Christmas has come and gone and as we officially enter the final few days of 2013, Universal Studios has debuted its year-end movie hurrah 47 Ronin; a reboot/remake of the classic Japanese tale of 47 down-on-their-luck samurai who set out to avenge the betrayal and death of their master. The story of the 47 ronin, which is based off an actual event that happened in 18th century feudal Japan, has been made into a film several times before (in 1941, 1958, 1962, and 1994 to be more specific) as well as staged plays, operas, and other dramatic reenactments. So how does this new iteration, starring Keanu Reeves of The Matrix fame, hold up to the classic story?
Right off the bat, the first thing that should be noted is the movie’s PG-13 rating. It would seem Universal wanted to make Ronin appealing to as wide an audience as possible which means viewers hoping for a blood-soaked and extremely violent revenge romp are in for some disappointment. Not to say the fighting and action doesn’t get messy at times (a lot of people still die in painful ways and a few even get decapitated though of course the camera always pulls away at the last second), but at times it is still painfully obvious that the film is pulling its punches.
The original series of events surrounding the plight of the 47 ronin has received some pretty dramatic changes from its original format; the most obvious being the addition of a new character, Kai (Reeves), a young “half-breed” (born of the union between a British sailor and a Japanese peasant woman) foreigner who, after being found in the woods by the Asano clan of Samurai, is taken in and raised as one of them after Lord Asano “sees something in him” (the first of many plot clichés within the movie’s story). Asano’s young daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki) soon befriends Kai and the two form a bond which quickly grows into love.
After the lengthy prologue, the movie fast forwards a few years to an older, adult Kai helping Asano and his Samurai, led by Kuranosuke Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada who many will recognize from The Last Samurai and the more recent Marvel flick The Wolverine), to track down and kill a wild beast. During the hunt, it becomes clear that Oishi and the rest of the Samurai despise Kai despite his willingness to aid them. However, when Kai’s unheeded attempts to help lead to the disgrace, betrayal, and death of Lord Asano at the hands of the evil Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and his witch consort Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi in a much different role than her character in Pacific Rim), Kai and Oishi put their differences aside and hatch a plan to enact revenge.
Overall the movie is entertaining but it doesn’t work on a number of levels. It’s clear that Oishi is the most compelling of all the ronin (and he is in fact the main character in the original version of the tale) but Universal’s insistence on sticking Kai into as many scenes as they possibly could robs Oishi of much of his influence. According to various sources, the film’s original cut only featured fifteen total minutes of screentime for Reeves, with much greater emphasis placed on Sanada’s portrayal of Oishi, but Universal felt they were wasting all the money they’d spent on hiring Reeves so several changes were made; including making Kai and Mika lovers just so they could put more scenes of Kai in.
It’s a shame such changes were made since Kai and Mika have virtually zero chemistry. Kai professes to love her, saying he would venture through thousands of worlds just to find her, but Reeves’ deadpan, near-expressionless deliverance of his lines robs them of any emotional intent. The only relationships I *did* find myself caring about was Oishi’s connection with his family; a wife who embraced the difficulty of being married to a Samurai and a son eager to honor his father’s commitment to Bushido. I felt a constant connection with Oishi’s struggle to walk the line between doing what was right and honoring tradition but Kai for the most part just felt like a useless addition that dragged the story down (his backstory of being raised and trained by mysterious Tengu demons ended up being more goofy than compelling thanks again to Reeve’s performance as well as cheesy special effects).
The movie’s CG creatures and backdrops were nice to look at but, again, Universal’s insistence on creating a “fantasy” version of Japan filled with spirits, giant monsters, and dragons ended up being more of a distraction than a boon. Most of 47 Ronin’s fantasy elements are never explained and are instead just treated as everyday occurrences or convenient plot devices. The movie tries to explain away these fantastical elements in the opening prologue with narration that says feudal Japan was “a mysterious realm where outsiders were not allowed”, laughably suggesting that these fantasy elements *did* actually exist, it’s just we foreigners never knew about them.
If you have a child who’s interested in feudal Japan or Samurai then they’ll certainly enjoy 47 Ronin and you’ll be able to rest easy knowing that the PG-13 rating means the violence won’t be too extreme (I meanwhile find it hard to forgive not one but *two* scenes featuring the ritual suicide act of Seppuku without a drop of visible blood shown). Given the movie’s abundance of clichés, erratic sequence of events, non-compelling romance, and butchery of the original story all for the sake of getting more scenes of Reeves standing around and staring, I can’t really recommend 47 Ronin to any adult viewers other than the extremely bored or those who think they’ll enjoy watching Reeves struggle to fit into a narrative where he clearly doesn’t belong.