One of the defining fables of pre-modern Japan, the tale of the 47 ronin has been filmed many times in that country. Yet somehow no previous director thought to include rampaging supernatural beasts, a shape-shifting witch or Keanu Reeves.
Those last three are prominent in “47 Ronin,” Hollywood’s first stab at the samurai tale. It’s big and brawling yet often dull, with about as much genuine Japanese character as a food-court teriyaki stand. The cast is mostly Japanese, but chosen from the small list of actors with recent credits in mainstream American movies.
The original story pivots on vengeance, but also things that give Hollywood hives, such as patience and discipline. Noble Lord Asano is goaded into a confrontation with devious Lord Kira. Asano attacks Kira, and as punishment is required to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). His 47 loyal retainers — now ronin, meaning masterless samurai — pretend to accept the judgment. But secretly they plan Kira’s doom, knowing that success must be followed by their own seppuku.
This version incorporates much of that plot but juices it with magic. Working for Kira (“Battleship’s” Tadanobu Asano), smirking sorceress Mizuki (“Pacific Rim’s” Rinko Kikuchi) bewitches Asano into attacking him. Retribution is plotted by Oishi (“The Wolverine’s” Hiroyuki Sanada) and Kai (Reeves), a “half-breed” who was raised by tengu, one of the many varieties of form-changing critters in Japanese lore.
Outsider Kai is initially rejected by the samurai but is adored by Mika (Ko Shibasaki), Lord Asano’s daughter. She’s going to be married to Kira, which might be one reason lovestruck Kai is keen to join the revenge scheme. The probability of seppuku reduces the likelihood of happily-ever-after for the couple but adds a “Romeo and Juliet” element to a script that also borrows from “Hamlet.”
“47 Ronin” toggles between landscapes that appear European — shot in Hungary — and CGI backdrops that resemble China more than Japan. The result makes such anti-historical movies as “The Last Samurai” look fastidious by comparison.
Still, “47 Ronin” doesn’t look bad, and the heroes’ final assault is well-staged. But it frequently lags, and most of the actors — aside from Kikuchi, but including Reeves — deliver the English-language movie’s dialogue as if they learned it phonetically.
Despite the references to Japanese legend, the film’s principal influence is all those recent mash-ups of fairy tales, horror flicks and action pictures. (Co-scripter Hossein Amini helped write one of them, “Snow White and the Huntsman.”) When “47 Ronin” makes an absurd detour to an island occupied by Dutch traders, the sequence plays like something from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series.
Ultimately, the movie just doesn’t justify its outrageous bid to turn a solemn tale of self-sacrifice into swaggering global-marketplace entertainment. A notoriously troubled production, “47 Ronin” reportedly cost upwards of $225 million. Yet it contains about 10 yen worth of cross-cultural acumen.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic elements. 119 minutes.