samurai genre played itself out in the 1970s after wave of wave of flicks hit the screen. The genre had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, directors like Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Gosha, Masaki Kobayashi and Kihachi Okamoto putting the samurai on the popular culture map. Damn the 1970s, a decade that helped kill the western too! So now in 2014, it's cool to see new takes on familiar stories from a genre that was once hugely popular, like 2013's 47 Ronin.
An outcast living in feudal Japan, Kai (Keanu Reeves) has spent his life as an outsider. His parents are unknown with very little known about how he grew up or even where he grew up. Now a grown man, he lives on the land of Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), doing odd jobs and trying his best to stay away from trouble. Kai becomes an accomplished fighter and swordsman, but as an outsider, he can never become a true samurai. When Asano is betrayed by a rival lord with high aspirations, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), Kai is sold into slavery, finding a living of sorts as a gladiator forced to fight to the death. A full year goes by when Kai is approached and rescued by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), Asano's former samurai commander, with an offer. If Kai joins Oishi and his other banished samurai, they can work together to take down Kira. Their chances are slim though, death a likely ending for anyone who dares challenge Kira and his immense army.
There's a simple reason I've always liked samurai movies. They remind me of westerns in a lot of ways, the only real problem being that it can be difficult to track them down in the U.S., on DVD, whatever. Samurais and ronins (disgraced samurais who roam the country on their own) are a Japanese equivalent of wild west gunslingers. Even Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was adapted into one of my favorite movies, the American western The Magnificent Seven. When handled correctly, these can be great characters. They live, work and -- for the most part -- operate on their own. They decide if they will be good or bad, to help or harm. As presented in films, the samurais, ronins and gunslingers live by a code, one that revolves around honor, loyalty and sticking to your word. So how about a disgraced group of samurais trying to regain their honor? Yeah, count me in.
Director Carl Rinsch's film plays on that samurai code well, focusing on the unlikely partnership formed by Reeves' Kai and Sanada's Oishi. These are two different men with different backgrounds, but when it comes to who they are and what they believe in, they're really not so different. The two men have a past together, Oishi finding a knocked-out Kai in the woods as teenagers, how Kai got there completely unexplained (resolved later). A poor, outcast fighter and a lifelong-trained samurai with all the necessary bloodlines are an action movie Odd Couple, men from different backgrounds who have the same goals and same motivations. They're going to have to put their differences aside if they hope to achieve those goals. I liked both characters a lot, Reeves actually taking a backseat to Sanada. I don't think anyone will call Reeves a great actor, but as an action star, as a presence, he holds his own. As for Sanada, he's quite the presence too, a brooding, intense actor ready to exact some revenge.
One of the reasons I was psyched for this samurai flick with pretty obvious. I love movies like this that bring a group of disparate, different specialists together to accomplish some impossibly dangerous mission. So 47 Ronin? Yeah, that sounds right up my alley. Among the group of disgraced samurais, we've got Chikara (Jin Akanishi), Oishi's son inexperienced in fighting, Yasuno (Masayoshi Haneda), a veteran samurai who is alive because Kai saved him during a dangerous hunt, Hazama (Hiroshi Sogabe), Basho (Takato Yonemoto), the overweight, joking samurai, and Horibe (Shu Nakajima), the aging samurai and more than capable fighter. I would have liked some more development from Kai, Oishi and their group, but what's there is pretty good.
The rest of the cast is an interesting mix of reality and fantasy. As the villainous Lord Kira, Asano is underused and not quite developed enough, but he's one bad dude in what we do see. Adding a sense of the mystical and other-worldly, Rinko Kikuchi plays Mizuki, a witch who can take human and animal (including one surprising twist late) forms to move around undetected and do her dastardly deeds. Ko Shibasaki plays Mika, the young woman in love with Kai (an unnecessary subplot) going back to their teenage years, all the while knowing they can't be together. Familiar face Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays the harsh Shogun, forced to rule Japan with an iron fist to keep all the districts in place.
This isn't a classic movie, maybe not even a good movie, but I was entertained. It's made just under $100 million in theaters as I write this and was raked over the coals pretty good by critics. It is familiar, cliched, and the early goings take a little while to get going. Near the hour mark though, the momentum picks up the action finally reveals itself. An enjoyable, entertaining movie, nothing more, nothing less.
47 Ronin (2013): ** 1/2 /****