Nobody was expecting the new 47 Ronin movie to be good — its long delays and problems have become legend — but it's bad in a particularly depressing way. This is a film that's not only boring and campy, but also kind of nonsensical, turning a classic story of revenge and loyalty into a stew of crap.
The actual story of the 47 Ronin is fairly simple, at least in its basic outlines: a minor lord, Asano, gets provoked into drawing his weapon and striking his teacher, a powerful official named Kira. Asano was ordered to kill himself by ritual seppuku, and his followers were forbidden to take revenge. But they decided to take revenge anyway, spending two years dispersing and plotting before carrying out a stealthy assault and assassinating Kira. For their bravery and loyalty, they were allowed an honorable death by ritual suicide, instead of being hanged like common criminals.
The new movie preserves the bones of this storyline — except that it has to make room for two elements that do not belong in this film at all:
1) Keanu Reeves, playing a random foundling who's an outcast because of his "half-breed" heritage and because he was raised by demons who look sort of like Buddhist Voldemorts. (I am so not kidding about that.)
2) A whole fantasy storyline in which Kira is in league with an evil shapeshifting Sexy Witch, who wants to help him take over Japan.
Perhaps because of those two elements being shoehorned into the film, nothing in this movie entirely makes sense. As in, things just sort of seem to be happening, because the plot has to keep steamrolling forward, but the notion that this is a society with rules — and that the 47 Ronin are heroes because they navigate a painful conflict within those rules, in order to do the right thing — gets completely lost. In its place is a whole mess of cliches.
So let's take those three things one by one: Keanu, Sexy Witch, nonsense.
Why is Keanu Reeves even in this movie?
Keanu Reeves isn't really the main character of the film — Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is the traditional main character of the story, and even in this film he carries most of the main action. But he's continually being sidelined to make way of Keanu's character, Kai, and the movie is constantly bending over in weird directions to come up with stuff for Kai to do, so it feels as though he might be the protagonist.
And Kai's status within the film makes everything else seem murkier, to the point where you're not sure who any of these people are and what they're actually doing.
Basically, in the film's lengthy prologue sequence (everything in this film is lengthy, because your time is not valuable) we learn that Kai randomly showed up as a teenage boy, running from the forest where the Tengu demons live, with mysterious scars on his head. Because he's half-white, and because of the whole "demon forest" thing, the samurai nearly put him to death for being a demon kid.
But their lord, Asano, saw something special in Kai. What, we're never sure, since Asano and Kai never seem to share any screen time together. Asano's daughter, Mika (Ko Shibasaki) also sees something special in Kai — in fact, they fall in love despite everybody thinking that Kai is a demon-spawn half-breed, and spend all their time holding hands and exchanging love tokens and practically making out in Asano's front rock garden.
What is Kai's status in Asano's household? No clue. He's an outcast, who lives in a weird hut, but nobody seems to mind the fact that Asano's only daughter is publicly, brazenly in love with him. He hangs out with the samurai all the time, and accompanies them on their samurai monster-hunting missions, and even disguises himself as a samurai.
Later, when the 47 Ronin decide to avenge their master, they realize they need Kai's help because of his half-breed demon spawn asskicking abilities. So Oishi has to go fetch Kai from the Dutch island (Deshima) where Kai is being imprisoned and forced to do cage-matches against orcs for the amusement of tattooed Dutch ruffians.
And Kai helps the Ronin to get some weapons from the demons that raised him, which really are Buddhist Voldemorts. (They're like lizard-faced bald guys in Buddhist robes, who live next to a giant reclining Buddha statue.) We're told the demons have been ostracized for their beliefs (and not just because they're demons) but we're never told what those beliefs are, or why they were problematic. (For what it's worth, Buddhism was not forbidden in Tokugawa Japan, although it had a decline in popularity.)
In any case, the movie struggles to create a classic "hero" arc for Keanu Reeves. He has to get the girl — or at least save Lady Mika from having to marry the bad guy, Lord Kira. He has to gain acceptance from the 47 Ronin, who wind up embracing him as one of them, and from Japanese society at large. He has to overcome something or other.
Unfortunately, Kai doesn't change at all in this movie — and Keanu himself looks a little confused about what he's doing here. He stands around in the background of a lot of shots, and his expression never varies from its standard "patient whipped puppy" mien. His presence pushes the actual story of the movie off to the side, but he's never able to move into the center and become the actual hero. He's just a minor supporting character who hogs the frame.
The Sexy Witch Thing
First, the good news. If you liked Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim, but really wished you could see her as a sexy quasi-lesbian fox-witch who keeps trying to seduce Lady Mika while eating sashimi using her prehensile hair as chopsticks, this movie has you covered.
Rinko Kikuchi knows what sort of movie she's in, and treats every single line of villainous dialogue as another piece of sashimi to be coated with wasabi and chewed at great length. She can't just casually mention "let's take over Japan," she has to purr operatically about how they're going to take over Japan, and everyone will bow down to them, etc. etc. She is constantly falling out of her kimono while she's climbing on top of Lady Mika and trying to force-feed her with her hair chopsticks.
Now the bad news. The fantasy elements in this movie are simultaneously over the top and incredibly boring, and they make no sense.
The opening voiceover of this film announces that feudal Japan was a mysterious realm where outsiders were not allowed, and where magical creatures roamed everywhere. And the movie pretty much sticks to that — Japan is bursting with ogres and witches and demons, and people just sort of take it in their stride. Nobody seems to have strong feelings about this stuff, one way or the other.
And that's kind of a hideous failure of world-building. You might think that Japan would be a very different place if everybody knew there were demons and witches all over the place, but nothing is different at all. Meanwhile, things aresimultaneously over-the-top and subdued. There really ought to be a word for "boring and campy" — that thing where people are doing stylized acting and weird shit is happening, but it's not interesting or fast-moving enough.
And the notion of Japan as some kind of magical island of wacky people sort of cheapens the central storyline of the film, too. Which brings us to...
Nothing in this movie makes any sense
All fantasy stories depend on rules, to some extent — without a sense of how things work in the world and what makes sense to the people who live there, you can't be blown away by the fantastical elements.
But 47 Ronin, above all, needs rules. The original storyline is totally dependent on the rules of Japanese society — particularly, the rule which Asano breaks by drawing his weapon and striking Kira. And the conflicting rules which require his followers to avenge him, but also forbid them from doing so. Just the difference between a Samurai and a Ronin requires a certain nuance in your understanding of Bushido, the Japanese warrior code.
But not only does 47 Ronin not explain any of these things, it's so busy trying to make the two aforementioned extraneous elements fit that everything seems random. Like, the Shogun just turns up occasionally. He comes to visit Asano's home, and his arrival is treated with a bit of pomp, but then he seems to vanish for stretches and it's not clear where he and all his people are staying. Later, the Shogun turns up towards the end of the movie to deliver the final judgment on the Ronin, and it's not clear where he sprang from. Everything is like that in this movie.
Instead of getting a sense of a traditional society where minor insults can escalate into huge incidents, things just seem random. People do talk about honor a lot, though.
And it doesn't help that director Carl Rinsch seems to have no sense of geography — the fight scenes, especially the big ones, are filmed in a way that makes it hard to tell who's doing what where. And there's the aforementioned "fitting Keanu into the frame" problem. The camera only seems engaged when there's a beautiful CG creation filling the screen which happens four or five times in the two-hour running length.
So even by the standards of bland fantasy epics, 47 Ronin is blander and dumber than most — and it's especially sad, because its kitchen-sink approach seems wasted on the classic story it's attempting to retell. It's the turducken approach to samurai cinema, except way, way overcooked.