18th century Japan. Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) is duped into attacking rival Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and ordered to commit suicide by the Shogun. Vassal Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) gathers Asano’s loyal samurai – including Kai (Keanu Reeves), a mixed-race outcast raised by demons – to prevent Kira marrying Asano’s daughter (Ko Shibasaki) and avenge their master.
The story of the 47 ronin is the Japanese equivalent of the 300 Spartans, the Alamo or Rorke’s Drift – a historical incident of a small, brave band standing against overwhelming odds which became the stuff of plays, books, films and TV shows. Actual facts are less important than the way the story embodies a national self-image and code of honour.
So here’s a version of that which mixes in dragons, demons, witches and 12A-level heroic bloodshed. It’s easy to see why purists might be offended, especially with not-exactly-Asian Keanu Reeves in the lead as a new-made magic character. It’s as if Zulu were remade with vampires, aliens and Robin Williams as Michael Caine’s robot best friend. Well aware of this, commercials director Carl Rinsch – working from a screenplay co-written by Chris Morgan of the Fast and Furious sequels and Hossein Amini of The Wings of the Dove and Drive – plays it almost too solemn. Reeves doesn’t even crack a grin when debating with a human-parrot hybrid (these Japanese myth-figures, tengu, are even made to look scarier than silly) and is dourly devoted, long-suffering, chaste, noble and willing to disembowel himself for the Shogun at any moment.
Hiroyuki Sanada shoulders the Japanese hero role as the charismatic chief of the loyal band, while Tadanobi Asano is suitably nasty as the evil Kira – though the most outrageous performance comes from Rinko Kikuchi as a wall-eyed lesbian witch werefox with living hair who turns into an even bigger monster for the finale. Every Japanese character actor alive is here, including Clyde Kusatsu and Gedde Watanabe from all those 80s comedies and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as an imposing, hissable, almost Mikado-esque Shogun. Its Harryhausen-cum-Kurosawa fantasy scenes play better than the bloodless swordplay, and there are problems fitting a Japanese tragic epic of self-sacrifice onto the template of a Hollywood action-adventure.
Perhaps a folly and – Kikuchi aside - too deadpan to be a romp, this is still a decent, colourful samurai spectacle with a classical look (lots of symmetrical compositions) and a story which stands up under multiple retellings.