It makes perfect sense why Universal largely declined to press screen their $175 million budgeted and largely already written off 47 Ronin. While watching the film I was transported back to a similar feeling I had to a similar film around this same time of year eighteen years ago. It reminded me almost beat for beat how I felt watching the equally big budgeted and equally misguided Renny Harlin epic Cutthroat Island. Where that was a boring, slavishly faithful, and tongue in cheek deconstruction of the pirate genre, first time feature director Carl Rinsch’s film is a similarly plotted take on Japanese samurai legends. But whereas Harlin’s film at least had one or two great set pieces and at times veered into “so bad it’s good” territory, 47 Ronin is just dour, plodding, needlessly convoluted, repetitive, and boring. In short: it somehow manages to suck at the very art of sucking.
Very loosely based on a feudal era Japanese legend about a band of former soldiers looking to avenge the forced suicide of their master, Keanu Reeves stars as Kai, a half white-half Japanese-potentially raised by demons half breed whose life was spared as a child by the kindly leader (Min Tanaka). He’s more or less forced into slavery and is looked down upon by troop leader Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his even harder headed son (Masayoshi Haneda), and he has eyes for the leader’s daughter (Ko Shibasaki). An evil usurper (Tadanobu Asano) to the throne uses witchcraft to rig a tournament, leading Kai to a botched attempt at helping preserve the kingdom. The shogun tells the leader to commit seppuku, Kai is beaten and banished, and all the former leader’s troops become the disgraced titular wanderers. Wanting revenge, Ôishi turns to Kai for help in leading a potential revolt and stopping the spread of evil across Japan.
Rinsch – who was allegedly almost removed from the project several times by the studio – clearly envisioned the story as a high drama instead of an action adventure, but there’s clearly an identity crisis at work here. The screenplay is very much the work of two completely different scribes whose styles mix like oil and water: Chris Morgan (writer of Wanted and every Fast & Furious film since Tokyo Drift) and Hossein Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove, The Four Feathers). Rinsch seems a lot more comfortable with Amini’s work since there’s rarely any humour to the material outside of the token fat guy comedic relief. The villain and his witchy henchwoman (Academy Award nominee Rinko Kikuchi, in the film’s best performance, vamping it to the heavens) are definitely one of Morgan’s constructs because of how cartoonishly goofy they come across, but the rest of the characters don’t come close to matching them. The conflict feels trucked in from a completely different and vastly more fun loving production, and despite the story having a lot of fantastical elements, Rinsch seems at a loss with regard to making any of them feel like anything beyond cursory additions.
There have also clearly been a lot of reshoots and massive slashes made in the editing room. The film has only three settings: boredom, chaos, and needlessly repetitive explanations that insult the audience by hammering the same two or three points home every few minutes. There’s a massive problem with any two hour film that takes a full 70 minutes just to end the first act. The set up takes so long that no amount of action or drama to follow can compensate for a story that takes too long to get to the point and then races headlong to the finish line. Even the film’s climactic action sequences are resolved way too easily before leading to an ending that drones on and on once everything is resolved that is literally four scenes back to back that say the exact same thing as the scene that preceded it. It’s not just the sign of a troubled production; it’s a sign of something that was inherently out of control. It’s like Rinsch or whoever had to cut the film (the credits say it was Craig Wood – editor of all of Gore Verbinski’s out of control epics, which makes perfect sense, but there still had to be others involved here) never wanted to admit that they had a simple movie, so instead of finding ways to beef it up thematically or on a story level, they just resorted to repetition and drudgery.
But for what it’s worth, Reeves is fine (above his usual average, actually) and the film certainly looks good (just not in pointless 3D). There are even moments where a better film tries to emerge, but something always stops it from actually happening, be it a truncated sequence or an undercooked subplot. Considering how terribly it performed earlier this month when it debuted in Japan where the story should have been a bigger deal than here, 47 Ronin was probably already doomed. I could keep beating up on it (and God knows I want to), but with it being the holidays and all I would rather just ease back into my time off than thinking about this film any more than I already have.