Since 47 Ronin opened, mystifyingly, on Christmas Day, it has earned for itself the right to be treated with the warmth and charity of the holiday season. Thus: this movie has, for serious, kind of amazing sound mixing. It is raging and violent during the battle scenes, it's hushed and soothing in the scenes of reflective solemnity, it creates at all times an immersive feeling that is more fluid and ethereal than naturalistic, and yet a kind of naturalism is the result anyway.

Also, the CGI mostly doesn't suck, but in a couple of shots of a dragon, it really does. Merry Christmas, I've run out of nice things.

That being said, the film's not nearly the ghastly, death-haunted train wreck that word of mouth has made it out to be. For that word of mouth is based in no small part on the hideous sight of Keanu Reeves as our tour guide into the world of Japanese samurai culture, which is a horrible notion in every way, but it's also not what 47 Ronin is: Reeves isn't even the main character. That honor goes to Oishi, played by Sanada Hiroyuki, who is, if we might make reference to Seven Samurai (and 47 Ronin is awfully keen on our doing so), the Shimura Takeshi to Reeves's Mifune Toshiro and Kimura Isao combined, in that he's the primary mover in everything that happens in the main action of the plot, the ring-leader, and the strategist. Reeves's Kai has to settle for being the unliked half-breed who wants to be a real samurai but can't, and also has the wan romantic subplot to carry, and still ends up with less screen time.

That only means that 47 Ronin isn't the worst film it could be, not that it isn't still awfully bad, nor even that it doesn't make a mockery of Japanese culture. The very first thing that happens in the film is a grave narrator invoking "ancient feudal Japan, a land of magic", which manages to be vile on three separate levels: feudal Japan isn't "ancient", it was a real place not saturated by tacky fantasy movie magic, and in 2013, English-speaking audiences have had enough access to stories taking place in feudal Japan that we don't need this mind-boggling over-the-top exoticism to add a zesty sense of Orientalism to the proceedings. But we might well ask, without Orientalism, would this 47 Ronin exist at all? It is the first version in English of a story retold so often in all Japanese dramatic forms that there's an entire genre, Chūshingura, that refers only to telling the story of the 47 ronin, and that word is the title of a great many movies on exactly the same subject. At least one, a two-part 1941 epic made by Mizoguchi Kenji, is among the few pre-1950 Japanese films reasonably well-known in America, though I suppose that the new one has more or less shat that bed for the next decade.

The story is irreducibly Japanese, evoking the heart and soul of the bushido code governing honor and morality among the warrior class: a group of samurai, in the employ of Lord Asano (Tanaka Min), were furious when the shogun Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) took no action against Lord Kira (Asano Tadanobu), whose actions precipitated Asano's death. Though specifically forbidden from doing so, the 47 disgraced and masterless samurai - known as ronin - successfully enacted a plan to avenge themselves on Kira, with their commitment to bushido so moving and profound that the shogun permitted them to die by the honorable method of seppuku, rather than having them executed as criminals. Concerned, perhaps, that this story was going to be a hard sell for literally every other culture besides the one that birthed it, the producers of the new movie sexed it up with a witch (Kikuchi Rinko) who can transform herself into a dragon, among other less dubious additions to what is, after all, a matter of historical, not legendary record.

In this extravagantly costly telling (and for the most part, you can see the money: not all $175 million of it, but there have been chintzier looking popcorn movies in 2013), the complexity and dignity of bushido has been replaced by alarming tone-deafness on the part of first time feature director Carl Rinsch, who's absolutely drowning in this environment of big, fancy sets, and big, colorful costumes, and big, glossy CGI. A proper version of 47 Ronin needs to have a certain gravity about it, but Rinsch's approximation of this feeling is almost comically straitlaced solemnity, a sense of all-encompassing mirthlessness that is absolutely the worst way any director can handle Keanu Reeves, for a start, and such a mind-blowing mismatch for the gaudy excesses of the fantasy-laced production that it only draws attention to how much magical swords and all don't belong in this plot.

At times, Rinsch and cinematographer John Mathieson manage to stumble into some well-chosen images: Japanese architecture has too much of a linear geography to it for anybody using a rectangular frame to strike out completely. And Penny Rose's glowingly colorful costume designs help the film stumble into a few Ran-like moments of human figure as graphic element. But mostly, the visuals are just like the storytelling: too grim for the content of the film, too klutzy for the original story. The camera moves with plodding intensity, and the blocking offers plenty of pauses for the actors to hold dramatic poses, and it feels too damn much like a teenage otaku's daydreams about making a movie for words to express. It is tremendously unmodulated in its seriouness: everything has all the oxygen sucked out of it, and there's no attempt made - not a successful one, anyway - to change the feeling between scenes, or to give any of the characters a personality beyond "teeth-gritting constipation". This endless, aching earnestness, whether it belongs there or not on a scene-by-scene basis, makes the film more of a slog than a genuinely awful piece of crap, but that leaves it almost less tolerable, and harder to recommend for any viewer anywhere.

4/10