The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
The Raven takes a solid foundation (the works of Edgar Allan Poe) gives it an interesting twist (a Se7en-esque crime riff on Poe's existing works) and squanders the opportunity into an unwatchable 111-minute film fit for no audience. One part CSI one part Saw the thriller plods its way through bloody setup after bloody setup as Poe (John Cusack) accompanies Detective Fields (Luke Evans) in search of the author's fiancee Emily (Alice Eve). She's been kidnapped by a murderous literary-inclined madman prompting Poe to put on his Sherlock hat and scream a lot.
Turns out the inventive demises of Poe's characters recreated by the faceless serial killer aren't that exciting — at least in the hands of director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta Ninja Assassin). The Raven is a straightforward procedural souped up with Victorian era production design but the unique setting doesn't forgive any of the ineptitude on display in the other aspects of the film. Poe is forced by the murder to chronicle his villainous exploits for the Baltimore newspaper — the perfect way to torture an entitled author and a dramatic hook to draw us into the antics. But McTeigue abandons the slow burn quality that could have been in favor of buckets of blood. The grisliness of the killings is one of the film's obsession red splashing across the screen as a pendulum guts a random victim. The Raven's gore earns the film's R but it's out of place.
Cusack's performance as Poe is befuddling. At times he's an egomaniac a wise thinker an action hero — he's completely in flux and every ounce of the movie's attempted seriousness vanishes. Never before has a part cried out for Nicolas Cage's signature brand of crazy-eyed manic heightened realism. Late in the film Poe and a team of police frantically search for his wife-to-be in a crypt. He calls out "EMILLLLLLLLYYYYYYY" in what sounds like the actor's best Ron Burgandy impression. Cusack doesn't know what movie he's in and there's no one around to help him.
There's little to enjoy in The Raven even on the surface. The muddy and dull cinematography looks like it was shot with a pea soup filter drab period-costuming and production design making squinting even more imperative. There's a strong core idea that dimly flickers under the bland mess of ideas flopping around in the movie — one Cusack and McTeigue even seem capable of pulling off. But The Raven is a spilled quill of ink sopped up with scare tactics and over-the-top performances. Less nevermore than never began.