Solemn as a funeral march, humorless as your junior high principal, as Japanese as a grocery-store California roll, Keanu Reeves’s let’s-mope-about-and-kill-ourselves samurai drama has exactly three things going for it. First, the cockeyed sensuality of Rinko Kikuchi as a spider-puking evil witch who can transform herself into a fox, a swathe of magic-carpet silk, or this month’s second-most impressive movie dragon. Second is those flying silks, whose airborne undulations demonstrate more personality than any of the characters save that witch herself — she’s cursive calligraphy in a cast of square and clunking alphabet blocks.
And a distant third is one sequence of amusing movie violence. The good guys — all 47 of them — are storming the palace of the lord who banished them, shamed them, tricked their master into committing seppuku, and kidnapped their princess. (He’s four villains in one!) These masterless ronin scale a wall in a snowstorm, lasso the evil lord’s guards to yank them off the ramparts, and work all sorts of impossible traps and tricks to thin the enemies’ ranks. It’s like a reverse Home Alone, and it’s the only sustained burst of excitement in 47 Ronin‘s two grinding hours — and it lasts maybe three minutes.
Other than that, the movie is all slow, portentous dialogue. Each word drips out like tree sap. Keanu Reeves stars but doesn’t say much, which usually isn’t a bad idea with him. In this case, though, he’s one of the few castmembers who seems comfortable speaking the English everyone in the film’s feudal Japan relies upon. Several of the actors sound as if they may have learned their lines phonetically, and quite a few seem not to have mastered English l‘s and r‘s — it seems cruel, then, that the producers force them to keep calling Reeves’s character “half-breed.”
That isn’t a complaint, really. Since all the dialogue is blandly declaimed, like everyone is reading it off stone tablets, the quirks of ESL at least offer a touch of humanity to this shopworn spectacle. They’re something to think about besides the ridiculous liberties Hollywood has taken with Japanese history. The story is slow and simple, although director Carl Rinsch still manages to muddy it. Reeves plays Kai, the half-breed — his true lineage is meant to be mysterious, although the movie hints he’s the spawn of avian demon-monks with gills in their noses. Orphan Kai grows up in the palace of Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), where as a kid he teaches unattainable crush Mika how to hunt. After a scene or two with child actors, Kai ripens into the pushing-50 Reeves, while Mika somehow ages two decades fewer in the same time. Her adult incarnation is played by Kô Shibasaki; she trembles while Reeves recites the kind of poetry spoken by fantasy characters too in love to bother actually touching each other.
As in many other versions of this often-told tale, wicked lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) tricks Asano into attacking his own guests, which results in Asano being sentenced to commit seppuku. Try not to snicker when the lord who hands that ruling down immediately defines the punishment, just in case any of the assorted samurai skipped the class covering the whole ritualized suicide thing. Soon after the first of many PG-13 disembowelings, Asano’s samurai guardsmen, led by the warrior Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), are exiled to the wilderness, where they plot revenge. Kai tags along, even though none of them like or respect him — the movie suggests this is because he’s different, and also maybe part demon, but it’s hard not to suspect that it’s actually because he failed to distinguish himself in any way in what has to be half a century of living in their company.
On the road, though, Kai wins their respect the only way movies know: by slaying lots of enemies. 47 Ronin isn’t bloody, but it one-ups the irresponsible ugliness of Hollywood’s usual endorsements of violence in one disquieting respect: It suggests that killing bad guys is only slightly less noble than killing yourself. The story of 47 Ronin dates back to the 18th century, so don’t complain about spoilers as I tear into the ending: In the classic samurai films, suicide is complex, upsetting, sometimes unjust and sometimes the only way to ease a soul in crisis; here, it feels like a yoga-class graduation.
The adventures include a descent into the bird demons’ cave, a fight against a furious Snuffleupagus, and much undistinguished sword play. There’s also lots of scenes of travelers and mountains, à la Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies, the occasional CG monster to battle, and maybe 20 minutes’ worth of talking, all of it ready to be wiped away and re-dubbed for the international audience. They’ll know better than to think of it as Japanese, I expect. Despite the lavish temple sets, the robed pageantry, the principled sexlessness, and the strident talk of honor and ancestry, this Hungarian-shot bore is so indistinct it reeks of no place more than Hollywood, where the fascinating specifics of history and legend are ground into universal mush.