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 big-screen live-action adaptation mostly captures the look and feel of the ‘60s cartoon many of us grew up watching. It could have used a few more occurrences of our favorite line “Look out Speed! AH!” but oh well. As it goes Speed (Emile Hirsch) has grown up with motor oil pumping through his veins helping his Pops (John Goodman) make racecars and idolizing his older brother Rex (Scott Porter) a top-notch driver. Then tragedy strikes when Rex is seemingly killed in an accident. Heartbroken Speed is determined to take his place showing some serious skills on the track. His girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) thinks he’s the bomb as do his mom (Susan Sarandon) younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim. But Speed is soon in for a rude awakening when he is introduced to the corrupt world of auto racing forcing him to team up with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) to make it right again. Go Speed go! The usually somber Hirsch--who is best known for his indie work in films such as Alpha Dog and Into the Wild--seems at first an odd choice to play Speed. But his seriousness works well against the campiness surrounding him especially in the more emotional moments. Same goes for Fox as the stoic Racer X. Still one can’t help but think of him as his Lost alter ego in a dark glasses and a mask. The rest of the cast just has way too much fun including Ricci as the cute-as-a-button-but-full-of-moxie Trixie Goodman as the blowhard Pops and especially young Litt as Spritle. Out of all Speed’s animated characters re-envisioned Litt does the best job capturing Spritle’s cartoon mischievousness. The monkey ain’t bad either. Chim-Chim AH! Oh those Wachowski brothers (Andy and Larry). They sure do like to come up with as many inventive ways to visually stimulate you as they can don’t they? Their Matrix series set CGI on fire--and now Speed Racer which quite literally takes you inside a video game the Wii or Xbox could only dream of ever creating. The film is virtual eye candy from start to finish--a mixture of Tim Burton-esque colorful sets wild adrenaline-filled special effects and constant camera movements. They may actually need to post a warning for those who suffer from motion sickness. However Speed’s main problem which is the same problem the Matrix franchise suffered from is its tendency to overanalyze the plot. The Wachowskis love to preach turning a scene about the racing world’s corrupt beginning into a 15-minute diatribe. They try to combine the campiness of the animated TV series with serious undertones but it only weighs the film down. You can feel the kids in the audience tapping their feet waiting for more action. So let’s just give the kids what they want: fast-paced excitement wrapped up in a colorful package.