Distributed By: Universal Pictures
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
I am not a fan of the actor Keanu Reeves, so when previews for the action film 47 Ronin began appearing in theaters, they drew little interest from me. The previews themselves looked interesting, but knowing that the star was Reeves, I was definitely not going to waste good money on watching the film in theaters. But when a friend of mine raved about the film and, knowing my taste in movies, offered to lend me his DVD copy, I decided I would put my feelings about the lead actor aside and check it out.
47 Ronin is a fictional account of the real group of 18th Century masterless Samurai who avenged the death of their lord. As the story begins, we learn of the benevolent Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), ruler of Ako, who takes in an abandoned youngster named Kai. Half British and half Japanese, Kai was found abandoned in the forest. Though accepted into Lord Asano's household and loved by Asano's own daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki), Kai (played by Keanu Reeves as an adult) is not accepted by the Samurai of Ako due to his mixed ancestry. He lives as an outcast among the Samurai and eventually becomes their tracker during hunts.
During one such hunt, Kai observes something strange in the forest - a mysterious white wolf with different colored eyes - but with much to do before the arrival of Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), Kai is forced to put this observation aside. Later, he notes a woman with the same ocular atributes among the Shogun's concubines and realizes that there is a witch in their midst. Sorceress Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi) works for Ako's rival Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and has been assigned to help him overthrow Asano at all costs, making Ako his for the taking.
Mizuki bewtiches Asano, causing him to attack an unarmed Lord Kira in his sleep. Shogun Tsunayoshi decides to allow the once honorable Lord Asano to die of his own hand, committing the act of seppuku. He forbids Ako's Samurai, now considered Ronin to exact vengeance for Asano's death. The Shogun also deems that, after a period of one year of mourning, the Lord Asano's daughter, Mika, will marry Lord Kira, thus preventing any further rivalries amongst the clans. Lord Asano's counselor, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), is thrown in a pit by Lord Kira's men in an effort to quell any resistance and break the spirit of the once proud Samurai of Ako. Kai is sold into slavery, ensuring that he will never be a rival for Mika's heart.
One year later, Oishi is released. Remembering that Kai once warned him of the witch who caused his master's downfall, Oishi seeks to free him from slavery. Together, Oishi and Kai will lead the Ronin of Ako back to their home to avenge the death of their master due to the treachery of Lord Kira. But, without weapons and numbers, how will they fare against the army of Lord Kira and the sorcery of his witch, Mizuki?
As I understand it, 47 Ronin did not do well in the box office. Actually, it was considered to be a big box office flop. I believe I know the reason - Keanu Reeves. Quite honestly, I loved the storyline of the film, the mystical and fantastical quality of the tale of 47 Ronin. I enjoyed the beauty of the scenery and the careful attention paid towards replicating the style and culture of the 18th Century Japanese and their samurai. Even the more fantasy-driven moments of the film, featuring fantastical creatures and sorcery are in line with the Japanese mythology of the time.
But there is definitely something wrong when you feel more closely tied to the supporting actor in the film than the main actor. There is something definitely wrong when what happens to Oishi is more important to the viewer than what happens to Kai. I have always said that Keanu Reeves is an actor who lacks emotional depth. He delivers his lines without passion and is therefore usually less than believable in the roles that he portrays. He hasn't changed over the years and I believe that casting him in the role of Kai was a big mistake.
This is a man who is supposed to be passionately in love with the daughter of the Lord of Ako. It is a love that can never be realized due to their stations in life. And yet, there is no real emotion in Reeves deliveries of his various lines to his love. In fact, the teen version of Kai (Daniel Barber) is much more suited for the role, delivering his lines to a teenage Mika (Aria Maekawa) with greater sincerity than Keanu Reeves can ever seem to muster.
The fact that the audience can never really connect with the character of Kai, thanks to the wooden acting of Keanu Reeves, is the movie's downfall. And that's a shame, because, anyone else in this role could have made the movie much more believable. After all, the story was excellent, the casting (with exception of Reeves) was perfect, the special effects were in keeping with the more mythological parts of the storyline (although I couldn't help noticing that some of the more interesting effects resembled those used in Mortal Kombat, particularly one of the fighters who resembled a souped-up Goro), the attention to detail was exquisite. But the connection to the main character, something so essential to the success of a film, was completely lost thanks to the actor portraying the role.
If you enjoy classic Japanese samurai stories with fantasy elements and can ignore Keanu Reeves leaden line delivery, 47 Ronin is a terrific fantasy action film worthy of your tastes. My friend was right - I did like this film. I would have liked it more with someone else in the role of Kai, but I can appreciate the rest of the film all the same. I can't blame those, myself included, who didn't want to waste hard-earned cash on the theatrical debut of 47 Ronin, but I would suggest checking it out now in downloadable or DVD format. Action lovers will be incredibly satisfied and fans of Japanese folklore will also find enjoyment in the film.