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.
Jules Verne’s classic 1864 novel has inspired many film and TV versions. None has matched the success of the penultimate 1959 Journey which starred James Mason and Pat Boone and remains a baby-boomer favorite and classic of the sci-fi genre. That could change with this clever remake--ingeniously filmed in 3D--which goes directly back to the source material of the book and comes off like an endless thrill ride. This updated tale begins with the daily travails of American professor Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) who has never gotten over the mysterious disappearance of his brother Max several years earlier. When Max’s son Sean (Josh Hutcherson) pays a visit bearing a box of Dad’s papers the Trevor discovers hand-written notes in a copy of an original Jules Verne book suggesting his brother may have found a way to confirm Verne’s theories about a direct volcanic entrance into the center of the earth. With nephew in tow and the book in hand the twosome set out for Iceland on their own perilous journey to test Max’s thesis and trace his steps. There they are joined by Hannah (Anita Briem) a skeptical mountain guide who agrees to show them the way--though she highly doubts they find anything resembling Verne’s imagined lost world of natural wonders and roaming dinosaurs. But stranger things have happened right?
Anchoring the proceedings with enough derring-do to suggest he would be ideally cast as the next Indiana Jones if Harrison Ford ever wants to hang up his hat Fraser has just the right amount of authority cynicism and dry wit to make us connect to a down and out professor whose “crazy” geological beliefs have torched his reputation. Key to liking this guy is clearly the fun Fraser has in playing him. Hutcherson is thankfully a little looser in this flick than the spiritually-driven boy he played in Bridge To Terabithia even though the two films share odd similarities especially with their descent from mundane real life into fantasy adventures any kid would salivate over. Briem nicely rounds out the threesome as the reluctant guide trying to deny the beliefs of her own late father a Verne disciple who as it turns out shared the same dreams of the two nascent adventurers she now finds herself shepherding to parts unknown. In a relatively minor role SNL’s Seth Meyers also turns up early on as a disbelieving colleague of Andersons. Oscar-winning visual effects veteran Eric Brevig (Total Recall) makes his directorial debut and turns out to be perfectly chosen for what is after all an effects- driven summer ride. Leaving a lot of the talkiness and exposition of Verne’s book (and previous film versions) on the cutting room floor Brevig cuts right to the chase in this breezy 90-minute guilty pleasure. He clearly knows today’s moviegoers have the attention span of a mosquito so he piles on the action but still manages to keep the sense of wonder crucial to the story alive. Best of all the 3D technology which has been part of Hollywood for over half a century is still remarkable to behold even in the CGI era. Rather than just selected sequences the entire film has been shot with 3D in mind so expect to have lots of objects hurled directly at you--none more effectively than a scene in which our explorers encounter flying fish. And even without the glasses prepare to hold your breath and hang on for a great time at the movies.
The film follows the journey of the title character (Kirsten Dunst) the winsome sweet-natured teenage archduchess of Austria who is dispatched by her family in the late 1700s into a politically advantageous marriage to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) the future king of France. While the trappings of the royal palace at Versailles are as extravagant and glamorous as any traditional historical biopic the heart of the film is Marie Antoinette’s smaller more emotional world as she struggles to fit in with the puzzling customs and often-stern judgment of a foreign court. She must also fulfill her duty to her own nation—namely producing an heir to safeguard their political status a task that proves increasingly frustrating as she romances her maddeningly reticent new husband. Much like any modern young woman in our era of airhead heiresses she initially soothes her angst by indulging in excessive shopping sprees wild parties and flirtations with a hunky war hero. But she also eases into her role on the throne only to find that her starving angry peasant subjects have taken a harsh view of the gossip surrounding her profligate behavior as they mount the French Revolution. As a child actress who worked steadily into her teens and early twenties Dunst has always been a fresh sunny presence on screen in popcorn films like Bring It On but who could also reveal an ability to access darker corners as she did in her debut performance in Interview with the Vampire and in Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut The Virgin Suicides. But after her breakthrough role in 2002’s Spider-Man most of Dunst’s subsequent efforts seem to have be chosen more to build her Hollywood stardom than challenge her acting skills and perhaps unchallenged she delivers performances more competent than compelling. Marie Antoinette is a welcome return to a more complicated and conflicted role and she rises to the challenge admirably with her most appealing and most affecting turn to date. Utterly capturing the queen’s evolution from naïf to sophisticate gaining wisdom and maturity from her youthful frustrations and overindulgences Dunst makes Marie’s plight utterly relatable and imbues virtually every scene of the film with a watchability that outdoes even the luxe production design. In only her third—and most ambitious—film writer-director Sofia Coppola continues on her hot streak. Already one of the most atmospheric and subtle helmers working in Hollywood she not only marries her modern dreamlike style to the opulent visuals of a historical drama she effectively redefines Marie Antoinette in a way that any alienated over-her-head teen of today could appreciate while also showing just why the population at large might have considered her a monster. As Coppola is the quiet introspective daughter of a revered famously over-the-top filmmaker she too was thrust into a sophisticated world at an early age and was with her much-panned acting turn in The Godfather Part III certainly misunderstood by the public if not reviled. One is tempted to think a certain reliability applies to her success with her story. But her assured skills as a filmmaker are what really make Marie soar—even her experimental touches such as the use of anachronistic music on the soundtrack (the Strokes Bow Wow Wow New Order and others appear alongside Vivaldi). It make perfect sense in context the kind of tunes a disaffected adolescent might play in her bedroom while wondering why no one understands them. That’s just the icing; the rest of Marie’s delectable cake is well worth eating.