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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Georgia’s love life and career have hit a wall in America so she takes a trip to her ancestral home of Greece and gets a job as a tour guide on a rickety bus in Athens. Her insistence on spouting off endless historical facts tends to bore the tourists however and she becomes the least-popular guide and the target of a ruthless competitor. But as she navigates her way through the ruins of the country and her own life she manages to find new friends a new outlook and romance where she least expected it.
WHO’S IN IT?
It seemed only natural after the blockbuster success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (still the most profitable romantic comedy of all time) that its star Nia Vardalos would attempt a sequel. But after a failed attempt at a sitcom My Life in Ruins is about as close as she’s going to come. As Georgia a no-nonsense tour guide whose life is slowly transformed by the wonders of Greece Vardalos is right at home. She’s attractive likeable and could probably do this role in her sleep. As her unkempt bus driver who turns from a frog into a prince Alexis Georgoulis is the epitome of Greek geek. Getting the pole tourist position as Irv Richard Dreyfuss is warm and corny as a bad-joke-telling widower. The rest of the bus is intentionally paired off into various two-note stereotypes. Take your pick. There are obnoxious Americans (Harland Williams and Rachel Dratch) obnoxious Australians (Simon Gleeson and Natalie O’Donnell) obnoxious Brits (Ian Ogilvy and Caroline Goodall) with an obnoxious daughter (Sophie Stuckey) oversexed Spanish divorcees (Maria Botto and Maria Adanez) an old lady who steals stuff (Sheila Bernette) and a business guy who can’t stop texting (Brian Palermo). As Georgia’s scheming rival tour guide Alistair McGowan also plays it just the way we expect. No surprises with this group.
Despite the unimaginative sitcom-ish screenplay and Donald Petrie’s uninspired direction My Life in Ruins has two things going for it: Vardalos and Greece. Her fans will probably flock to the theater and once there they will be treated to a gorgeously-photographed tour of some of the country’s most spectacular sights including the rarely filmed (at least in mainstream movies) Acropolis.
Unfortunately the filmmakers rely all too heavily on the glories of Greece to get by. Perhaps with more effort there might have been a MOVIE to match. Sticking a bunch of stereotypes on a bus and hoping for nonstop hilarity just doesn’t cut it. Those looking for pure escapist fluff will probably have a good time watching My Life in Ruins but they’ll find more genuine laughs in a Greek tragedy.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
If the bad economy is cutting summer vacation plans and you need a sightseeing fix a trip to the mall to see this big fat Greek tourism informercial might be just the ticket. For everyone else just hit the beach instead.
Charlie (Michael Douglas) has been a mess for quite a while. A jazz musician who has battled schizophrenia and manic depression for years has spent the last couple living in a mental hospital. His 16-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has been living on her own in the family home (mom is long gone) having quit school and gone to work at McDonald’s to make ends meet. When Charlie is released and comes home the pair begins to tentatively rebuild their relationship. The good news is that Charlie is taking his meds and handling the real world reasonably well; the bad is that he’s developed an obsession with a legendary cache of Spanish gold doubloons reportedly buried near their dusty California home. When Charlie begins to convince Miranda that he really isn’t crazy--at least when it comes to the treasure--together they begin a Don Quixote-like journey that cements their fractured relationship back together. Forget Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko the ultra-smooth Wall Street guy or as dashing Jack Colton of Romancing the Stone fame. These days Douglas now 62 has said he needs a really good reason to leave his family so this role where he can play a scraggly bearded wild-eyed edge-of-nuts guy is just the ticket. Douglas gives one of his best performances ever as Charlie striking just the right balance of intellect insanity and inherent love for his no-longer-little girl. Plus the man whose on-screen persona has often been all about male vanity is anything but that in King of California. He’s a scrawny whippet of a guy rather than a hunky leading man and it’s a transformation that just may get him another Academy Award nomination. Meanwhile 20-year-old Evan Rachel Wood proves that she really is an acting force to be reckoned with giving a gently nuanced performance as a girl who has had to grow up way too soon yet still completely loves the father who has struggled to care for her as he struggles with his personal demons. First-time writer/director Mike Cahill has done a first-rate job of bringing this quirky funny and slightly poignant story to the screen. Perhaps the reason he’s been so successful is in the company he keeps. A film-school friend of Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (Sideways About Schmidt) Cahill enlisted his producing help for his film along with Payne’s Sideways partner Michael London. King of California bears Cahill’s own stamp however--a combination of terrific visuals that often make wry satiric statements deftly melded with an assortment of memorable characters and situations. Perhaps his biggest strength is in the casting of the film in his choice of the two talented actors who bring a believability and sense of real family ties to their roles. With King of California Cahill begins what looks to be a long and beautiful friendship with moviegoers who love to be transported to interesting and funny places.