47 Ronin review: they’re not having much fun storming the castle

47 Ronin yellow light

A handsome movie in many ways, but it feels like an unpolished first draft, one that can’t quite decide how fantastical it wants to be.
I’m “biast” (pro): like Keanu Reeves more than most

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

This umpteenth iteration of the Japanese legend of the 47 ronin, or masterless samurai warriors, has its fair share of problems, but not as many as you’ve heard, and not as many as the presence of poor Keanu Reeves — who has unfairly become a cinematic punchline — may have led you to believe. Stolid, stoic Reeves (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Street Kings) is well-cast as the half-Japanese, half-British Kai, whose status as an outcast in xenophobic 18th-century Japan means he has to keep his eyes down and his mouth shut, and the actor maintains a modest presence throughout, even as he takes on a heroic role as a warrior fighting to restore the honor of his cruelly slain benefactor, kindly Lord Asano (Min Tanaka).

Complaints about a traditional Japanese tale being whitewashed — half whitewashed? — by throwing a Westerner into the mix are worth discussing, although, alas, this is the best way to get mainstream Western audiences interested in a classic and widely influential story that is worth hearing. But Kai is not the hero of the film: that is most resolutely Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada: The Wolverine, Speed Racer), who reforms Asano’s samurai a year after their master’s death and leads them on a quest to destroy his murderer, evil Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano: Thor: The Dark World, Battleship), and save Asano’s daughter, Mika (Kô Shibasaki), from having to marry the toad. (There are subtle hints of The Princess Bride here, and also Hamlet and The Lord of the Rings, which speaks to the crosscultural universality of the story in the grand scale.)

How do we know Kai is not the hero? Simple Hollywood math: in the climactic final battle, Kai, number two to Ôishi, battle’s Kira’s number two, the witch Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi: Pacific Rim, The Brothers Bloom), leaving Ôishi to dispatch Kira himself. The ending of the journey of the 47 ronin has not been Hollywoodized, however… and thank goodness, for it is key to the archetypal importance of this story, why it continues to be told, and for its very Japaneseness.

Still, the script — by Chris Morgan (who wrote a bunch of Fast & Furious movies, including 5 and 6), Hossein Amini (Snow White and the Huntsman, Drive), and Walter Hamada — is stubbornly dour, and could do with a few flashes of humor amidst its relentless grimness; even a dark fairy tale, as this is, needs a few flashes of light. My big disappointment with the film is that it can’t quite decide how fantastical it wants to be. First-time director Carl Rinsch presents Mizuki’s witchiness in ways that are spooky and even beautiful — here she slinks as a white fox through a palace where she’s not supposed to be; here she is transformed into a dragon who slithers through the air in a way both horrifying and gorgeous. But her magic is either limited by something that is never explained to us, or the writers didn’t really know what to do with their concept of magic beyond some striking images.

This is a handsome movie in many ways, but it feels like an unpolished first draft, not the final film. I’d like to see that film.

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