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.
There’s something to the ‘enlightening journey’ storyline: a lost figure packs up his life and heads out on a trek whereon getting lost (literally) is the only way to get found (existentially). Sure it’s an archetypal story—in a lot of films conforming to this theme there’s an overlying sense of familiarity. We know why these characters are here. We know what’s going to happen to them. And we know what the movie is trying to tell us. The Way is no exception. But just because it’s nothing new that doesn’t mean the movie is a failure.
Emilio Estevez writes and directs the small quiet sometimes funny and occasionally emotionally penetrating movie starring his father Martin Sheen as a man who has just lost his son (played by Estevez in flashbacks) to a tragic accident. Sheen’s character an ophthalmologist named Thomas Avery flies to Europe to identify the body of his son Daniel who died while braving a backpacking pilgrimage known as El Camino de Santiago. In some kind of muddled attempt to vindicate his son’s free-spirited ideology the otherwise pragmatic Dr. Avery decides to take on the pilgrimage himself scattering Daniel’s ashes throughout the path.
The sour doctor gathers an unlikely band of misfit toys while trekking: a happy-go-lucky Dutchman aiming to lose weight (Yorick van Wageningen) an embittered Canadian woman seeking religious affirmation after enduring her own personal trauma (Deborah Kara Unger) and an eccentric artist struggling with severe writer’s block (James Nesbitt). Initially set against making friends of any kind Tom grows to appreciate each of his outcast cohorts and the merit of their own personal struggles.
The story reminds me a bit of “The Bremen Town Musicians” fairy tale—a foursome of discarded journeyers join up with one another out of more than anything else a lack of anyplace else to go. And in this union do they all find themselves.
At times Estevez’s script and movie seem a little heavy-handed. The movie bounces from moments of impressive subtlety to those of epitaphic speeches and quotations. But the mood carried throughout (albeit inconsistently) is one of humanity. Although as expressed above the film has little in the realm of originality its sentiment is believable and humane. Most of all its characters are engaging—especially the lovable Joost played by van Wageningen—which is what makes the journey one worthy of our time.
The DVD’s special features will entice behind-the-scenes junkies. Each of the special features is a brief but relatively interesting look at a different aspect of the crafting of Estevez’s story. Most of them feature Estevez and father Sheen side by side discussing the characters the setting and the plotline. The audio commentary accompanying the film features Estevez Sheen and producer David Alexanian involved in an informative and interesting and often funny conversation about various aspects of the character development and the production.
"We shot it for probably 16 hours. Then I went home and went to sleep, and I got up the next day and raped him. It was a really weird week." The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo star Rooney Mara on her rape scenes in the thriller with co-star Yorick van Wageningen.