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Review: 47 Ronin (2013)

47 Ronin (2013)

Directed by: Carl Rinsch

Premise: A band of dishonored samurai set out to avenge their master, who was killed by a rival clan leader.  

What Works: 47 Ronin is an adaptation of a story from Japanese folklore and the filmmakers combine historical storytelling like The Last Samurai with a fantasy adventure such as Legend. The result is a picture that is less like Seven Samurai and much more like Conan the Barbarian. Understood and appreciated for what it is attempting to be, a big budget B-movie, 47 Ronin generally works. This is a film about adventure and excitement and it delivers some solid action movie thrills in its many fights and chase scenes. The warriors often confront supernatural beings and fantastic creatures and the fanciful people and beasts of 47 Ronin feature some unique designs that are different from creatures in other fantasy movies. The devious clan leader is advised by a witch played by Rinko Kikuchi, and she is very good in the role. Kikuchi has a sultry manner but she also possesses a threatening intelligence. Her character is able to morph into animals and other creatures and the filmmakers do a very good job of designing her disguises so that she is recognizable in nonhuman form. Aside from its creature design, 47 Ronin is also distinguished from other contemporary fantasy movies in its brevity and its downbeat ending. So many of the popcorn movies of recent years have run in excess of two hours and in many cases the length was not justified. 47 Ronin clocks in at just under two hours and that is the right length for the picture. The filmmakers keep the audience entertained while not overstaying their welcome. When 47 Ronin gets to its conclusion, the filmmakers take a risk with an ending that flies in the face of mainstream Hollywood convention. It is a finale that is befitting pictures like Hero and 13 Assassins and the decision to take the picture in this direction is to the filmmakers’ credit. 

What Doesn’t: 47 Ronin is a movie that suffers because its filmmakers try to do too many different things at once and they are never terribly successful at any of them. The biggest problem is the merging of historical storytelling and fantasy filmmaking. These two parts of the movie never quite fit together. The picture goes long periods of time with no supernatural elements at all and when a creature appears or a magical event occurs they come across as out of place. The film also has a lot of characters and narrative strands and no one gets proper treatment. In fact, it is unclear who the main character of 47 Ronin is supposed to be. The film features Keanu Reeves as a social outcast who becomes a key player in the band of disgraced samurai and as a movie star and the picture’s only non-Asian performer he stands out on screen. But the story does very little with Reeves’ roles and he has no character arc. The story gives him a love story with the master’s daughter but it is underdeveloped. A more plausible protagonist is Hiroyuki Sanada as the leader of the ronin.  He at least has a character arc and a potentially interesting relationship with his son, played by Jin Akanishi, but here too the relationship is not developed. The rest of the ronin are indistinct characters. At times some of them have moments that could distinguishing their characters, but these moments are not set up or pursued and so a lot of the action scenes amount to anonymous heroes clashing swords with equally anonymous villains.

Bottom Line: 47 Ronin is not a great movie but it does make for satisfactory popcorn entertainment. It is erratic and in many instances the filmmakers waste opportunities to make a better film. But taken simply as an action adventure matinee the movie works well enough.

Episode: #472 (January 5, 2014)