Well, I finally caught 47 Ronin. Took me long enough. I guess I was dithering because of all the mixed reviews.
Here's my take: It's an excellent fantasy adventure film, and a creative, fanciful retelling of the 47 Ronin legend.
Despite all the stories about the troubled filmmaking, I found the movie to be reasonably coherent and well-directed. The visuals are absolutely stunning.
Performances are more than passable. I even found Keanu Reeves' acting to be fairly convincing.
Make no mistake. 47 Ronin will not garner any Oscar nominations. But as Hollywood films go, it's well above average and certainly not the disaster that most critics make it out to be.
I also think 47 Ronin is a damn sight better than The Hobbit, either Part 1 or 2. And we know that The Hobbit is pulling in HUGE box office revenue.
The 47 Ronin legend tells of how a group of loyal Samurai takes vengeance over the framing of their Lord Asano for a crime he did not commit. Asano is forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) and his Samurai, now masterless, are banished from these lands.
Keanu Reeves plays Kai, an orphan who was taken in by Lord Asano and raised to be a member of his court. Kai is called Half-breed by the Samurai because of his mixed parentage (his father was an English sailor). He had previously been raised by the Tengu who are masters of death and dark magic, so Kai possesses a great deal of this knowledge, as well.
Kai grew up with Lord Asano's daughter, Mika, and they love each other passionately. That Mika is forced to wed the murderer of her father, and of Kai's benefactor, is Kai's only motivation for joining the Ronin in their quest for justice.
Hiroyuki Sanada plays Oishi, Lord Asano's chief Samurai. He is every bit the protagonist in the film that Kai is. I admire Sanada a great deal because of his performance in The Twilight Samurai, the first of the Yoji Yamada Samurai trilogy. If you like Japanese cinema, and in particular, if you like movies about Samurai, you absolutely MUST watch the Yoji Yamada trilogy!
(Incidentally, Sanada has done well in the West, too, having appeared in The Wolverine, the Lost TV series, the Revenge TV series, Rush Hour 3, and the most interesting sci-fi film Sunshine.)
Oishi needs Kai's help in avenging Asano's murder because he knows the odds are against them and he knows that Kai is an exceptional warrior, even if he is not Samurai. They must go to the Tengu, from whom Kai had escaped, in order to obtain swords, for Samurai are useless without weapons.
Now, the murderer of Lord Asano, Lord Kira, is aided by a powerful witch (played by Rinko Kikuchi who starred in Pacific Rim). She can assume many animal forms. Near the end, Kai goes up against the witch who takes the form of a dragon. Let me tell you, this dragon is a heck of a lot more impressive than Smaug in The Hobbit. Visually beautiful and artistically fascinating.
Eventually, the 47 Ronin avenge Asano's murder, and because they disobeyed the Shogun's order NOT to pursue vengeance, the Ronin are allowed to commit seppuku instead of being executed as criminals. (The Shogun says that they followed the old bushido traditions and are therefore true Samurai.) The final scene is heart-wrenching as we see Kai and Oishi and all the other Samurai ritually kill themselves in front of the Shogun and Mika.
Mika weeps for Kai as she remembers his final words of love and devotion.
In the end, 47 Ronin is about duty and honour, loyalty and justice. It is about bushido and the way of the Samurai. It is quite authentic to historical and cultural details, fanciful embellishments notwithstanding. I unreservedly recommend this movie.