47 Ronin is, ultimately, a harmless piece of action movie fluff married to a period epic.
47 Ronin is the Hollywood blockbuster adaptation of an ancient Japanese legend. When Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) welcomes Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) to his home, it should be a joyous occasion. Things go horribly wrong when shifty Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and his witch concubine (Rinko Kikuchi) hatch a plan to frame Lord Asano and shatter his honor.
Caught in the middle of the scheme are Lord Asano's chief samurai, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), Asano's daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki) and a half-breed servant named Kai (Keanu Reeves), whose mysterious past could be the key to helping Oishi and his squad of forty-seven disgraced samurai storm Lord Kira's stronghold, defeat the evil forces therein, and avenge the treachery against Lord Asano.
As the adaptation of a legendary tale and the debut feature-film of Ridley Scott protege Carl Rinsch, 47 Ronin is (on both counts) an underwhelming affair. That doesn't mean the film is completely without merit; it is simply evident that Rinsch still needs practice in regards to his filmmaking technique, and that his reach far exceeded his grasp where this particular film is concerned.
Rinsch earned his directorial clout by directing TV commercials primarily distinguished by their sleek and unique visions of the future. With an untested director working in a genre (period piece) that's so far removed from his established comfort zone (sci-fi), the end result is a film made up of clashing styles, which alternates between grand period authenticity and fantastical fantasy in a way that is awkward and - ultimately - distracting.
The production design by Jan Roelfs (Fast & Furious 6), costume design by Penny Rose (Pirates of the Caribbean), and set decoration by Elli Griff (Hellboy II) all capture the grandeur, scope and finer details of feudal Japan. However, even X-Men: First Class cinematographer John Mathieson can't maintain a line of consistency when his gritty-but-vivid period piece is interrupted by the introduction of elements like mystical CGI beasts. It is not a problem of content, but rather tone; Rinsch fails to establish a feel for his world that allows the historic and extraordinary to exist in harmony. Yes, the 47 Ronin legend is filled with elements of the mystical and/or supernatural - but where a character like Rinko Kikuchi's witch is fitted quite well within the movie's period framework, pretty much every other fantastical element feels out of place - despite being catalysts for most of the big action moments.
While 47 Ronin does indeed contain a fair amount of action, the pacing of the story is off and doesn't create the most thrilling narrative to follow. Writers Hossein Amini (Drive) and Chris Morgan (Fast & Furious 6) spend too much time on first-act buildup; spread the story's focus too thin (is this Kai's or Oishi's story?); and touch upon narrative threads that don't get nearly enough explanation or development to make them feel logical or cohesive (ex., Kai's "demonic" heritage). One cultural note: US audiences unfamiliar with Japanese custom may not be sold on some of the more important moments in the film, as the idea of suicide being a means of "honorable reward" is totally foreign to Western culture. Nonetheless, along this awkward journey there are enough solid narrative beats to hold things together and keep the viewer's interest - even if it won't be all that memorable afterward. In other words: an adequate but unimpressive piece of genre "B" movie-making.
The Japanese cast are solid across the board - though Kikuchi's witch character does hover dangerously close to silly/hammy territory. Hiroyuki Sanada nearly walks off with the entire movie in his pocket, far outclassing the trademark wooden delivery of Keanu Reeves who (despite his real-life mixed heritage) feels totally out of place in this film, every time he opens his mouth. With a sword in hand and scowl on his face, Reeves is solid; but in dramatic scenes, where he is called upon to "emote" in dialogue - say, with his forbidden love, Mika - Reeves' performance quickly becomes the object of ironic humor and mockery, as it feels about as disingenuous as Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine trying to fake an Italian identity in Inglourious Basterds.
While not matching the level of Takashi Miike's 2010 samurai legend adaptation, 13 Assassins (and never, ever, to be mentioned in the same breath as Kurosawa's Seven Samurai), 47 Ronin is, ultimately, a harmless piece of action movie fluff married to a period epic. In its awkward but inspired arrangement lies evidence of a director who has good ideas and vision, but is not yet up to the level of blockbuster movie-making that a film like this (with its contrasting elements) demands.
Still, Rinsch should be commended for attempting a difficult dive into the deep end of the pool on his first time out, and with some serious polish (and further experience), there may be a brighter future ahead for him.
Check out a trailer for the film, below (Ad Blocker must be DISABLED to view trailer):
47 Ronin is now in theaters. It is 119 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, and thematic elements.