47 Ronin is a series of unfortunate events, none of which needed to happen. And that is itself unfortunate because it’s not like we’re swimming in samurai films over here. As a Hollywood-sponsored theme, samurai routinely gets its ass kicked by Jason Statham-plus-gun, The Rock-plus-gun, Tyler Perry-plus-wig and Rachel McAdams-plus-time-travel-wedding. So when we do get one, why can’t it be one that feels like a functioning piece of adventure cinema instead of some guy’s video-game-looking spank fantasy Dragon-Con?
I won’t blame Keanu Reeves. It would be too easy and probably wrong.
Based on the legend of a 19th century group of warriors, 47 Ronin situates itself in a world of monsters, giants and witches (including MVP Rinko Kikuchi as a shape-shifting sorceress-wolf-dragon whose hair is sometimes chopsticks). It orbits elliptically around Kai (Keanu Reeves) a “half-breed” outcast (this phrase is uttered so many times you’ll think Candyman and Beetlejuice are going to magically appear just because they think someone’s trying to summon them) who teams up with Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the leader of 47 ronin. They want revenge on the evil ruler who killed their master and banished them. Simple. Yet, somehow, someone decided it wasn’t simple enough. The audience, apparently, was in need of hand-holding.
That means that when the word “ronin” appears in the script, the powers that be have determined that it needs to be followed by the explanatory dependent clause “master-less samurai.” Well, yes, of course it’s a master-less samurai. I’m voluntarily watching a film called 47 Ronin, aren’t I? And there was already a Robert DeNiro action film a while back titled, simply, Ronin. So while it may not be as ubiquitous in daily conversation as, say, croissant it seems to me that the audience attending this film might not simply be wandering into a theater wondering what that nonsense word in the title is all about, further needing it explained so they can finally stop wondering when the Smurfs are going to show up.
And another thing, since I’ve now decided to abandon the review format and just rant – is there anything better and weirder and uselesser than witnessing Japanese actors -- for whom English is a second, somewhat clunky language -- forced to speak random Japanese words to one another in an otherwise English-language film and then required to define that word? When a samurai is compelled to commit ritual suicide and the master says, “Seppuku, death by one’s own hand,” by way of instruction, there is no other recourse for the audience than to shout back at the screen, “THAT GUY IS JAPANESE, TOO, DUMMY. HE KNOWS THE WORD.” Following this movie’s linguistic illogic to the end the title becomes much too short. It should rightly be called 47 Ronin: A Word That Means A Samurai Without A Master And, In Case You Were Also Wondering What Samurai Means, It's Another Japanese Word To Describe A Warrior With A Sword Held To A Strict Code Of Honor Under The Leadership Of A Master.
Reeves is incidental here (why didn’t the film just make him speak Japanese and make life easier for everyone else in the cast?), the action is dull, the digital backdrops are attractive but flat, the film’s sense of purpose carries no weight or gravity – and when you’re going to sacrifice everything for a principle it would help if you could make the audience give a single damn about it – and Rinko Kikuchi doesn’t turn into enough monsters or destroy enough people. Next time, make the movie be about her plight as a brutal witch in a land of jerks who all comfortably speak Japanese and who are always trying to do the boring honorable thing. Then let her eat them.