Sunday, 23 February 2014

"Their army is infinite. We are 47."

The story of the 47 Ronin is the Japanese equivalent of the 300 Spartans, the Alamo or Rorke's Drift – a historical event of a small, brave band standing up against overwhelming odds which became the stuff of plays, books, films and even television shows. Actual facts are less important than the way the story embodies a national self-image and code of honour.

So here's a version of that which mixes in mythical beasts, demons, witches and heroic bloodshed. It's easy to see why purists might be offended, especially with the not Asian Keanu Reeves (Constantine) in the lead role as magical 'half-breed' warrior Kai. Well aware of this, commercials director Carl Rinsch – working from a screenplay co-written by Chris Morgan of the Fast and Furious sequels and Hossein Amini of The Wings Of The Dove (1997) and Drive (2011) – plays it almost too solemn. Reeves' Kai doesn't even crack a grin when debating with a human-avian hybrid (a tengu of Japanese mythology) and is dourly devoted, chaste, noble and willing to disembowel himself for the Shogun at any moment.

Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine) shoulders the Japanese hero role as the charismatic chief of the loyal band, while Tadanobi Asano (Thor) is suitably nasty as the evil Kira – though the most outrageous performance comes from Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim) as a slinky shapeshifting lesbian witch with living hair and who can spin herself through space like an unravelling kimono. Every Japanese character actor alive is here, including Clyde Kusatsu (The Interpreter), Gedde Watanabe (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Memoirs Of A Geisha) as an imposing, hissable, almost Mikado-esque Shogun. Its Ray Harryhausen/Akira Kurosawa inspired fantasy scenes play better than the bloodless swordplay, and there are problems fitting a Japanese tragic epic of self sacrifice onto the template of a Hollywood action adventure.

While die-hard fantasy fans might find something to salvage from the well orchestrated battle finale, Ronin 47 shows plenty of colourful samurai spectacle, but ultimately very little else.

"I will search for you through 1,000 worlds and 10,000 lifetimes!" Reeves promises his beloved. Anyone who sits all the way through this glossy folly will know exactly how that feels.

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