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.
It happens all the time. A friend of yours decides to move out west to pursue other friendships. More profitable friendships—or sometimes ones that he thinks will earn him an Oscar. In any event, you’re left with a vacant spot in your friend group. So what do you do? Well, the natural and healthy thing to do is find someone who matches your friend’s general physicality to some satisfactory degree and hire him on to do everything and anything your friend would do if he was still around. Recasting. It’s a valuable tool.
Tthe above scenario is not quite the way things work in real life, but Hollywood has made this practice its second language. Time and time again, film sequels will lose actors from their original movies—perhaps to conflicts, financial issues, or lack of interest—and will be forced to recast. Sometimes, production invents a new character for the incoming actor or actress. Sometimes, the character remains the same…but just happens to look a little different this time around.
A recent advocate of the recasting strategy is Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. The film is a follow-up to Journey to the Center of the Earth, which starred Brendan Fraser in the leading role. The new film replaces Fraser with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, pitting the wrestler-turned-actor alongside returning player Josh Hutcherson to deliver a family-friendly adventure story.
Of course, the Journey films are just one of many franchises to employ this move. So, the question is: does it work? And, more importantly, what does it say about our society and its devaluation of human beings into expendable and interchangeable tools? Just kidding—nobody cares about that.
More often than not, when major actors are replaced in follow-up films, the results are disappointing. As much as I love Julianne Moore—which is an amount that has bordered on “prohibited by law”—nobody can say that her performance as Clarice Starling in the 2001 film Hannibal lived up to that of Jodie Foster in the 1991 predecessor, The Silence of the Lambs.
There are countless examples. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaced Katie Holmes in The Dark Knight. Omar Epps replaced Wesley Snipes in Major League II. Elisabeth Shue replaced Claudia Wells in the second and third Back to the Future films (as did Jeffrey Weisman for Crispin Glover…but we weren’t supposed to notice that). And in a much anticipated example, Mark Ruffalo will take on Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk, a role previously embodied Edward Norton, for the upcoming Avengers movie. The Griswold kids are practically shape-shifting aliens.
These replacements manifest varying degrees of positivity. Some people preferred Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes to the character originated by Holmes. Plenty look forward to this new, interesting Ruffalo Hulk. There are plenty who thought Jamie Kennedy totally blew Jim Carrey out of the water with Son of the Mask. So although the whole idea of casting replacement is instinctively met with revulsion in the eyes of the audiences, good things do come from the practice.
For one thing, we are opened up to different interpretations of the same character. Every cinematic Joker we’ve seen has brought something new—something outstanding and lasting. Imagine a world where Sean Connery may still be the iconic James Bond, but Lazenby, Moore and Dalton each infused the character with something new—competing with one another for many individuals’ personal choice of the 007 portrayer. And if you’re going to tell me that Cuba Gooding, Jr., didn’t revolutionize the character of Charlie Hinton in Daddy Day Camp, then we’re just living in two different worlds.
And sequel replacement doesn’t restrict the growth of story to the availability of actors. Actors are notorious for always being involved in other movies, Sudanese expeditions, or medical malpractice lawsuits. So, should a character or story that was always intended for further examination suffer because their original portrayer is suddenly unavailable? Fortunately, we have the old saying: “The show must go on.” Call in the understudy.
I’m sure that we’d all rather see the actors who helped us get to know our favorite characters continue to play them as long as they shall be depicted on screen. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. But the desire to keep these stories going is a good thing. Continued artistic expression despite casting setbacks should be considered a triumph. New interpretations should not be rejected outright. I say, recast everybody!
…except Surf Ninjas. You leave Surf Ninjas alone, Hollywood.