Warning: This review discusses the film’s plot, including the ending.
“I don’t know who or what you are” says the racist one time master of Keanu Reeves to the newly emancipated fighter in 47 Ronin. It’s good to know that audience confusion extends to the film’s characters. This is a big budget curio with an identity crisis. A film that’s neither Arthur or Martha as far as samurai movies and fantasy odysseys are concerned.
Lazy shorthand would be Krull masturbates Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but that only hints at the tired staples: a Princess to be rescued, an outlaw who returns to save the kingdom with his not so merry men. We haven’t touched on the mysticism, black magic and the movie’s veneration of revenge and death, an uncritical treatment of that bedrock of Japanese culture that made the Second World War in the Pacific one of attrition, and perhaps we shouldn’t…but we will, obviously.
Fundamentally this is a movie with very serious problems, only some of which relate to its celebration of altruistic suicide. After a mercifully short prologue, in which a young English boy escapes from a magical wood and is taken in by a thoughtful provincial overlord who treats him like sub-human scum, calling him “half-breed”, the film takes an interminably long time to get going, like this review – around 40 minutes in all; dead time that could have been substantially reduced with judicious editing.
During this null period we wonder how an English teen grew up to be an American, apparently the only one in Japan, while exposed to no one but the indigenous population. We’re also curious as to why Keanu’s master refuses to countenance the inexpressive lead’s warnings of witches and the threat they may pose to his sovereign power when they live in an era of mythical beasts; a world in which spirits and demons are known to exist.
This offensive stupidity proves costly of course and soon Keanu and his old master are in exile, Reeves love interest (since childhood – why do adolescent crushes always endure in the movies?) is pledged to marry the old Lord’s usurper and revenge is unhelpfully forbidden by a priest whose sole plot function seems to be creating obstacles that don’t really exist.
Once the delayed second act gets underway 47 Ronin is fatally undermined by fleeting and surprisingly, considering old hand Stuart Baird cut the picture, messy action, coupled with a leading man who’s so distant it’s as though he’s already thinking ahead to his next movie. A personable hero and a single well-orchestrated fight would have made it less of a slog, but instead we’re treated to stilted, folkloric dialogue and a lot of talk about honour; talk that’s a poor substitute for memorable chat and character building asides.
Yet odd and often boring though it all is, nothing can prepare you for the ending in which all our principle characters, bar a Princess we never cared for, kill themselves to satisfy the decree of that aforementioned priest that they’ve committed some kind of crime against Japan’s feudal code and can only be redeemed in death.
That’s a bitter pill to swallow, assuming you give two fucks about Keanu and his retinue, but it’s even harder to believe that all of this guff is allegedly based on a true story. Whether there were witches who transformed into dragons and a forrest of dead children originally we may never know, but what’s certain is that Japanese culture’s death drive emerges as a noble and honourable tradition. That tradition, celebrating the idea that revenge is a prerequisite for transcendence, is an odd underpinning for a modern blockbuster. What would Nelson Mandela have made of that I wonder? If only we could ask him.