The oft-told Japanese tale of the "47 Ronin," disgraced samurai who regained their honor by avenging their dead master and sacrificing themselves in the process, earns an ignominious Keanu Reeves reconfiguring this holiday season.
An endless recession, a tsunami and nuclear meltdown, and now this. It's enough to bring seppuku back as Japan's national sport.
Keanu's ronin romp is streaked with supernatural touches -- battles with a witch, digital demons and special effects giants. It's a staggeringly slow, tin-eared fiasco that doesn't deserve the flourish of an ending this medieval tale generally earns. You catch the final act and you forget that first-time feature director Carl Rinsch has no experience or apparent skill for this material and that his leading man is every bit as much of a stiff as he.
Kai (Reeves) is of mixed race, raised in a warlord's household. He can never be a full-fledged samurai or play in all the samurai games, supposedly because of his ethnicity. Reeves is physically awkward enough to suggest that maybe his hosts didn't trust him with the sword. Action scenes are sped up to allow him to manage the choreography without hurting himself or others.
Only Oishi (veteran Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada of "Lost" and "The Wolverine") sees worth in Kai. But a scheming rival to their master Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), the sinister Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), gets the old man killed and the shogun exiles Asano's samurai to the countryside as ronin - samurai who will never have a master again, starving outcasts.
Cut to a year later and evil Lord Kira is about to marry the princess (Ko Shibasaki) who inherited their province, who also happens to be Kai's one and only love. So Oishi gets the band back together to stop this.
It's a movie of pointless scenes - they go to the village famous for swordsmiths to arm ourselves, only we never see a forge - and inane dialogue scripted by a team that has "Fast & Furious" and "Killshot" credits.
Sample: "I'm not afraid of you." "You SHOULD be."
That's an exchange with the witch (Rinko Kikuchi), who is malevolent enough without a neat Medusa-haired, flowing cape effect that shows she's a shape shifter.
A few too-obvious digital demons must be dispatched.
And in between those fights and the finale is a whole lot of not much of anything - snow, swords, sorcery and tiny tastes of Noh Theatre. Gedde Watanabe, who had quite a Hollywood career playing racial cliches, heads a theater troupe in a Shakespearean scheme to get the ronin into Lord Kira's proximity.
Sanada brings dignity to the proceedings with lines like this - "All that will be left of our brief lives will be the pride our children feel when they speak our names."
But Keanu is left asking the rhetorical question which only the producers can answer: "What use am I to you?"
They needed him to get this made. Unfortunately.
* * * * *
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano
Directed by Carl Rinsch, scripted by Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini
Running time: 1:53
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, and thematic elements