I don't hate 47 Ronin, though I suppose I should. Considering its status as a sort of Gaijin's First Samurai Story, I'm not sure what else we could expect. It recounts a famous Japanese legend about a band of masterless warriors who avenge the death of their lord, a suitably exciting subject that doesn't need any embellishment to hold our attention. Naturally, Hollywood has to muck with it in ways that make absolutely no sense at all. Sure throw in some CG monsters; kids love those! Pirates? Doing gangbusters for Disney, so let's include them as well! And because brown-skinned characters make middle America squirm, we'll need to temper their presence with the existence of a bankable (read: lily white) star who may or may not be appropriate for the material. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, as you may have guessed, though it doesn't create outrage so much as head-scratching puzzlement. "You thought this was a good idea, movie? Really? Why, exactly? And how the hell did all this cost upwards of $200 million?" Questions like these bubble to the surface whenever 47 Ronin departs from its time-honored premise. The changes seem to wander in from another movie, kick this one around like a kitten with a ball of string, and then meander off again when they remember the unfinished business they cavalierly left behind.
Chief among these is star Keanu Reeves, who must have smelled trouble early on and ceased emotional engagement before the ensuing madness got going in earnest. He plays a mysterious half-breed beholden to the doomed lord: possibly a demon, possibly a sorcerer, possibly Ted Theodore Logan inexplicably separated from the phone booth. When it all goes to pot, he joins with the other samurai to enact a bloody, horrible revenge. In this case, that means getting by a scheming shapeshifter (Rinko Kikuchi), a mystic temple full of owl-monks and the chief villain’s seven-foot-high minion, as well as the more classical impregnable fortress.
To its credit, the film maintains at least the spirit of the original story, beloved in Japan for its embodiment of the warrior’s code of bushido even unto death. You get plenty of that here, thanks in part to a strong performance from Hiroyuki Sanada as the ronin leader Oishi. What boggles is all the extraneous stuff, starting with Reeves’ ostensible hero and his doomed romance with his lord’s daughter (Ko Shibasaki). To that, add the various CG monsters, which arrive peripherally and don’t add much when they do. They’re not the most convincing I’ve seen either, but that’s almost beside the point. They could be the greatest images in cinematic history and they would still feel horrendously out of place. It’s like including a unicorn for Moses to ride during the story of Exodus. The awesomeness of the unicorn isn’t the issue.
The same can be said of Reeves, who stuck with this project for a long time and seems to spend his onscreen time trying to figure out why the heck he’s here. His personality is so thinly sketched and his performance so blank that he can’t possibly justify the screen time devoted to him. That leads to a lot of dead space, with the film’s central purpose set aside in favor of Reeves’ superfluous subplots.
Why is all that dead weight here? Presumably to make the studio happy since it allows them to market it according to a formula they understand. The characters on the poster make for ample evidence. They're peripheral to the action, yet they hold much more promise than any of the main figures onscreen. Pity they're only in the film for a tiny fragment of time, more walking scenery than viable characters. You know that cool guy with the skull tattoo on his face? Bet you want to see what kind of awesome thing he’s going to do. Turns out, he stands there for about 45 seconds and then vanish, never to be seen again. The marketing department picked up on his potential, at least, which is more than the director could do; unfortunately, it results in the most egregious case of false advertising since the gunships in Reign of Fire refused to engage a single dragon.
Such schizophrenic details speak to the movie’s long and tortured production history, as well as its creators’ lack of confidence in the story they presumably wanted to tell. It does fine as long as it sticks to its intended purpose. But the countless corporate memos that went into its development gave it a death by a thousand paper cuts, resulting in a bizarre, disjointed final product that just can’t decide what it wants to be. The legend deserves better, especially if you’re trying to deliver it to Western audiences for the first time. This effort just can’t get there, no matter how hard it tries.