While there are a few nagging problems with excessive exposition and ponderous pacing, the Keanu Reeves-starring samurai epic is a visual treat. Outstanding visual effects, committed performances, and a convincing sense of gravitas make it a far better movie than you’ve probably heard. The fact that first-time director Carl Rinsch monkeys with the true story isn’t really a concern. Apparently the original 18th century events concerning the real 47 Ronin have undergone constant embellishment over the years (the fictionalized story is known as Chūshingura). 47 Ronin adds major elements that weren't previously part of it, including Keanu Reeves’ character—a half-Japanese, half-British outcast named Kai. However much of it is actually sourced from real life isn’t that important anyway, as this is an extravagant fantasy full of magic, demons, and witches.
Essentially a tried-and-true revenge story, 47 Ronin begins with a long prologue, establishing young Kai as an unwanted presence in the city of Ako. His scalp bears the marks of the demons that raised him, yet Kai refuses to incorporate their evil ways into his own lifestyle. Instead he lives his life as a servant, more or less, to Ako’s Lord Asano Naganori (Min Tanaka). The adult Kai has a secret, forbidden love for Asano’s daughter, Mika (Kou Shibasaki).
Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) visits Ako, arranging for Lord Asano’s best samurai to dual his hulking Lovecraftian Samurai (Neil Fingerton). Due to meddling by a shape-shifting witch, Mizuki (Rinki Kikuchi), Lord Asano is tricked into violently attacking the Shogun’s second in command, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano). With Asano ousted due to his offenses, the Shogun installs Lord Kira to oversee Ako. Mika is to become his wife (much to Kai’s dismay) and all of Asano’s samurai, including their leader Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), are now deemed Ronin (masterless samurai). Hence the revenge angle, as Oishi unites the Ronin to go after Kira. Kai is invited to join, having finally won over Oishi (who grew up hating the so-called “half-breed”).
There are many characters to keep track of, but Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini’s screenplay maintains intelligibility. The only problems arise during long, talky stretches that might’ve been streamlined to focus on more action. But the thoughtfulness of their approach is also one of the film’s strengths. The swordplay and fights are big, the CG effects are rampant, yet the story is grounded in the characters’ relationships. Though top-billed, Reeves is just another part of the ensemble. He wisely downplays, always conveying the deep-rooted depression in Kai. As Oishi, Hiroyuki Sanada delivers a brooding, intense performance. Oishi is has the most dramatic character arc, as he grows from an arrogant, privileged opportunist (he’s not above taking credit early on for Kai’s achievements) into a dignified survivor.
On Blu-ray, 47 Ronin looks exactly like the big-budget action flick it is. The 1080p, AVC-encoded image presents John Mathieson’s digital cinematography crisply, though contrast is notably low. Especially during bright daytime scenes, the image is a tad too bright (though it’s hard to say if this was intentional, having not seen the film in theaters). Colors are bold though, and this is a generally strong presentation. Much better is the DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix, which delivers everything expected of an action-driven spectacle. Low end is deep and booming. Surrounds are employed expertly during the busiest set pieces.
Certainly due to the film’s poor reception, extras are quite light. Thankfully Universal didn’t skimp completely, as there are four short featurettes and four deleted scenes. The featurettes (“Re-Forging the Legend,” “Keanu & Kai,” “Steel Fury,” “Myths, Magic & Monsters”) are pretty superficial and none reaches the ten-minute mark (though the latter three are Blu-ray exclusives). Still, for fans of the film they offer a general glimpse behind the scenes. The package also includes a standard DVD and UltraViolet digital copy.
47 Ronin offers an unusually heavy hero’s journey. There are a few flashes of humor here and there, but the approach taken emphasizes the ever-present regret and remorse deeply embedded in its characters’ minds. The year 2013 saw far less-gripping adventures raking in more money and garnering better critical notice (Pacific Rim comes to mind, especially since Rinko Kikuchi is in both). Clear your mind of the negative buzz and enjoy this underrated epic.