Boasting flying dragons, tattooed pirates, hoards of samurais, brawling giants, a shape-shifting sorceress, and mystical monks, you might be surprised to hear 47 Ronin is "based on a true story." But keep in mind it's based on a true story the same way Robin Hood is; it's a folk tale with "true" origins grown very vague and thereby ripe for restructuring for epic adventures. Also like Kevin Costner-fronted Robin Hood, 47 Ronin features a shamed noble who seeks out justice and revenge with the help of a band of rebels who hide in the forests. It's a premise that guarantees an entertaining ride, no matter how uncertain the hand of its director.
Set in 18th century Japan, 47 Ronin follows the quest of the titular shamed samurai, who have been stripped of their rank following the death and dishonor of their master. To avenge him and save his daughter from marrying a manipulative and villainous noble, these 47 Ronin must gather all their strength and conquer a massive army, as well as the malevolent forces of an evil witch.
Despite the title, this feature only gives focus to two Ronin. One, played by Keanu Reeves, is an outsider named Kai, who is despised for his mysterious past and "half-breed" blood. The other is Kuranosuke Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the group's leader who risks his life, his reputation, and even his family line (his son) to reclaim the honor of his late master.
As you'd hope, this setup allows for numerous fight scenes. Though 47 Ronin is director Carl Rinsch's first feature film, he handles much of these sequences well, generally managing the use of CGI beasts, complicated fight choreography, and fifty-plus characters. Some scenes become cluttered in the cut, and the geography can get muddled. But overall, Rinsch shows a skill for building the tension of a sequence and then paying it off with fight scenes so fluid they contain a mystical musicality. Adding gravity to the film's violence is an on-point sound design that makes its physical blows feel palpable, and truly striking cinematography that makes a handful of moments breathtakingly majestic.
Of course, the cast also deserves credit for the success of the action sequences. Reeves -- as ever -- has a great physicality, and is totally believable as a master warrior who can battle giants and mythical beasts with ease. Where he is less believable is just about every other scene. It's strange that in this English-language film stuffed with Eastern stars, Reeve's dialogue is the one that feels like he's new to the language, stumbling along with a stilted delivery. Thankfully his co-stars pick up the slack, offering more colorful and engrossing performances.
As Reeves' love interest/princess, Kou Shibasaki brings a quiet strength to her role, breathing life into the love story Reeves is too wooden to sell. For his part, Sanada offers a subtle but powerful performance as Oishi, deftly painting him as a man of honor and deep regret. But the scene-stealer, hands down, is Rinko Kikuchi, who clearly had tons of fun playing the shape-shifting witch Mizuki. She slinks through sets like a jungle cat, purring and hissing with the threat of sex and death. She delivers her lines with a biting wit and a cruel smile. Hers is by far the biggest performance in 47 Ronin, and by little coincidence the most fun to watch.
Beyond that, the design of the world is lovely, from the vivid colors to the lush costumes, fantastical creatures, and breathtaking landscapes. Visually, 47 Ronin is downright stunning when its not draped in smoke or inky night, which sadly Rinsch opts for often. The adventure and its action are engaging, and yet the film never comes together as something stupendous. Its parts are greater than the sum of them. The film meanders from one set piece to the next, with Reeves too weak a thread to pull it together, and Rinsch perhaps too inexperienced to give it the driving force and panache it so richly deserves. With a better hand this could have been something glorious and grand. As it is, 47 Ronin is solid B-movie entertainment with a $175 million budget.