The tale of the 47 ronin, the samurai without masters, is deeply enshrined in Japanese culture. An epic revenge mission, the legend of the ronin exists in the very marrow of Japan’s national psyche, speaking to quintessential themes of honour, loyalty, and sacrifice.
It’s history become myth, and though the story is verifiably true, this film is pure myth, playing fast and loose with the annals and mixing fantastical elements – not to mention a square-jawed A-lister – into the soup.
Keanu Reeves, whose previous work in eastern-flavoured action makes him a decent fit for this sort of CGI-heavy martial-arts fare, plays a “half-breed” orphan who helps the ronin in their epic quest to avenge their fallen master.
Though slick and sinewy in the fight scenes, Keanu plays everything in his usual husky monotone, and the cast around him – largely Japanese stars, for whom English is a second language – mimic his dull delivery. This, coupled with horribly wooden dialogue and an inert script, gives the impression of a B-movie in an A-movie’s clothing.
And like many B-movies, it exists in a vacuum of humour or self-awareness. A cackling witch, played by Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi, seems plucked straight from a Blackpool pantomime.
With a reported budget just south of $200m, it’s flush with production values. There’s pomp and pageantry in every frame, but the emphasis on historical accuracy in costume and set design sits a little queasily alongside the witches, demons and dragons.
Ultimately, this vision of feudal Japan seems to fall somewhere between a graphic novel and computer game. But even comics and games are less witless and tedious than this. If only they’d spent a little more time on the script and less on the dojo colour scheme…