KEANU Reeves returns to his first high profile role since 2008’s remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still in this, the latest retelling of the classic Japanese folk tale of the 47 Ronin. Whilst it does retain the original story elements (47 disgraced and now masterless Samurai band together again to seek revenge for their master’s death), a supernatural element is also introduced – with witchcraft, giants, and the odd CG monster here and there.
The film featuring a fair few recognisable Japanese Actors (in Hollywood terms at least) and despite everyone’s English being entirely proficient, all the dialogue feels oddly stilted. Everyone is Japanese in a film set in ancient Japan and yet all the dialogue being spoken in English? There is, of course, a reason for this: so that the film can ‘open’ in the US – after all, it is a US production.
Which explains Keanu Reeves in the starring role. Playing an outcast ‘half-breed’ and reluctant hero of the story, he is serviceable but not given much to do except fend off the CG beasties. The real heart of the film instead lies with the leader of the Ronin named Oishi, played by Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine, The Last Samurai), who ends up being much more the actual protagonist of the story. It makes you wonder why they didn’t just have Reeves in a smaller side role and play it as a straightforward Samurai epic – oh yeah: the film has to ‘open’ in the US…
That’s not to say there wasn’t potential in the supernatural aspects of the story. The effects are occasionally decent and yet the action often fails to deliver. Fights that should have been epic showdowns are over far too quickly and what should have been visceral swordplay is portrayed as being surprisingly bloodless. Despite its more mature subject matter at the heart of it (heavy on honour, duty and Seppuku) this pandering to a younger commercial audience neuters much of the film’s effectiveness.
The main villain also feels like a wasted opportunity. Tadanobu Asano (Thor, Battleship) is good as the sneering antagonist and although there are hints of Kakihara (the psychopathic gangster he played in Ichi The Killer), his character here lacks screen time. Instead, more focus is given to his witch minion Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, Brothers Bloom) who at least looks to be having fun in the role with much scenery chewing.
It’s not all bad though. The production design is good and the film often looks beautiful. The costumes too are a particular highlight – flamboyant and colourful yet just on the right side of authenticity.
All in all, it’s just a simple revenge story that sags in the middle and slightly underwhelms with its set pieces. There is great potential in the material – the story of the 47 Ronin has been filmed many times in Japanese already – and yet the result here is a confused mess. Disappointing.
(Score: 2.5 out of 5)