“47 Ronin” soared into theaters on Christmas day, and has since been pummeled with criticism. The Samurai film, starring Keanu Reeves, offers a compelling tale based on the Japanese legend of the same name. While character development is limited, and the narrative isn’t particularly revolutionary, the story-telling more than compensates. Opting for a slower pace, “47 Ronin” may not please viewers searching for a high-octane action flick, but it’s an inspirational martial arts movie which incorporates dialogue and sets up plot, two severely lacking traits in recent films.
The film opens with a quick intro explaining the mysticism of Feudal Japan before cutting to an outcast boy, Kai (Reeves). It’s a History Channelesque voiceover with graphics, and pretty entertaining. Emerging from demon infested woods, a Samurai moves to kill Kai, but is stopped by Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). A few scenes then show Kai’s budding romance with Lord Asano’s daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki). While it’s evident the two pine for one another, rigid social hierarchy prevents more than wishful glances and hushed conversations. Referred to as the half-breed for much of the film, Kai serves as the humble, lowly peasant accepting physical and verbal assaults. He graciously saves a Samurai in the opening sequence and receives no credit.
Enter evil Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), with intentions to oust Asano and wed Mika. Rather than simply murder his adversary, he enlists the help of a witch, Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi). Kai attempts to warn Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), leader of the Samurai, and naturally his protestations are brushed hastily aside. Kira frames Asano for attempted assault, forcing the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) to sentence Asano to death by his own sword. According to Shogun Tsunayoshi this act will restore honor to the kingdom. Asano’s Samurai however are banished from the land and become Ronin, leaderless Samurai.
Though the Shogun forbids the Ronin to avenge the death of their master, Oishi embarks on a seemingly suicide mission. Rounding up the Ronin, he reveals his plans to slaughter Lord Kira in the name of their master. But first he enlists the aid of Kai. While characters are a tad one-dimensional, this isn’t necessarily a fault. The tale embodies a feudal spirit with a strict caste system. The Ronin begrudgingly accept help from Kai, despite actually requiring his fighting prowess and knowledge. Their attitude towards him remains rigid for the majority of the film, which seems more appropriate than a hasty change of opinion.
Additionally, relatively stagnant roles are brought to life through strong acting. Keanu perfectly fits the sullen, brooding hero mold, and acts the part of the chosen one admirably. Tadanobu Asano’s conniving Lord Kira evokes the spirit of Japanese tales with his slippery methods rather than straightforward plotting. His witch sidekick, Mizuki, steals the show with a legitimately creepy performance. Her facial expressions and exaggerated tones suggest a slew of ulterior motives, and turn ordinary phrases into sinister sayings.
The beauty of “47 Ronin” is the compelling narrative. A glance at the trailer may be misleading. While there are some exhilarating fights, such scenes are spaced out. There’s substantial dialogue which sets up the plot and lays out the story. And though the trailer concentrates on Keanu, he receives far less screen time than expected. Rather, the film approaches the martial arts genre as primarily a love story and drama, garnished by action. Much of the film focuses on social stratification, political interests, and the logistics of killing Kira. The latter aspect is unique in films, as most movies glaze over the details and simply show the result. Rounding up the Ronin and obtaining weapons allow for a deeper backstory, and set up one of the most mind-blowing stealth attacks in a film to date. The infiltration of Kira’s wedding is well-orchestrated and stunning, and feels as if taken from a Shakespeare play.
Amidst the enthralling plot, lush fantasy setting, and riveting martial arts sequences lie black and white characters and a slightly trite story. Most viewers can guess the general happenings: Lord Asano is framed, the Samurai are ousted, the Ronin take revenge. Relatively flat performances can at times be off-putting. Don’t expect dynamic characters. However, the rigidity of the roles adds realism to the Feudal setting, highlighting social stratification. The Ronin remain antagonistic towards Kai for a surprisingly lengthy period. Further compensating for the staleness are themes of honor. The ending is radically different than traditional underdog stories, and you’ll likely leave the theater startled, even a tad frustrated.
However, you’ll appreciate a flick where you can’t predict the entire plot after the first five minutes. “47 Ronin,” despite expectable moments, manages just this. Playing out like a martial arts version of the Lord of the Rings, it’s a brilliant Samurai flick with solid acting, believable setting, and slick, inventive action. The few faults are more a product of capturing the dichotomy of honor rather than poor acting. If you aren’t keen on martial arts movies, this probably isn’t your glass of Sake, but the slower pace and fascinating tale loosely based on historical events makes this a must see, and stimulating holiday release.