By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Like its nearly four-dozen title characters, 47 Ronin flirts with disaster and disgrace early on, but ends up winning our respect and admiration.
This western take on a feudal tale out of Japanese folklore isn’t futile at all and doesn’t fall on its own sword.
But although not all the trendy supernatural elements fit naturally into the material, they end up serving the story and contributing to the winning of the ultimate battle.
47 Ronin is a fantasy action thriller, a fictional account of an actual group of masterless samurai warriors in 18th-century Japan (performances of their story in various media are referred to in Japan as Chushingura) out to avenge the murder of their master.
Keanu Reeves stars in the otherwise Japanese ensemble as Kai, an illegitimate half-British, half-Japanese former slave who joins the outcast ronin as they seek a restoration of honor and vengeance on the ruthless Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), who not only dishonored and killed their master but banished them and their kind from their homeland.
Orphan Kai has grown up in the palace of Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), where abounding rumors that he was sired by demons do not exactly help his reputation. He loves princess Mika (Ko Shibasaki), and she him, but because he’s a half-breed –- and perhaps worse — their love is impossible.
When Mika is whisked away by Lord Kira, who has designs on her, she must be rescued, which becomes the focus for Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) -– who, let’s face it, if there were justice in the universe, really would be the focal character, and undoubtedly is in Japan — the leader of the exiled samurai guardsmen who know that their challenging heroic actions will probably result in their collective death by way of seppuku (belly-slicing suicide).
Of course, Kai’s excellent swordsmanship just might help their cause and change their fate.
Debuting director Carl Rinsch, working from a screenplay by Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini based on a screen story by Morgan and Walter Hamada, focuses more on action than on character or drama, which is understandable, while lightly exploring themes of loyalty and tradition and honor.
But the unnecessarily solemn tone that is maintained seems a curious and maybe even childish choice, although Rinko Kikuchi (an Oscar nominee for best supporting actress in 2006’s Babel) livens things up a bit as a scenery-chewing, shape-shifting sorceress.
The Reeves character, trained in sorcery and survival, is an obvious invention for the film, which has such fantastical elements as — taking a Middle Earth page or two from the Lord of the Rings trilogy — witches and dragons and giants, oh my!
But at least Reeves’ penchant for martial arts, which was also on display in the recent Man of Tai Chi, is a comfortable and effective component.
There is extensive violence, as there must and should be, but this PG-13 thriller is virtually bloodless. And while it might make commercial sense for all the characters to speak stilted English (the director needed an interpreter to talk to many of his cast members), it carves away a level of authenticity but doesn’t do extensive damage to the film’s overall impact.
So we’ll avenge 2½ stars out of 4 for the handsome and colorful fantasy adventure, 47 Ronin, a movie about masterless samurai that’s short of masterful but long on dogged determination and derring-do.