“47 Ronin” isn’t a bad movie so much as it is a huge bag full of fumbles and missed opportunities.
When a movie is delayed from release for more than a year, that’s never a good omen. When it’s a film delayed for more than a year from a director who’s making his first stab at feature directing with an epic tale based on a Japanese historical tale, that’s an even worse sign. Rumors had swirled for months that director Carl Rinsch (who, the scuttlebutt suggests, only got the gig because he was dating Ridley Scott’s daughter and nepotism is a heck of a drug) had been locked out of the editing room and effectively kicked off the picture. All of this spelled nothing but doom for a film that languished in development limbo for years.
All of that to say, I went into “47 Ronin” with not so much lowered expectations as no expectations at all. I had no investment or excitement for the project, nor would I have been saddened had it never made it to screens at all. So maybe that’s why I don’t consider this the complete disaster that some do. Or maybe it’s because there are several shining moments where the film’s heart is very much in the right place, but you can practically see the gears of studio meddling and directorial inexperience turning at full speed, hampering what is admittedly a very ambitious film.
For those unfamiliar, the true story tells the tale of a group of masterless samurai (called ronin, in Japan). Their lord, Asano, was forced to commit ritual suicide after he was found guilty of assaulting a court official named Kira. The ronin then later band back together to take vengeance on Lord Asano as they considered their master falsely accused. This is where the similarities between history and Rinsch’s film end.
After some introductory narration and a prologue detailing the origin of halfbreed samurai servant Kai (Keanu Reeves), we open with a hunt for a behemoth beast terrorizing a nearby forest. Sporting antlers like tree branches and no less than six eyes, we’re informed rather bluntly that this will not tread in reality. This is a swords and sorcery film, straight up, and while I think a straight-laced, historically accurate film would have been more compelling in the long run, I like the bold choice to make this a fantasy tale. There are times when Rinsch swings for the fences and tries oh so hard to build this world. It’s one where ronin undertake a quest into a haunted forest to procure magic swords from the forest’s resident demons and treat the whole affair as somewhat expected. There are some interesting stabs at providing texture and broadening the scope, like when lead ronin Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) goes looking for Kai at a ship’s port at the Dutch Islands. It’s grimy and seedy and feels like it could have added some interesting personality to the film but ultimately only serves a blip in the grand scheme of it all.
And that’s really where the film’s faults lie. It lacks focus when this should have been focused on one or two ronin bringing their comrades back together for some good old fashioned vengeance. Or had the admittedly unnecessary character of Kai been declared essential, at least keep him at the forefront. Instead, Reeves keeps getting jerked around, one minute he seems the hero of the tale, the next he’s forced into the background. All of that might have been forgiven at least somewhat had the tone of the film not wildly shifted, but it becomes oh so clear just how nervous the film got at the handling of some of the fantastical elements and thusly they end up feeling out of place and forced rather than an organic part of the world into which we’ve been thrust.
It’s not without its merits, though. The aforementioned tengu forest is without question the film’s best stretch and shows how alive and interesting this thing could have been with even slightly less turmoil behind the scenes. Likewise, the final assault on Kira’s castle is exciting and well-staged and even as simple as it is overall, I have to admit getting a real kick out of watching Kai take on a giant CGI dragon with his magic samurai sword. I just wish more of the film had been able to draw out that level of fun and spirit.
This was perhaps always going to be a rough film, even without blatant studio meddling. Rinsch has a great visual sense, but he’s still far too inexperienced to handle a project this massive. This wasn’t a disaster, and I might even enjoy switching back to it on occasion once it hits HBO, but this is in no way essential viewing for the theater.