47 Ronin takes place in a fantasy version of 18th-century Japan located, per the movie’s opening zoom, somewhere on the Universal Studios logo. The story comes from Japanese history that has grown into a national legend. Here it receives the ultimate tribute: conversion into a big-studio spectacular. There’s not a lot that’s impressive about 47 Ronin as an experience, but the seriousness with which it takes the central legend is, at least, unexpected for a big, would-be tentpole movie.
In this version, the nefarious Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) conspires with a witch (Rinko Kikuchi) to kill a master of many samurai, leaving them banished as ronin. But Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and the mysterious “half-breed” Kai (Keanu Reeves) decide to fight their way back to the kingdom and exact honorable revenge upon Lord Kira, who wants to marry Mika (Ko Shibasaki), daughter of the master and love interest for Kai. Mika grew up with Kai and sympathizes with his desire to belong with the other samurai; she’s also well-versed in the art of erotic-wound tending, a vital skill in movies about grim, honorable warriors.
There is a lot of honor bandied about in this movie, and if you thought a fellowship of thirteen was hard to keep track of, just imagine three and a half fellowships. But while the movie technically includes 47 ronin because that’s the number of the original legend, story-wise it only really concerns approximately two ronin, possibly because Oishi and Kai have more than enough unsmiling honor to go around. Everyone in the movie speaks in the same severe monotone; though Reeves is the only white dude in the cast, he fits right in. In fact, as much as the movie probably reflects cultural differences between American fantasy and Japanese fantasy, it also seems to share, in tone and torpor, the recessive poker face of non-vintage Reeves.
He looks great for his age, but isn’t Keanu Reeves a little old to be doing this? And by “this” I mean reviving his fist-and-sword training from the Matrix trilogy, and also playing opposite Shibasaki, who plays his contemporary despite their 20-year age difference. Reeves can be used very well in the right environment, but this leans too hard into the mystical warrior-poet thing; he should probably steer clear of movies where everyone constantly reminds each other that they are samurai, or ronin, or a ghost (metaphorical, which in a fantasy movie is sort of confusing), or a half-breed.
Kinkuchi is the only actor who appears to have any fun at all, swanning around in her witchy glory, aided by tentacle-like hair and her whirling robes, perhaps the most expressive outerwear in a second-tier special effects picture since Spawn’s cape. She also turns into an actual dragon lady, a neat special effect if an unfortunately boilerplate metaphor for the kinds of roles afforded Asian actresses in Hollywood.
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies have a similar mix of silliness and tedium, but 47 Ronin is like a Hobbit-appreciation course: unlike Jackson’s stubborn sense of grandiosity, this quest has no real sense of obstacle or struggle, right down to easily won individual battles and fights. The movie’s violence is senseless, in that it’s often hard to see what’s going on — to engage any of your senses with the onscreen action. Even before the unnecessary layer of 3D, the imagery has the dim texture of digital video. One of the screenwriters, Hossein Amini, dabbled in solemn fantasy with Snow White and the Huntsman, while the director, Carl Rinsch, has worked in commercials. 47 Ronin looks like a chintzy one — a respectful but inert advertisement for intercultural cooperation.