Set in late Medieval Japan, Kai (Keanu Reeves) is a half-Japanese, half British 'halfbreed' who was found and accepted into the Ako household by Lord Asano Naganori (Min Tanaka), the lord of the Domain of Ako. Ako hosts a small gladiator like tournament which brings the shogun's master of ceremonies to the domain of Ako. This presents Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and his witch ally, Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi), with an opportunity to posses Lord Asano and force him to attack Lord Kira. The result is compulsory Seppuku for Lord Asano and banishment for Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), Kai and the remaining samurai. However, the code of the samurai compels them to avenge the death of their lord.
47 Ronin's production was a notably troubled one as delays, studio demands and reshoots inflated the budget to a needlessly high $200,000,000. 47 Ronin was scheduled for release in December 2012 but was released an entire year later so that the reshoots could be done (this naturally inflated the budget). Frequently enough to be of a concern production issues can lead to a financial disaster and a poor finished product, 47 Ronin continued that trend as the film failed to recoup the vast amount of money spent on the film.
The fault of the film's failure to break even perhaps lies with the studio whose desire to add supernatural elements to the story disappointed Japanese cinemagoers who disliked the lack of faithfulness to the true to life story of real 47 Ronin. Also, much like John Carter, spending $200,000,000 on a film without any major stars (all actors are Japanese with the exception of Keanu Reeves) is hard to justify.
Writers Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini attempt to create a story in the mould of Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins (with supernatural elements) but without the political and social intrigue and gripping storyline. The film is let down by uneven pacing, predictable plot lines, a dire love story and lack of character. The final factor is exacerbated by Reeves' rather bland performance. Reeves seems like a genuinely cool guy, but his performance here goes no further than a grimace of pain when expressing his Kai's emotions.
Reeves poor, emotionless performance is an issue in a role where negative emotions from to being sidelined and discriminated against because of his "half breed" status could have been used to make the central character somewhat interesting. No effective development is devoted to his and Reeves makes Kai no more interesting than the faceless 47 Ronin who follow the Samurai code, Bushido, and serve their lord until their death. In contrast to Reeves, the rest of the cast do an impressive job, most notably Rinko Kikuchi who seems to enjoying herself as the slithering witch Mizuki.
Naturally with a film of the nature of 47 Ronin films such as Akira Kurosawa Seven Samurai and Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins are clear influences, all three of the films the heavily based on a major aspect of Japanese culture and history and feature an epic battle in the film's final act. The action sequences are the 47 Ronin's main highlight as they are aptly directed and the sword fights are particularly well choreographed.
However, apart from the well choreographed sword fights there is very little to write home about, the set pieces themselves are good but shooting the film on green screen near Budapest (a European well known for its similarity to feudal Japan) means the film loses a degree of authenticity (don't see why they could not do location shooting as they had a $200,000,000 budget). Further issues arise in the screenplay in which the dialogue has its moments where it makes the dialogue from Mortal Kombat 3 look like literacy masterwork.
47 Ronin let down by a number of factors but a rather bland Keanu Reeves performance resulted in a film without an engaging central character to act as an anchor to the viewer's dwindling interest which threatened to sail away before things really got going.