47 Ronin depicts an oft-told Japanese legend: A group of seasoned samurai must put their egos aside and let an outsider lead them to victory in order to bring the lord of a rival clan to justice. This story has been adapted countless times, none of which eclipse this film for being the most patronizing version. Carl Rinsch's 119-minute retelling of the noble soldiers' mission is so filled with mudded action scenes, has so little room for acting, and is so unwilling to be self-critical, that it would have been better off as anime and dropping the 13 from its PG-13 rating.
Knowing that this story is quite culturally significant, it seems odd that it is portrayed so flippantly. For two hours, we're forced to believe (despite a lack of reasonable exposition) that Kai (Keanu Reeves) is an unwelcomed "half-breed" who subjects himself to ridicule and lashings in order to win the love of Princess Mika (Shibasaki Kou) and avenge the death of her father, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). Sure, you can quiet that inner voice and allow for a suspension of disbelief, but that empty feeling never really goes away. The movie screams to us that this is a serious legend, a serious retelling, and a serious look into suicide as an honorable death, yet its sophistication is undermined by every missed attempt at character development. We know that Kai loves Mika because of awkward looks of longing and thuddingly obvious dialogue, but we aren't allowed to just watch the two of them together. The film provides no space to see their interaction or to ruminate on their suffering beyond what is happening in the foreground. Even seppuku (an honorable form of suicide for the Japanese) is treated as a joking matter. We are meant to believe that when a heinous act is committed, a person has the opportunity to commit suicide to save face, but each suicide (and each murder) is really presented as a non-issue. No blood. No painful lingering. Just an above-the-waist shot and a quick cut to a loved one tearing up a bit to let you know that the deed is done.
With a little more focus on the underlying action, perhaps that empty feeling could have been deeply buried; unfortunately, it seems that the whole cast was snubbed for screen time. Even Reeves isn't given more than a minute of dialogue at a time. For being the prize pony, we sure don't get much of him. Granted, action films are allowed a certain liberty when it comes to a dialogue-to-screen-time ratio, but Rinsch seems to have made the conscious decision to split the movie's substance equally between all of the players. An argument could be made that Rinsch gave everyone so little screen time to conceal the fact that he made a Japanese film entirely in English, despite the inevitable "English as a second language" hurdles.
More troubling, however, is that even in a moment of sincerity, a moment when perhaps we'll get to know the characters a little better, we are abruptly commanded to give our attention to a 20-foot CGI monster or a creature with Medusa locks. There is a certain charm to transforming 18th century witchcraft and folklore into a visual feast, but the sporadic and superfluous effects seem more like a thinly veiled attempt to appeal to 21st century American audiences.
Respectfully, there is nothing fatally wrong with 47 Ronin -- no gaping plot holes or B-film acting. It is merely a watered-down version of what it could have been.