It's about honour and violence. And sacrifice. It's about bearded men who are prepared to sacrifice themselves in a violent manner. For honour. This has to be John Milius' favourite movie of the year and while it won't be yours it has a diverting charm.
47 Ronin has Reeves play Kai, a lowly servant to the samurai Oishi (Sonada) whose Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) prepares to host the Shogun and a rival Lord Kira (Asano) for a tournament. Through some magical chicanery by Kira's sorceress (Rinso Kikuchi), the bewitched Asano strikes at an unarmed Kira, shaming Asano into seppuku (honourable suicide). Oishi is cast into a pit, the samurai, now ronin, are scattered throughout the land and Kai is sold into slavery. But one year later Oishi goes about rounding them up again to take revenge on Kira, who has moved in on his former lord's lands and plans to marry Asano’s daughter, Mika (Shibasaki), who has eyes for Kai.
It sounds like a convoluted setup but while 47 Ronin has a lot of characters, secrets and hidden motives the task at hand is never in doubt, unlike a Middle Earth adventure currently in the cinemas. But what really sticks out in that synopsis is that the story could be told without Kai - the drive and redemption and narrative arc comes from Sonada's shamed samurai.
Set in a feudal Japan of dragons and demons and misty hills and lanterns floating in streams, director Carl Rinsch doesn't fully utilise the potential for myths and legends at hand; demons turn up and magical weapons are brandished but 47 Ronin refuses to dive in. You can argue that Rinsch keeps things grounded but if you're doing dragons and enchanted swords surely you should go the whole hog, no? And the dialogue can be Last Airbender obvious too.
But 47 Ronin isn't a total loss. His Kai might be superfluous to requirements but Reeves' presence makes him look important to proceedings, and when it comes to Reeves you don't need him stumbling over Aaron Sorkin lines - you want him moody and agile. Despite the dulling of the visuals by the completely unnecessary 3D, 47 Ronin is pretty to look at - certainly a lot brighter than Hollywood's previous foray into this world, the gloomy looking Last Samurai. The action, although bloodless (it's 12A!), is decent throughout and there's a real unexpected ending.