47 Ronin (2013)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada
When I first saw a trailer for 47 Ronin, I can't say I was super-excited to see the film. It seemed to me like a movie to see in a matinee rather than pay full price. Ultimately I didn't see it in a theatre at all. After having seen it, I now realize that I was completely misled by the trailers.
What the trailers led me to believe I would be seeing was a film in which Keanu Reeves plays a "chosen one" who leads the titular 47 ronin in an epic battle to save feudal Japan from demoniic forces. But that is not what happens in the film
SPOILER ALERT: For the remainder of this review I will be discussing the film's plot. If you haven't seen this film and you want to see it without spoilers, please stop reading now.
This film is not really about Keanu Reeves' character, Kai the half-breed. It starts out making you think that's what it's about, and the trailers certainly make Kai appear to be the hero, but he's not. The film begins by showing you Kai's life, but it gives you no opportunity to really get to know him. You feel sympathy, but not empathy. Then about a third of the way into the film, the story stops following Kai and starts devoting most of its attention to the ex-samurai Oishi (Hiiroyuki Sanada, Helix, Onmyoji).
Kai and Oishi then join forces to become the film's heroes. They are not trying to save their world from demons, although there are some otherworldly forces at work. Their lord was killed by the lord of a neighboring province, who is about to marry the dead lord's daughter. Kai, Oishi and the other ronin want to rescue the girl and take revenge. The revenge part of the tale is familiar territory for anyone who has seen some Japanese samurai flicks. Here it's been populated with some supernatural elements and the somewhat forced inclusion of Reeves.
After Kai and Oishi decide to go and save the girl, there are a more supernatural scenes, including a sudden infodump about Kai's past that seems rather out of place. Then they gather the rest of their lord's former samurai, now all declared ronin by decree of the shogun, and go to storm the evil lord's castle in a fairly exciting series of fight scenes. Kai gets to fight the witch who has been carrying out most of the evil lord's misdeeds, so he can personally save the girl, with whom he's naturally in love. Sadly that love story is very poorly developed and it's hard to take it seriously. But someone working on this film must have seen a few samurai movies, because it suddenly swerves back to a more familiar style for this type of film by having a tragic conclusion. The shogun does not waive punishment for the ronins' transgressions. Their reward isn't happily ever after, it's to be allowed to honorably commit seppuku instead of being hanged as common criminals.
The first flaw I saw immediately was some bad scriptwriting. The screenwriters needed to learn an adage that many fiction writers have heard over and over: Show, don't tell. The film starts out with a lengthy voiceover telling us about Kai's past. It would have been a much better film if the filmmaker's had filmed that infodump as scenes instead. It would have integrated Kai into the story better and perhaps made him a character you could empathize with. Later on in the film when one of the ronin is mortally wounded in an ambush and before he dies he apologizes to Kai for having throne stones at him when they were younger. If we had seen a brief scene of that character as a child throwing stones at the younger Kai, we would have felt something when the character died, and we would have perhaps been moved by Kai's response to the man's apology.
The second major disappointment comes after Lord Asano dies and Oishi and the other samurai are declared ronin. Oishi is thrown in a dungeon. Then we see a title: "One year later." We learn through later exposition that while Oishi was languishing in prison supposedly having his spirit broken, Kai has been sold into slavery to the Europeans and has been used in a sort of gladiatorial sport that has turned him into a mindless killing machine. Why couldn't we see any of that onscreen? A few minutes of Oishi in prison, suffering and trying to maintain his dignity, a few minutes of Kai being forced to fight for his life. That's all we needed. I would have much preferred that to scenes of the villain Lord Kira and his witch posturing together. It would also have been good to see what motivation the witch had for helping Kira steal Lord Asano's territory. But Kira and the witch were presented as villains who were villains only because the film declared them so.
This article gives some possible explanation as to why the film turned out such an awkward mish-mash. Sadly someone involved apparently thought that American audiences wouldn't know anything about samurai and wouldn't go to see a movie that didn't have a recognizable American actor in it. I don't think Keanu Reeves is as terrible an actor as some people do, and I don't think he ruined this film. He just wasn't given enough to do, and the movie couldn't decide if he was the hero or if the ronin were.
Despite the flaws I described above, the film isn't completely without merit. The magical effects are quite appealing. Hiroyuki Sanada is excellent at Oishi. Keanu has a couple of good moments throughout the film. The costumes, while not historically accurate, are quite lovely, especially all the armor. Even while I was complaining about the narrative awkwardness, I kept feeling there was a kernel of a better movie trying to escape. It's too bad that studio interference prevented that kernel from sprouting and growing.