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Movie Review

‘47 Ronin’ mixes campy fun, hints of artistry

Keanu Reeves (left) and Hiroyuki Sanada (right) in director Carl Rinsch’s “47 Ronin.”

Universal Pictures

Keanu Reeves (left) and Hiroyuki Sanada (right) in director Carl Rinsch’s “47 Ronin.”

Don’t bother to compare director Carl Rinsch’s ludicrous remake with Kenji Mizoguchi’s majestic, Shakespearean, four-hour version of “The 47 Ronin” (1941-2). At best, the new film the puts in all the action Mizoguchi left out, and then some. But judged on its own terms as a corny, computer-generated-imagery cartoon, Rinsch’s feature-length debut makes for some campy fun.

It takes place, as a voice-over narrator tells us, in “ancient feudal Japan,” otherwise known as the 18th century during the shogunate. It is a world of magic, demons, and monsters like the huge multicolored, multi-eyed Jabberwocky hunted down by samurai at the beginning, or the creepy white fox reminiscent of the one that says “Chaos reigns!” in Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” (2009). The latter is in fact a shape-shifting witch (Rinko Kikuchi); a combination of Medusa and Lady Gaga, this sorceress has lured ambitious Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) into her wickedness.

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Macbeth-like, Kira seeks the fiefdom of revered Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), and aided by one of the witch’s spells, he eliminates Asano and takes over his domain. Asano’s samurai are reduced to disgraced, masterless “ronin,” but compelled by Bushido, their code of honor, and led by Asano’s now-deposed main man, Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), they vow revenge.

So how does Keanu Reeves fit into all this? He plays Kai, a mysterious wild child of the forest adopted by Asano who grows up skilled in strange arts but despised by the haughty samurais as the “half-breed.”

Asano’s daughter Mika (Kô Shibasaki), though, has taken a shine to him, and when it turns out that Kai can kick butt like Reeves’s character Neo in “The Matrix” (1999), Ôishi signs him up.

Not all is dumb, diverting action and spectacle. A scene in the “Tengu Forest,” a spooky spot inhabited by noseless, lethal monks who mix swordplay with Zen Buddhism, has an almost mystical tinge. And in the end it is a play within the movie that proves a decisive ploy, a self-reflexive, ironic touch that Mizoguchi, who loved the theater and whose 1953 masterpiece “Ugetsu” also dabbled in the supernatural, might have approved.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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