In eighteenth century Japan, a young half-Japanese half-English boy called Kai is taken in by Lord Asano. Suspected as an outsider, Kai grows up and falls in love with Asano's daughter Mika. The problem is that the evil Lord Kira also wants Mika, and uses a Witch to manipulate Asano into attacking him and therefore forfeiting his life. Mika must now marry Kira, unless Lord Asano's now leaderless Samurai, joined by Kai, and armed with magical swords, defy their Shogun's orders and take revenge on Kira.
With the exception of the character of Kai, and the supernatural aspects, this is the traditional Japanese story of the 47 Ronin which has inspired many a film, book, opera, print and TV show. In this latest big budget Hollywood outing, it is made accessible for a Western audience with the inclusion of the outsider character, Kai. Sadly, this late inclusion is obviously unnecessary. The Kai character doesn't really add to the story - the on-screen love story doesn't convince - and the charismatic gravitational pull of the film always seems to be toward Oishi, the chief Ronin. It is then, Hiroyuki Sanada's film and not Keanu Reeves'. The emotional search for justice, the deep trauma, the nobility in going outside of the Samurai code and the horrible price paid - that is all the narrative arc of Oishi not Reeves, and maybe reflect not just his better lines, but also his greater acting ability. I think there is something in the screenwriters actually acknowledging this in a key final scene where it is Oishi and not Kai who holds up a key totem.
I heard about 47 RONIN long before I saw it. It felt like The Hollywood Reporter had been running articles on it for literally years, calling it a troubled production in the same breath as JOHN CARTER and WORLD WAR Z. The director, Carl Rinsch, had never directed a feature length film before, let alone one budgeted at $170m. The movie was originally meant to come out in 2012 and then got bumped into 2013, and then it got moved back from Feb 13 to Christmas. And it turned out Universal Pictures were writing down the losses over a year before it even hit movie screens. Some blamed the director. Carl Rinsch hadn't directed a feature film before and, among other things, the entire final battle sequence had to be reshot.
But I don't think the movie is an utter failure. In fact I rather enjoyed it. You just have to cruise past the Keanu scenes and just watch it for Oishi/Sanada, the lavish costumes and beautiful sets. I don't think the movie needed the supernatural element, but you can't help but find the Witch's transformations elegant. And who cares if the final battle had to be reshot? It's amazing! All of which adds up to say that inside this over-long and over-altered film is a leaner more faithful Japanese film waiting to get out. Someone just needs to take to it with FinalCut Pro.
47 RONIN is on global release. It has a running time of 118 minutes and is rated PG-13.