Carl Rinsch’s 47 Ronin had a lot of things working against it even before its release: there was bad PR about its re-shoots, its release was pushed back multiple times and finally an unappealing trailer campaign had Universal accepting the movie as a financial failure even before it hit theatres.
But judge the film on merit and it isn’t that bad. Actually, it’s decent enough, even with its absurdly-crafted Hollywood spin on a much-loved Japanese tale of the samurai, honour and loyalty.
Remakes of the original Japanese film have been attempted many times in this cinematic age (research reveals six so far). The Hollywood spin has the tale set in a fantasy world with Hayao Miyazaki-like forest spirits, animals and a witch Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi) who works for the bad guy — Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) — who may use magic to take over Japan.
There is also a half-Caucasian, half-Japanese guy in the mix for American audiences. He is Kai (Keanu Reeves), an outcast to the natives and the samurai but the love interest of Mika (Kou Shibasaki), his benevolent lord’s daughter.
Things thankfully often return closer to the original story: the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the magistrate of the king, comes to a ritual celebration by two rival clans — one by Lord Kira and the other by the good-hearted Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) — held at Asano’s estate. Kira, wanting to take over Asano’s land, uses Mizuki to confuse Asano into attacking him and break the law of not attacking a defenseless guest (and worst still while a Shogun is in residence).
The punishment is Seppuku (a ritual suicide of honour) ordered by the Shogun. To save his clan Asano accepts, even though he and his head samurai Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) see through Kira’s trap.
After the Seppuku, the Shogun orders Mika to be wed to Kira after a year and the Samurai to be Ronin (masterless, wandering samurai stripped of their honour). They are also specifically told not to exact revenge against Kira. However, Oishi and his men make a vow to avenge their master’s unjust death. Oishi, unknown to the Shogun, is thrown in prison and nearly one year later, when freed, is aided by Kai whom Kira had sold off to slavery.
Directed by Carl Rinsch (his debut feature) and written by Chris Morgan (Fast & Furious 6) and Hossein Amini (Snow White and the Huntsman), the story’s fantasy elements do not gel with 47 Ronin. Nevertheless, it doesn’t sink it either. At times the movie just feels like it has a foot each in two boats that are gradually drifting away.
Thankfully, the cast is almost completely Japanese (unlike Memoirs of a Geisha). Reeves, as the grave, cowering hero has his appeal as the obligatory American character, but be in no doubt about Hiroyuki Sanada being the real hero of the story (and also the actor who steals the show effortlessly). The pacing and pathos of the original story narrowly saves the film. It is likable, but just by a notch.
Released by Universal, 47 Ronin is rated PG-13, for fantasy creatures and sword-slashing violence.