Before post-Matrix Keanu Reeves had re-established himself as an action hero with the John Wick franchise, he starred in this ill-fated fantasy action epic inspired by the Japanese story of the revenge of the forty-seven rōnin.
47 Ronin is a little problematic, though.
Keanu Reeves is undoubtedly a star, and he certainly fits the part of this sort-of-samurai half-breed with his reserved personality and quiet grace. But in a movie set in feudal Japan with an all-Japanese cast – bar Reeves, that is -the inclusion of a single non-Asian character as the powerful demon-trained warrior who can lead the ronin to victory carries the distinct whiff of White saviourism.
This is even more baffling when you consider that despite Reeves’ top billing, Kai is really more of a supporting character. 47 Ronin is more Oishi’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) story, and he’s far more likable and interesting than Kai (Reeves).
One other noticeable quirk of production was the movie’s dual shoot; first the scenes were recorded in the casts’ native Japanese, and then reshot in English in order for the movie to more widely appeal to Western audiences. Casting a movie set in Japan with (almost) all Japanese actors only to have them speak in English seems just a little insulting.
The film’s approach to its characters is similar to its approach to Japanese culture: it’s all there, but it’s a little askew, and there are numerous aspects that feel (at times) all wrong. 47 Ronin only has a few characters with any substance, and one of them is killed off very early on. This leaves the rest of the movie hanging on Oishi’s stoic leadership as he grapples with duty and honour, two things that any movie set in feudal Japan must absolutely nail. Luckily, Sanada absolutely knocked it out of the park, with his powerful performance transforming him into the leader of a leaderless band of noble outlaws. Aside from Oishi and Kai, however, none of the other characters in the movie are given much to say or do, which robs the story of any real impact it might otherwise have had.
Visually and stylistically, it’s a beautiful film, and its action sequences in particular are well-conceptualized, although its gorgeous landscapes and murky magical set pieces are hampered by lazy, clichéd dialogue. This gives 47 Ronin a sort of cookie-cutter feel, which is a shame considering its potential; its relatively unique mix of fantasy and history – and of East and West – could have made for something so much better than the ultimate result.
It’s by no stretch of the imagination an awful movie, but it’s simply not interesting enough to stand out from any other of Hollywood’s countless action flicks.
Summary: An exercise in wasted potential, 47 Ronin seems to be a great concept plagued by questionable decisions. It’s fun, but it’s not gripping, and it lacks the authenticity that makes other samurai movies so enjoyable.