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 was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
The second Men in Black finished first for the second time in its second weekend with $25 million and a $133.3 million cume.
Opening at half the theaters that MIBII has, Road to Perdition was second with a first-class $22.1 million.
Reign of Fire opened third with a fiery $16 million. Halloween: Resurrection kicked off fourth with a sharp $12.3 million. Mr. Deeds inherited fifth place, holding well with $11 million.
The weekend's other wide opening, MGM's The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course bit off less than it hoped to chew, finishing sixth with $10 million.
Ticket sales were up nearly 19 percent from last year. Key films -- those grossing $500,000 or more -- took in $138.5 million versus last year's $116.8 million.
THE TOP TEN
Columbia's PG-13 rated blockbuster sequel Men in Black II topped the chart again in its second week with a still impressive ESTIMATED $25.0 million (-52%) at 3,611 theaters (+54 theaters; $6,923 per theater). Its cume after 12 days is approximately $133.3 million.
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, it stars Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.
"We certainly hope we're in position to make it to $200 million," Sony Pictures Entertainment worldwide marketing & distribution president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning. "That would make everyone very happy and (generate) plenty of profits for everybody."
The film's second weekend drop of 52 percent was well below predictions some insiders were making late last week that it would fall 60 percent or more. "This shows this (film) is really being taken as it was meant to be, which is (as) a terrifically entertaining summer picture," Blake said. "It's basically for everybody and I think that adds up. Any time anybody is this high profile and as wide as we are and adding up as quickly as we are, I guess there's some question of how long it can last. But, in the meantime, it certainly is adding up pretty quickly."
With MIBII and Mr. Deeds both performing well, Sony Pictures Entertainment saw its domestic theatrical gross for the year soar past the $1 billion mark this week. "We haven't added it up yet, but I know we're probably around $1.03 billion or something like that at this point in time," Blake noted. "I believe we passed ($1 billion) last Friday." The studio is hoping and planning to break the record it set in 1997 with its gross for that year of $1.27 billion. It's presently running about two months ahead of where it was in '97.
Sony's next release, Stuart Little 2, arrives Friday (July 19) at 3,000 or more theaters. The first Stuart Little opened to $15 million the weekend of Dec. 17-19, 1999 and went on to gross $140 million in domestic theaters.
DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox's R rated adult appeal drama Road to Perdition, a Zanuck Company production, opened in second place to critical acclaim, an early Oscar buzz and a heavenly ESTIMATED $22.11 million at 1,797 theaters ($12,305 per theater).
Perdition's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Directed by Sam Mendes, it stars Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law.
"It's outstanding," DreamWorks distribution head Jim Tharp said Sunday morning. "The nature of this kind of movie is to play strong Sunday and mid-week. With the adult audience, they don't always turn out the first weekend to see a movie. Many times they wait for the word of mouth and show up in subsequent weeks.
"The idea of going out initially with the 1,797 runs was to allow the movie to play well through the summer and into the fall. And I think this release pattern allows that."
Recalling DreamWorks' 1998 summer blockbuster Saving Private Ryan, Tharp noted that it opened to an average of $12,414 per theater with 2,463 runs. Ryan arrived to $30.58 million the weekend of July 24-26, 1998 and wound up grossing $216.1 million in domestic theaters. "On a per theater basis, (this) is about the same and it's in fewer theaters," Tharp said.
Asked about talk that Perdition is on the road to the Oscars, Tharp replied, "We're aware of all of that. It's not something we're addressing at this point. We're trying to maximize the box office of the movie with our marketing and release pattern."
On the distribution side, DreamWorks plans to go a little wider with the film this week. "We actually had conversations with (exhibitors) last week, many (of whom had) wanted to open the movie," Tharp said. "So we'll add a few hundred runs this coming Friday. But, again, we're still restraining ourselves from really blowing the movie out and taking what we think is an inappropriate number of runs."
As for those who questioned whether it made sense to release a film targeted to adults in mid-summer, Tharp observed, "Well I think (this strong opening) does counter that. I think a good movie can play any time of the year. This kind of movie that plays really well on Sundays and mid-week is even stronger in the summer than it is any other time of the year. So for the total box office for the movie, we think the summer was a perfect time to release it."
Looking at the first exit poll information coming in Sunday morning, Tharp said DreamWorks was told, "Audiences for Road to Perdition were evenly divided by gender and evenly split under and over 35. The movie played substantially above average in the excellent, very good and definite recommend categories."
