American cinema conquered the globe without really having to look beyond its own borders, reducing the rest of the world to a series of spectacular locations and heavily accented bad guys. But as the balance of global power shifts – and new markets open up – Hollywood has been forced to widen its parameters. From Oscar heavy-hitters like ‘Life of Pi’ to mainstream fare such as ‘Pacific Rim’ and ‘The Wolverine’, 2013 was the year the blockbuster truly went international. And tagging along at their heels comes ’47 Ronin’, a big-budget attempt to do for Japanese mythology what Peter Jackson did for the tales of Tolkien.
The story of the 47 Ronin is well known to scholars of Japanese history, a true tale of sacrifice and bravery, which has been reinvented and retold for each successive generation. When their feudal lord was forced to commit seppuku – ritual suicide – by a devious rival, a group of masterless samurai vowed vengeance, knowing that they would pay with their lives.
Onto this basic historical framework, first-time feature director Carl Rinsch has bolted elements of fashionable fantasy – witches, dragons, monsters and a mysterious outsider (Keanu Reeves) who has been raised by ghosts – plus a star-crossed lovers subplot that leads precisely nowhere. The result is part old-school men-on-a-mission kung-fu flick, part action-packed, CG-heavy blockbuster and part epic magical romance, with none of these elements quite fitting together to form a cohesive whole.
Reeves is as watchable as ever – though his role never demands much more than grunting, squinting and swinging a samurai sword – and there’s a memorably slinky, seductive villain in the form of ‘Pacific Rim’ star Rinko Kikuchi. But the rest of the internationally sourced, English-speaking cast never seems at ease, perhaps because their characters have a habit of dying suddenly in order to move the plot along.
The result is rarely dull – the story moves at a clip, the action sequences are clunky but enjoyably hectic, and the tragic finale is surprisingly bold. But it’s impossible to escape the feeling that ‘47 Ronin’ is trying too hard to please too many people, resulting in a noisy, colourful but ultimately flavourless stylistic mash-up.