Based on an – apparently genuine – series of events that occurred in feudal Japan (presumably without dragons), but shot in London and Bulgaria, in 3D, newcomer Carl Rinsch's vacuum-packed epic is a strange, strange film.
Keanu Reeves plays a “half-breed” warrior raised, we're told, by demons, who joins a group of banished samurai (headed by Hiroyuki Sanada’s Oishi) in their quest to regain their lands from an evil lord (Tadanobu Asano), while saving the woman (Ko Shibasaki) he loves but barely interacts with. Mostly this involves fighting, making speeches and ceremonially handing each other swords.
Although inspired by a true story, the film's frequently interrupted by the appearance of CG creatures from Japanese folklore (ogres, bird warriors, a magic fox that looks like David Bowie).
Presumably this is intended to lend proceedings a magical, TLOTR-style sheen, but the FX look so dated, and the backdrops so shiny and fake, they feel like cast-offs from The Last Airbender, or some godforsaken forgotten planet in George Lucas' prequel-verse.
While die-hard fantasy fans might find something to salvage from the well-staged final battle, and the sequences involving Rinko Kikuchi’s (Pacific Rim) slinky witch (who can spin herself through space like an unravelling kimono) show some visual flair, this is much too pedestrian for a multi-multi-million dollar movie.
The dialogue's so cliched it sounds like it's been translated from another language (“I would rather have been killed by that beast than rescued by a half-breed!” intones one of the ronin). The strange pacing speaks of reshoots, inserts and trouble behind the scenes.
Meanwhile, Reeves' particularly brand of sleepy handsomeness isn't enough to fill the gaps, and he barely has anything to do, so we're left with a bunch of Japan's finest actors speaking broken English like they're reading from cue cards. It couldn't be more stilted if the cast were actually on stilts. Which, given the circumstances, wouldn't seem that weird.
“I will search for you through 1,000 worlds and 10,000 lifetimes!” Reeves promises his beloved. Anyone who sits all the way through this glossy folly will know exactly how that feels.