Director Carl Erik Rinsch's feature debut 47 Ronin is so bad that it's hard to decide where to start. Let's begin right there, with the bottom line: It's bad.
Keanu Reeves stars as Kai, a half-Japanese, half-British outsider who lives for years alongside a samurai clan, despite never being fully accepted by his peers. The clan's world is turned upside down when their master is bewitched and forced to act dishonorably, leading him to take his own life. The wicked Lord Kira, played by Thor actor Tadanobu Asano, becomes de facto ruler of the land, with the witch Mizuki (Pacific Rim star Rinko Kikuchi) acting as his right hand. Kira punishes the masterless samurai by imprisoning their most respected warrior, the steel-jawed Oishi (The Wolverine’s Hiroyuki Sanada). Kai, meanwhile, is sold into slavery.
After a year, Oishi is released from prison for mysterious reasons — and not mysterious reasons in the Oldboy sense; it's the "I have no idea why these people released this guy from jail when they really should just (a) execute him or (b) keep him imprisoned forever, and what really grinds my gears is that this movie will never even attempt to explain why he was released" sense of the phrase. Anyway, Oishi is free, for whatever reason, and he sets off to reassemble the 46 other ronin, plus Keanu Reeves, to seek vengeance against Lord Kira and his evil witch.
47 Ronin faced an uphill battle from the moment it was announced Keanu Reeves would be the poster boy representing one of Japan's most treasured tales of honor and sacrifice. That was 2008. Three years later, the movie entered production. It was originally scheduled for release in November 2012, then moved to February 2013, and finally to Christmas 2013. Reshoots and additional visual effects work were the official reasons for the delays, but "our movie is a complete and utter disaster and we don't want anyone to see it" sounds more accurate.
What's so bad, you ask? Pretty much everything. The story is straightforward enough, but it's complicated by Reeves' involvement. He's the "star," but he's completely superfluous. You could recut 47 Ronin without Reeves, and only need a few reshoots and some adjustments in the edit — and while it still wouldn't be a good film, it would be a better one. Kai's arc never leads to anything satisfying, and Reeves' performance is as bland as expected. There's no reason for the character to exist, beyond the "need" to have an American actor on posters.
The real star of 47 Ronin is Hiroyuki Sanada as Oishi. He does his best to center the story and imbue the film with some semblance of gravitas, but he’s not successful, due to factors beyond his control. Still, kudos for the effort. Oishi is really the heart of 47 Ronin (as much as it has one), to the extent that he's the man at the center of the final battle, not Reeves. (In fairness, Reeves has a final battle of his own; it's, you guessed it, not very good.) The film would benefit from cutting its Keanu losses and going all-in on Sanada.
As for Kai and Oishi's fellow ronin? Couldn't say. Look, no one expected significant screen time for all of them, but for a film called 47 Ronin, you might imagine more than two of the title characters would show up. Sure, there's the fat one, the old one, and the bitter one — but those aren't characters. Not really.
The characters reveal little about themselves that the viewer can't already glean from their surface traits. There's no real explanation for why Lord Kira is such a terror, for example; "because evil" is the film's answer. "Because evil" sums up all of Mizuki the witch as well. To her credit, Kikuchi is the only actor outside of Sanada who recognizes 47 Ronin for the train wreck it is, and acts accordingly. It's a grating and over-the-top performance, but it fits in this grating and over-the-top film.
Who's responsible for this disaster? Universal Pictures brass shouldn't have handed an untested filmmaker like Rinsch the keys to a nearly $200 million film. But at the end of the day, Rinsch is the man at the helm. He showed tremendous promise with his tense short film The Gift, both as a visual artist, and as someone who can yield big emotional impact from a very small story. The man who made The Gift did not show up to 47 Ronin. The film is an all-you-can-eat visual effects feast, but every option on the table is gross. The action scenes are confusing beyond belief, to the point that they're virtually impossible to follow; it feels as though Rinsch forgot to shoot certain portions of the film, and didn't course-correct during reshoots. Perhaps that's the biggest disappointment of all: Rinsch showed so much potential just a few short years ago, and 47 Ronin eviscerates all of that potential for the world to see.
I'm pretty easy to please. I mean, I gave Homefront a pass. I can dig big and dumb, as long as big and dumb comes served with fun. 47 Ronin serves up big and dumb without any pleasure whatsoever. Avoid, avoid, avoid.
47 Ronin is in theaters now.