrative focus (from Kai to Ôishi and back again), to undermotivated, poorly drawn characters (Mizuki’s motives never cohere, either because Rinsch, Morgan, and Amini didn’t care or because her motives were lost in the 47 Ronin’s multiple reedits). Maybe the original script integrated the fantasy elements better into the overall narrative or maybe it contained more than just three supernatural creatures in all of Japan, but whatever the reason (script or editing), the result will leave moviegoers wondering why the 47 Ronin had to be reimagined as a fantasy/adventure, albeit one with the same downbeat ending of the original story (one of the few commendable-worthy elements in the film). And given the reported budget, it’s fair to ask where all the money went, especially considering the often variable quality of the CG on display. Or maybe it’s best not to ask at all and move along to next week’s releases or just revisit another, better-made fantasy epic (relatively speaking, of course).

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The Author

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending NYU undergrad (politics and economics major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he decided a transcontinental move to California, specifically San Francisco, was in order. Since Mel began writing nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 film-related reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.