Buena Vista/Touchstone and Spyglass Entertainment's Reign of Fire, a Zanuck Company production, arrived in third place to a hot ESTIMATED $16.0 million at 2,629 theaters ($6,095 per theater).
Directed by Rob Bowman, it stars Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale.
Miramax's Dimension Films launched its R rated horror sequel Halloween: Resurrection in fourth place to a bloody good ESTIMATED $12.3 million at 1,954 theaters ($6,294 per theater).
Directed by Rick Rosenthal, it stars Jamie Lee Curtis.
Columbia and New Line's PG-13 rated comedy Mr. Deeds dropped three rungs to fifth place in its third week, showing good legs with an ESTIMATED $11.0 million (-40%) at 3,239 theaters (+8 theaters; $3,396 per theater). Its cume is approximately $94.1 million.
Directed by Steven Brill, it stars Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder.
"We're particularly pleased that it's down 40 percent," Sony's Jeff Blake said. "This is a movie that will hit $100 million by Friday and seemingly is headed to $120-130 million, which is a wonderful place to be -- especially on a picture that cost $55 million.
"Adam continues to show that he has great staying power. There's nothing like a big summer comedy."
MGM's PG rated family adventure The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course opened sixth to a tame ESTIMATED $10.0 million at 2,525 theaters ($3,960 per theater).
Directed by John Stainton, it stars Steve Irwin and Terri Irwin.
Buena Vista/Disney's PG rated animated family appeal feature Lilo & Stitch slid four pegs to tie for seventh place in its fourth week with a less lively ESTIMATED $7.6 million (-40%) at 2,940 theaters (-282 theaters; $2,575 per theater). Its cume is approximately $117.9 million.
Written and directed by Chris Sanders, it was produced by Clark Spencer. Its original score is by Alan Silvestri.
20th Century Fox's PG rated urban appeal basketball comedy Like Mike skidded three hoops to tie for seventh place in its second week with a less funny ESTIMATED $7.6 million (-37%) at 2,436 theaters (+26 theaters; $3,128 per theater). Its cume is approximately $32.6 million.
Directed by John Schultz, it stars Lil' Bow Wow, Morris Chestnut, Jonathan Lipnicki, Robert Forster, Crispin Glover and Eugene Levy.
"It's only off 37 percent, which is terrific," Fox executive vice president, distribution Rick Myerson said Sunday morning. "The way things have been going this summer, everything is off 50-55 percent on the second weekend. This is just sensational and we're really happy about it. It looks like Like Mike's got a little slam dunk here."
20th Century Fox and DreamWorks' PG-13 rated sci-fi fantasy thriller Minority Report tumbled five pre-cogs to ninth place in its fourth week with a slower ESTIMATED $7.41 million (-41%) at 2,419 theaters (-310 theaters; $3,063 per theater). Its cume is approximately $110.3 million, heading for $135-140 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, it stars Tom Cruise.
"Off 41 percent is a very good hold because it's an adult oriented movie and you had Road to Perdition open up (which also is targeted to adults and) did very well," Fox's Myerson said.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Universal's PG-13 sleeper hit The Bourne Identity, off four slots in its fifth week with a still solid ESTIMATED $5.77 million (-37%)) at 2,199 theaters (-313 theaters; $2,625 per theater). Its cume is approximately $99.0 million, heading for $110 million or more in domestic theaters.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Sony Pictures Classics' R rated romantic comedy My Wife Is an Actress to an encouraging ESTIMATED $46,000 at 7 theaters ($6,594 per theater).
Directed by Yvan Attal, it stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Yvan Attal and Terence Stamp.
Focus Features' R rated romantic comedy Never Again opened to a hopeful ESTIMATED $33,000 at 5 theaters ($6,677 per theater).
Written, produced and directed by Eric Schaeffer, it stars Jeffrey Tambor and Jill Clayburgh.
There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
On the expansion front this weekend Gold Circle Films and HBO's PG rated romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding added a few more theaters via IFC Films in its 13th week with a still terrific ESTIMATED $2.4 million (-5%) at 501 theaters (+2 theaters; $4,760 per theater). Its cume is approximately $27.3 million.
Directed by Joel Zwick, it stars Nia Vardalos and John Corbett.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $138.54 million, up 18.64 percent from last year when they totaled $116.78 million.
Key films were down about 6.53 percent from the previous weekend of this year when they grossed $148.22 million.
Last year, MGM's opening week of Legally Blonde was first with $20.38 million at 2,620 theaters ($7,778 per theater); and Paramount's opening week of The Score was second with $19.02 million at 2,129 theaters ($8,933 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $39.4 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $47.1 million.