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.
A billionaire TV producer (Robert Mammone) has a great idea for a reality show that he wants to put on the Internet and his goal is to beat the 40 million Super Bowl audience. He has compiled a crack team of young hip and immoral tech geeks directed by Goldman (Rick Hoffman) and puts cameras throughout a remote island where former prisoners are going to kill each other while audiences watch after shelling out the pay-per-view fee. The location is done on a remote secret island and the death row prisoners are bought from prisons around the world with the promise that the survivor gets to walk free. Among the contestants are a rogue Aussie named McStarley (Vinnie Jones) a martial arts expert (Masa Yamaguchi) a husband-and-wife team (Manu Bennett and Dasi Ruz) a monstrous killer who doesn't do much more than grunt (Nathan Jones) and others known only as The Italian The German and other monikers quickly forgotten. Enter the sole American Jack Conrad (Steve Austin) who's in a South American prison for some obscure reason and is recognized on TV by his wife (Madeleine West) who tries to save him. However it looks like Conrad is pretty good at helping himself. Don't expect the acting to be much more evolved than what could be seen among the World Wrestling Entertainment superstars especially since many of them were plucked from the ring to star in this morality tale. But Austin (who had in a strong cameo in Adam Sandler's Longest Yard) proves he has a sense of humor as well as strength. Vinnie Jones is ridiculously over-the-top as the Aussie who's the hand-picked winner of this game shown setting up alliances Survivor style only to turn on them later. The supporting cast are refreshingly entertaining but one-note caricatures both in the contest and running the contest. It's obvious that they aren't going to be around long but the actors do milk their tiny roles for every bit of attention they can get. Rick Hoffman as the brilliant camera mastermind of the project is both whiny sniveling and mean-spirited so when he joins some of the rest of the crew and suddenly develops a backbone and a conscience he ends up stealing the movie with his acerbic humor. But it's the understated American hero Conrad who holds a mirror up to the people who like to watch this stuff. Director Scott Wiper who co-wrote this story has also acted in similar movies like this (A Better Way to Die). It’s obvious he knows what he’s doing with The Condemned and develops a sense of voyeuristic angst like those of us who can't keep our eyes off a train wreck. Like the darkly subversive Belgian film Man Bites Dog the camera crew remains safely distant and remote until the reality directly involves them. Then the crew wonders "What the hell are we doing?" while the audience might be thinking "What the hell are we watching?" Much like Series 7: The Contenders Rollerball and other movies which show a dark and bloody near future this kind of reality doesn't seem too far away and maybe proves that movies which provide this type of gladiator spectacle target a certain segment of the human population who need to blow off steam.
Here is the complete list of winners:
Best Motion Picture - Drama
The Aviator WINNER!
Million Dollar Baby
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama
Scarlett Johansson, A Love Song For Bobby Long
Nicole Kidman, Birth
Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake
Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby WINNER!
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. 2
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama
Javier Bardem, The Sea Inside
Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda
Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland
Leonardo Dicaprio, The Aviator WINNER!
Liam Neeson, Kinsey
Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Phantom of the Opera
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy
Annette Bening, Being Julia WINNER!
Ashley Judd, De-Lovely
Emmy Rossum, The Phantom of the Opera
Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Renee Zellweger, Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture -Musical or Comedy
Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Jamie Foxx, Ray WINNER!
Paul Giamatti, Sideways
Kevin Kline, De-Lovely
Kevin Spacey, Beyond the Sea
Best Director - Motion Picture
Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby WINNER!
Marc Forster, Finding Neverland
Mike Nichols, Closer
Alexander Payne, Sideways
Martin Scorsese, The Aviator
Best Foreign Language Film
The Chorus (Les Choristes), (France)
House of Flying Daggers, (China)
The Motorcycle Diaries, (Brazil)
The Sea Inside, (Spain) WINNER!
A Very Long Engagement, (France)
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Cate Blanchet, The Aviator
Laura Linney, Kinsey
Virginia Madsen, Sideways
Natalie Portman, Closer WINNER!
Meryl Streep, The Manchurian Candidate
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
David Carradine, Kill Bill Vol. 2
Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
Jamie Foxx, Collateral
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby
Clive Owen, Closer WINNER!
Best Screenplay - Motion Picture
Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
John Logan, The Aviator
David Magee, Finding Neverland
Patrick Marber, Closer
Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, Sideways WINNER!
Best Original Score - Motion Picture
Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, Finding Neverland
Rolfe Kent, Sideways
Howard Shore, The Aviator WINNER!
Hans Zimmer, Spanglish
Best Original Song - Motion Picture
"Accidentally In Love" -- Shrek 2
Music & Lyrics By: Adam Duritz, Dan Vickery, David Immergluck, Matthew Malley & David Bryson
"Believe" - The Polar Express
Music & Lyrics By: Glen Ballard & Alan Silvestri
"Learn To Be Lonely" - The Phantom of the Opera
Music By: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics By: Charles Hart
"Million Voices" - Hotel Rwanda
Music By: Wyclef Jean, Jerry "Wonder" Duplessis, Andrea Guerra
Lyrics By: Wyclef Jean
"Old Habits Die Hard" - Alfie
Music & Lyrics By: Mick Jagger & David A. Stewart WINNER!
Best Television Series - Drama
Nip/Tuck (FX) WINNER!
The Sopranos (HBO)
Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Drama
Edie Falco, The Sopranos
Jennifer Garner, Alias
Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit WINNER!
Christine Lahti, Jack & Bobby
Joely Richardson, Nip/Tuck
Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Drama
Michael Chiklis, The Shield
Denis Leary, Rescue Me
Julian Mcmahon, Nip/Tuck
Ian McShane, Deadwood WINNER!
James Spader, Boston Legal
Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy
Arrested Development (Fox)
Desperate Housewives (ABC) WINNER!
Sex and the City (HBO)
Will & Grace (NBC)
Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy
Marcia Cross, Desperate Housewives
Teri Hatcher, Desperate Housewives WINNER!
Felicity Huffman, Desperate Housewives
Debra Messing, Will & Grace
Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex And The City
Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy
Jason Bateman, Arrested Development WINNER!
Zach Braff, Scrubs
Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm
Matt Leblanc, Joey
Tony Shalhoub, Monk
Charlie Sheen, Two And A Half Men
Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made For Television
American Family - Journey of Dreams (PBS)
Iron Jawed Angels (HBO)
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (HBO) WINNER!
The Lion in Winter (Showtime)
Something the Lord Made (HBO)
Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television
Glenn Close, The Lion in Winter WINNER!
Blythe Danner, Back When We Were Grown Ups
Julianna Margulies, The Grid
Miranda Richardson, The Lost Prince
Hilary Swank, Iron Jawed Angels
Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or A Motion Picture Made for Television
Mos Def, Something the Lord Made
Jamie Foxx, Redemption
William H. Macy, The Wool Cap
Geoffrey Rush, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers WINNER!
Patrick Stewart, The Lion in Winter
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Drea De Matteo, The Sopranos
Anjelica Huston, Iron Jawed Angels WINNER!
Nicolette Sheridan, Desperate Housewives
Charlize Theron, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
Emily Watson, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Sean Hayes, Will & Grace
Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos
Jeremy Piven, Entourage
Oliver Platt, Huff
William Shatner, Boston Legal WINNER!