Directed by: Carl Rinsch
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, Jin Akanishi, Rinko Kikuchi, Min Tanaka
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, and thematic elements
If you saw the trailers for “47 Ronin,” the Keanu Reeves vehicle helmed by Carl Rinsch (doing his first feature-length film!), you could be forgiven for assuming the flick was another white-savior movie, where all the non-whites need is an American to save them. The trailers make this film look awful.
It is not only not awful, it’s actually a fun ride! So, take your preconceptions and toss ’em out the window. This is not the film the trailers make it out to be.
The tale of the 47 Ronin is essentially the national legend of Japan, a story about honor, loyalty, and the code of the samurai. The protagonist is Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), head of the titular warriors, who seek out vengeance against the man who forced their lord to commit suicide. Rinsch has taken the original tale and dipped it in fantasy, the way medieval Europe is often used as a backdrop for fairy tales about magic, dragons, and knights.
Another addition is the character of Kai (Reeves), a mysterious half-European servant reviled by almost everyone. You might expect him to be the audience’s self-insert character, the white (well, half-white) man the sad Japanese guys need to save the day — but he’s not. He’s passionately loyal to the Asano household, and content to be constantly put in his place by all the people who outrank him (which is basically everybody). Kai is a perfect character for Reeves’ neutral acting style, and everyone else delivers solid performances.
As you might expect, the film is packed with CGI effects. The villainous Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) employs a witch who can change shape, manifest magical creatures, and even use locks of her hair as tentacles. It’s also packed wall-to-wall with fight scenes, both training sequences and full-on battles. Both are used well, and don’t give the impression of padding. They’re there because they’re awesome and serve the story, and add to the story rather than detracting from it.
The plot is follows the original legend pretty closely. There’s a bit of a star-crossed-lovers romance between Kai and the daughter of Lord Asano, but that doesn’t end as stereotypically as you might expect. There’s also a bit of a mystery about Kai’s background, but otherwise there aren’t a lot of subplots cluttering things up, which helps the movie stay focused on the central storyline.
American viewers not familiar with feudal Japanese culture may find the ending — which is loyal to the original story — a bit down-beat and frustrating. To a fan of Japanese film and television, however, it will feel very familiar. This is not “The Last Samurai,” “Avatar,” or “The Last Airbender.” No white saviors here, just Japanese samurai determined to see justice done for their master.
It’s likely that Reeves’ name on the marquee will doom this movie to a short theatrical run, so if you like Japanese legends, big blockbuster-style swordfights and special effects, and don’t mind CGI, go see it pronto. “47 Ronin” is not going to be around long, and it’s definitely worth seeing on the big screen for its target audience.