The jumping-off point for Carl Rinsch’s 47 Ronin is the 18th-century legend of the 47 samurai who, upon being left leaderless after their feudal lord was forced to commit seppuku as a result of attacking a corrupt Edo official, sacrificed themselves in the name of avenging their leader’s honor. This story has been retold many times by Japanese artists, most famously by Kenji Mizoguchi in his 1941 epic The 47 Ronin, and Rinsch’s film represents Hollywood’s attempt to bring this story to non-Japanese audiences. But the filmmakers seem to have decided that the only way Western audiences would be interested in it would be to jazz it up with supernatural elements such as shape-shifting witches and baroque monsters. While adaptations such as Mizoguchi’s placed an emphasis on the nuances of traditional bushido codes of honor upon which warriors based their behavior, this botched vision accepts their nobility at face value and sees the story merely as a springboard for high-flying action and CGI special effects.
Some of Rinsch’s inventions are viscerally exciting: a bald lizard-like creature who offers the ronin a challenge before they can acquire much-needed swords; a witch (Rinko Kikuchi) who transforms into such forms as a white fox and a dragon. And the fight sequences are reliably diverting, though the build-up to the final showdown as the ronin prepare to storm the premises of the evil Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) is the only one that approaches sublimity, given the more intensified sense of dramatic and emotional tension. But when it comes to elucidating the human dramas beneath the story, 47 Ronin fails spectacularly. As game as many of the members of the predominantly Japanese cast are, there’s only so much these skilled performers can do to bring their one-dimensional characters to life. Only Kikuchi, as the Lady Macbeth-like witch who helps set the main events into motion, seems to be having any fun, turning her stilted line readings into arias of delicious camp. Keanu Reeves, by comparison, seems stiffer than usual as the film’s ostensible romantic lead, even as he continues to move as gracefully as ever.
All of this is a shame, because the seeds of a conceptually daring project are present here: a mainstream Hollywood special-effects action extravaganza retelling a classic Japanese legend with a cast made up mostly of Japanese actors, many of them mainstays in the country’s contemporary cinema, and all of whom are allowed to occasionally take the spotlight away from its more widely known marquee star. 47 Ronin could have been a landmark of sorts in the advancement of Asian actors in the Hollywood mainstream beyond token and sidekick roles, but when the material they’re given is as third-rate and lifeless as this, such gestures toward progress can’t help but seem hollow at best.