The scene in the first (and what should have been only) Matrix film, where Keanu Reeves – plugged into a training programme – opens his eyes wide and gasps “I know kung fu,” is probably one of the most iconic and promising of his career. With Carl Rinsch’s 47 Ronin (2013), and after his own directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi (2013), Reeves returns to martial arts with a blandly enjoyable family-friendly romp, which features some exciting set pieces without ever really breaking a sweat. The camera glides in from the expanses of space as a voiceover makes some lofty claims about the true story of the 47 masterless samurai – aka ‘ronin’ – who in their devotion and self-sacrifice epitomise the story of Japan.
Reeves plays Kai, a half-British, half-Japanese outcast who is taken in by a local warlord, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), though never accepted by the community at large – with the exception of the Lord’s daughter Mika (Kô Shibasaki). Kai’s devotion to the family is unstinting, even when the displeasure of the Shogun overload and the plotting of a local rival, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) – aided by the supernatural machination of a witch, Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi) – leads to a disastrous downturn in the family’s fortunes. With the household samurai all banished, they turn to Kai to help them seek their revenge against Lord Kira and his odd-eyed witch accomplice. Mythical beasts and dark elemental magic abound, but the film is weirdly bloodless, like a live action version of DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda (2008).
There’s also nothing here we haven’t seen before. A shipyard battle looks like a watered-down version of something out of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China (1991); a forest chase with demons resembles the opening scene of Princess Mononoke (1991); and the whole idea of a banding together against all odds was knocked out of the proverbial park by Takashi Miike’s gloriously bloody 13 Assassins (2010). What’s more, the Japanese cast look frankly embarrassed at having to explain ancient traditions to each other as part of the American-friendly exposition, even as they struggle with a cliché-ridden script by Chris Morgan. 47 Ronin’s narrative is an exemplar of the Bushido code and the basis for a whole raft of previous works, the best known of which is arguably Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1962 Chūshingura (starring the late, great Toshiro Mifune). Despite the overly portentous narration, Rinsch’s debut never really attempts to approach the original story, but it’s this very lack of ambition that ultimately sees 47 Ronin commit hara-kiri.
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