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.
November 28, 2005 10:54am EST
Frank Beardsley (Dennis Quaid) is a widowed Admiral from the U.S. Coast Guard with eight kids and one hell of a regiment. In fact you could call him downright anal retentive when it comes to raising his children. Meanwhile his poor kids ardently hope that someday they’ll land somewhere permanently. They get their wish when Frank runs into Helen North (Renee Russo) his former high school sweetheart. Helen is also widowed a free-spirited handbag designer with 10 kids who takes a more relaxed approach to parenting. Deciding its fate they’ve been reunited the two get married without their combined 18 children knowing about it. When the kids find out that their lives are about to drastically change all 18 of them band together to break up their parents--but learn a few life lessons instead. Sweet isn’t it? Watching Russo is always such a treat. Even grappling with a script like Yours Mine and Ours she manages to make the most of her eccentric flustered character. Quaid on the other hand deviates little from the character he played in The Parent Trap or The Rookie or any other movie he’s been in lately. If you have seen one of his movies you’ve seen them all. Thankfully the kids are the best part of the movie each of them finding a way to endear themselves. The youngest two kids--Ethan Beardsley (Ty Panitz) and Aldo North (Nicholas Roget-King)--are the most entertaining to watch because they are so young and naïve. Whether they are getting in trouble for something their older siblings put them up to or fearing the “hammer” (aka the Admiral’s discipline plan) they bring some welcomed relief in the otherwise stale comedy. Director Raja Gosnell best known for helming comedies such as Scooby Doo Big Momma's House and Never Been Kissed should know have known better than to try to resurrect and remold the Lucille Ball/Henry Fonda1968 original. It just isn’t necessary. To start with the story which is based on the real Helen North Beardsley’s book Who Gets the Last Drumstick? isn’t all that entertaining. It’s also a little dated for these modern times especially when we’ve seen the same material covered in far better films such as Parenthood. But at least Gosnell knows how to highlight the calamity of having 20 people together in one house--a house which also includes two large dogs and a pot-bellied pig. Yeah a pig. Whether it’s a paint fight among the family or a party among the older kids Gosnell puts you inside this zoo the Beardsley-Norths call home. Just be glad you don’t live in it yourself.