Barnstorming swordplay, pretty faces and a no-brainer plot combine to fizzy effect in “Rurouni Kenshin,” the screen adaptation of a Meiji-era manga series about a ronin who kicks ass while preaching pacifism. The recent paucity of bona fide samurai films offering rip-roaring action (with the exception of Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins”) probably did more to usher in the pic’s $35 million-plus domestic B.O. than Keishi Otomo’s workmanlike helming. Hip fusion of Nipponese historical ambience with comicbook-hero fantasy ensures the Warner Bros. Japan production will also go gangbusters in overseas markets targeting teens and genre fans.
Nobuhiro Watsuki’s original shonen manga (comic for teenage boys) centers on Kenshin Himura, a samurai recruited at 14 into a loyalist squad to assassinate cohorts of the Shogunate. His cold efficiency earns him the moniker Hitokiri Battosai, or “killing machine.” Once Meiji Restoration has been achieved, he joins the ranks of the ronin (disbanded samurai) and roams the land doing justice to atone for his murderous past.
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The pic opens with the apocalyptic 1868 Battle of Toba-Fushima, shot in stark cobalt tones, in a bold departure from the manga’s florid, juvenile illustration style. Battosai (Takeru Satoh) emerges from the carnage like a goth-band bassist with billowing mane and a crucifix-shaped scar across his chiseled face. He’s stopped short in his trancelike slicing spree by the announcement of the Emperor’s victory, but Jin’e (Koji Kikkawa), a samurai with fiendish eyes, tells him the fight is not over yet.
The story jumps ahead 10 years to a new age of modernization, prosperity and greed, embodied by the ruthless entrepreneur Kanryu (Teruyuki Kagawa). To achieve nationwide economic domination, he forces his mistress, Megumi (Yu Aoi), daughter of a distinguished pharmacist, to develop a deadly opium. She escapes and is rescued by orphan boy Yahiko Myojin (Taketo Tanaka), who hides her in the kendo academy run by Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei, “For Love’s Sake”).
Kaoru, following her father’s mantra of “fencing as a celebration of life,” tries to hunt down Battosai, not realizing he has sworn never to kill again. Calling himself Kenshin (which means “heart of the sword”), he now wields a blade with the cutting edge reversed.
Avoiding the manga’s arcane details on various schools and techniques of kenjitsu, “Rurouni Kenshin” produces its own highlights via crowd-pleasing spectacle. Scenes in which Kenshin takes on dozens singlehandedly, as well as one-on-one fencing, are choreographed in the balletic, kinetic style characteristic of Hong Kong actioners, expertly handled by action director Kenji Tanigaki, who worked on several Hong Kong martial-arts pics, including Peter Chan’s stunning “Dragon.”
Even though the 134-minute pic perks up whenever there’s an action sequence, the story is too pedestrian to engage, and the excitement dips whenever dramatic exposition takes over. On the romantic front, Takei’s tomboy image and Satoh’s equally placid bearing make their characters’ relationship feel passionless.
While Kagawa stands out by dint of his usual clownish exaggeration, other fine thesps, like Yosuke Egawa (as a police captain who always arrives on the crime scene too late) and ethereal Aoi, seem inconsequential in their flat supporting roles. Kikkawa imbues the role of Kenshin’s Thanatos-like nemesis with a diabolical power, but the way the character tends to materialize out of nowhere, for no good reason, renders him enigmatic in a bad way.
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