47 Ronin is the Matrix in kimonos
Starring Keanu Reeves and Rinko Kikuchi. Rated PG.
The tale of 47 ronin (masterless samurai) who executed a complex multiyear plan to assassinate Kira, enemy of their late master Ako, has been commemorated in Japanese art and literature since the actual event of the early 1700s. The latest version of the Ako vendetta is an English-language special-effects epic that seems to have taken inspiration, in its painterly visual stylization and fablelike tone, from the film version of Frank Miller’s 300.
Perhaps to avoid charges of yellowface, the producers have cast Japanese performers for all but the central role. Keanu Reeves plays Kai, an enigmatic half-white outcast with possible magical powers. This one change transforms a ballad about extreme group loyalty into a reprise of Neo vs. the Agent Smiths, if the Agent Smiths were wearing kimonos. The long-term-con aspect of the tale is jettisoned, replaced by a series of encounters with computer-generated monsters controlled by a shape-shifting floating witch (fetching Rinko Kikuchi, from Pacific Rim).
The ideal companion piece to this film would be a retelling of the Alamo with an American cast speaking Japanese, in which Davy Crockett and Col. Bowie play second fiddle to a half-Japanese passerby with a talking magical gun with which to battle the Mexican general, a sexy alien from the future.
I would certainly watch that movie, which is no wackier than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a film that I love. To repurpose hallowed national myth for the sake of insight or even wackiness is the right of any artist. But while Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is both campy and thrilling, 47 Ronin is unfailingly serious and dark, therefore turgid and tiresome. The result is a series of still lifes of woodcut Orientalia relieved too infrequently by 3-D fireballs.