At first glance, 47 Ronin appears to be one weird movie. It’s a mega expensive Christmas release starring only one white guy, has a shape-shifting witch, and a predetermined unhappy ending. It all sounds ballsy on paper, but those balls are rarely ever flashed onscreen in this all too safe wannabe blockbuster.
That one white guy, Kai (Keanu Reeves), is an outcast in his own home. As the son of an English sailor and Japanese peasant, Kai is dismissed as a “half-breed.” He’s stronger, smarter, and faster than any of his master’s samurai, but they’ll never accept him as a true samurai. His master is murdered by Mizuki (Rinko Kikichu) the witch and Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), but when Kai tries to warn the samurai’s leader, Kuranosuke Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), of the witch’s presence his claim is dismissed. When he realizes his mistake, Oishi asks Kai to join him and the rest of his team of “ronin” for revenge.
They all go on a dangerous journey together that is structured like a videogame: go here, then there, and then over there to the boss level. The clunky set up, which is front-loaded with exposition, sets up a world and plan full of danger, a risk that is never truly capitalized on. Their journey mostly goes according to plan, with a few mishaps. Some of the men die, but none of them do we actually get to know.
At the very least 47 Ronin should be a gorgeous movie with its elaborate sets and costumes, but it’s far from it. Rinsch displayed a real knack for visual storytelling in his commercial work and in his excellent short film, The Gift, but the same cannot be said for 47 Ronin where instead the film’s style is surprisingly pedestrian. The camerawork is claustrophobic with too many close-ups, fast cutting, and dim 3D, and stylistically the movie fails to set itself apart from most blockbusters. There is one exception though.
When Kai’s master is poisoned by Mizuki it’s a wonderfully strange sequence. Miziku sneaks into his room as her striking green robe slowly flies above the master, before she reappears in a spider position and unleashes an actual spider. It’s a long shot that shows Rinsch loosen up with the supernatural elements. The same goes for a scene where Kai has to revisit a dark temple to retrieve swords for the other 46 ronin, and it’s a contained and atmospheric set piece that puts the grand finale to shame.
At first, Kai’s presence is glaringly redundant. There are scenes where Kai seems to just be hanging around. He’s an outsider in this story, but he’s also an outsider in his own movie. The second act integrates Kai and Reeves in key ways, but by the end, his journey and love story is even more disrespectful to the real 47 ronin than the addition of fantastical elements. Kai’s presence reads as, “Well, your story isn’t interesting enough, so let’s throw in this love story that, thematically and structurally, isn’t what your story is about.” That would be acceptable if Kai was at least somewhat interesting.
Kai’s big end battle gives him nothing to prove. He’s a hero who’s super from the start, but in most cases that’s not a compelling story to watch unfold, especially when there are characters like Oishi whose journey is far more dramatic since he’s filled with guilt and must make personal sacrifices to avenge his master. Oishi is the lead of this story, but he’s pushed aside for Kai for dubious reasons.
Scenes that could have served to make Kai more interesting instead becomes abbreviations. Not only could you show Kai struggling with something, but we also could have gotten a world we haven’t seen. A great deal of time and care was put into those Dutch Island sets, so it’s a shame that the film doesn’t take the time to highlight them in any memorable way. We only get snippets of it.
There’s likely a reason for why that is. Scenes and conflicts end with such brevity in 47 Ronin it’s easy to assume there was plenty of footage left on the cutting room floor. At best the movie plays like an incomplete rough cut still in need of work, but at worst it’s a film that was already reworked to death.
The Upside: The camera loves Rinko Kikuchi; the spider sequence; doesn’t Hollywood-ize the 47 Ronin’s fate
The Downside: The opening and closing narration; not the epic it wants to be or should be; Kai’s battle with the dragon is over before you know it; the most condescending piece of visual exposition seen all year
On The Side: Originally the character of Kai wasn’t even going to be present for the final battle.