OK, finally saw this. Narukagami's review on the Samurai Archives Film Forum covered much of what I also think, so I'll limit myself to new avenues.
As expected, about a 2 on a 100 based accuracy scale. A Lord Asano attacks an unarmed Lord Kira, is sentenced to seppuku, and a group of 47 of his former vassals led by Oishi Yoshio murder Kira. Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, else is wrong. Even small details that were changed seemingly only for the sake of doing so. Culturally, they managed to get virtually everything wrong too, stressing the fantasy vibe. I mention this only in passing, because the movie claims to only be BASED on the story, and no sane person could watch the trailer and expect real history. So accuracy wasn't an issue for me. Does make you wonder why they hired Stephen Turnbull as an historical consultant and kept him on the set for months, because it appears they ignored any advice he might have given them. I need that gig.
Keanu Reeves was GODAWFUL. It might have been the worst performance I've ever seen in a big budget movie. I get that he's supposed to be stoic, but Japanese actors can pull this off and still be interesting in the process. Reeves just looked eternally befuddled and mentally challenged, with his character coming across as the village idiot. And this is what's supposed to turn on the Great Lord Asano's daughter? Which brings us to...
The Great Lord Asano's daughter Mika and the love story, which as Narukagami mentioned is shoehorned in for no discernible reason. Why any woman would find Reeves's character attractive is beyond me, and Mika is by far the most unlikeable female lead/primary love interest I've ever seen in a 'samurai' film. There is no chemistry between the two and you just want to see them die painfully, preferably at each other’s hand. With a chainsaw.
This unlikablilty spills over to the rest of the cast. You're supposed to be CHEERING for the 47 Ronin, but they are so arrogant, intolerant (accurate here, as historically they booted out one of their members for being of insufficient rank), dishonest (even to their Lord), and downright mean spirited and nasty, you want to see them all die too (at least the film delivers here). Oishi is particularly loathsome. Granted, this is probably the way samurai were in real life, but in a fantasy epic, you want the heroes to be heroes. Flawed, yes, but not complete and unredeemable bastards. Conversely, Kira and his fox-witch are virtually the only engaging characters in the film. I did enjoy the fact that they role-reversed the usual depictions and made Kira a young, vibrant man and Asano the wrinkled and decrepit old Lord.
And they spent 175 mil on this? Where? It sure isn't up on the screen. The CG wasn't as bad as I feared-the Kirin in the beginning was awful, and the Oni that Reeves fights in the UFC pit on Dejima (I was REALLY hoping for a Don Frye cameo) is almost as bad. Still, the effects they did for the 'swirling cloth' Tengu and the witch were well done, and the water dragon looked fine. The real problem with the CG is they did a very poor job of staging things so the actors looked like they were interacting with the fantasy creatures. This was particularly noticeable in the opening Kirin hunt and Reeves's battle with the water dragon. They'd have been much better off using practical effects-the few in the film (such as the Tengu makeup) were well done.
The film also wasted some of its biggest assets. Kira's super-samurai is set up for a climactic battle against...someone, but is unsatisfactorily thrown away during the final fight. And the cool skull headed gun-toting tattooed dude featured prominently in advertising is given almost nothing to do, appearing for only a few seconds during the Dejima sequence during which he has zero impact on the proceedings.
Having said all that, I actually did enjoy the movie as a fantasy epic. It moved along well, Kikuchi Rinko gives a great over-the-top performance as Kira’s witch that fits the mood a fantasy should have, the sets and costuming are goofy but impressively so, and the fighting that doesn’t involve monsters is pretty well done. If you approach this the same way as you would a late 50’s/early 60’s Ray Harryhausen style fantasy/quest film, I believe most fans of the genre would find it a pleasant enough way to pass two hours. And like most fantasy flicks, the problems with it only result in a so-bad-it’s-good vibe. It’s probably not worth buying the DVD/Blu-ray for most people, but definitely worth a spot on your Netflix queue.
Speaking of which, the extras on the DVD/Blu-ray were a major disappointment. Basing this on a real story, you’d think they’d at least have a pseudo-documentary of the historical incident, but it rates barely a passing mention. If nothing else, it would have given Turnbull a chance to earn whatever they were paying him. Instead, you get several of your typical ‘behind-the-scenes-crew-member-with-a-video-camera’ vignettes. These look to have originally been part of a whole that was chopped up in order to give the appearance of more ‘extras’. There are a handful of deleted scenes, and that’s it. No commentary track or any sort of in-depth examination of the film-can’t say I blame them. They likely didn’t want to throw more money into a losing effort. The short vignettes spend much of their time having cast and crew gush about how awesomely talented and brilliant Reeves is and how they just loved working with him and having him on the set, and how he was seemingly in command of everything that went on from costuming to plot (so now we know who REALLY gets the blame for this box-office disaster). Yes, people will lie through their teeth to remain gainfully employed. If you want to hear anything about the Japanese cast, sorry, these aren’t the extras you’re looking for, because they receive only a few brief sentences. There are some hilariously jaw-dropping moments during the extras, such as when one of the ‘artistes’ claims that they’ve designed a film that visually is historically authentic and accurate but that yet brings it refreshingly into the present day and gives it a totally modern look. I like to think some mischievous editor dropped that into the proceedings for the sole purpose of amusing me.
So enjoy the 47 Ronin for what it is-a mess of a film that features enough monsters, witchery, ass-kicking, and absurdity to make it worth a rental. And about as authentic and realistic as most of the other films that feature the 47 Ronin-which is to say not at all.