A JAPANESE legend with roots in reality, the tale of the 47 ronin has been adapted into just about every medium imaginable, from ballet to movies to graphic novels. Now Keanu Reeves stars in 47 Ronin, a North Americanized, or perhaps internationalized version, of one of Japan's most treasured tales.
It's the story of Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), leader of a group of samurai living in peace under their master, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). But when Asano is killed by Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and his nameless Witch (Rinko Kikuchi), the samurai become masterless ronin scattered throughout the countryside. To regain their honour and avenge their master, they must kill Kira, even though it may mean their own death.
Where does that leave Reeves? He's an add-on to the story, a half-breed named Kai who was raised by demons. He is mistreated, Cinderella-style, by the samurai, until the now-masterless Oishi needs his help. Slowly but surely, Kai earns the soldiers' respect.
The film can be a hoot, with some zippy battles staged by director Carl Rinsch, and a script by several writers that works better than expected. But it also feels like a somewhat botched attempt by Hollywood to bridge the cultural gap between the North American and overseas box offices. Nearly the entire cast is Japanese -- and nearly all excellent -- yet they speak English.
What's most impressive about 47 Ronin -- its strict adherence to the ancient Japanese honour code of bushido -- is also what finally drags it down. The themes of honour and death that run through the movie may not instinctively resonate with North American audiences. It would have been more fun if 47 Ronin kept swinging its sword instead of falling on it.