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’s already a bad day for Tom (Stephen Rea) an unemployed middle-aged business executive who’s about to enter the ranks of the homeless--but things are only going to get worse when the sun goes down. Brandi (Mena Suvari) a young nurse with a penchant for partying is driving home after celebrating an expected promotion when Tom crosses the street at exactly the wrong moment. Brandi hits Tom then rushes home in abject panic--all the while incidentally Tom’s body is stuck in her windshield and he’s still alive. While Brandi frantically dithers and deliberates how to extricate herself from this situation without consequences Tom is trying to physically extricate his broken body from Brandi’s windshield. What begins as a simple if unfortunate case of hit-and-run becomes a battle of wills between Tom and Brandi--one that crackles with intensity and irony. Both Suvari and Rea give tremendous performances. Rea's downtrodden dignity is enormously empathetic. His attempts to save himself--exemplifying his renewed will to live--are agonizing to watch but also rousing in their own way as this underdog fights against some pretty steep (and bloody) odds. Interestingly enough it’s also easy to empathize with Brandi’s predicament--for a time. Hitting Tom was an accident but when she goes into self-preservation mode Brandi’s actions become more and more horrific with the consequences growing exponentially. Suvari (also an associate producer) hasn’t had a role this good since American Beauty and she makes the most of it. There’s also a nice turn by Russell Hornsby as Brandi’s drug-dealing two-timing boyfriend Rashid who gets drawn into her scheme--much to his regret. Stuart Gordon whose H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator remains one of the premier cult films of the 1980s has lost none of his savage wit or his taste for dark humor. That this film is inspired by an actual incident only enhances its impact and its stinging irony. Truth is not only stranger than fiction it’s often stronger. Beyond the violence (sometimes extreme) and satire (sometimes overt) are some subtle yet potent observations about human nature--about not taking responsibility for one’s actions about not getting involved about covering up one’s mistakes. Stuck is not a preachy film but it’s frequently a penetrating one (no pun intended).