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.
Earlier today, E! Online ran a story with quotes from Transformers actor Josh Duhamel, stating within that he doesn't believe any of the franchise's original cast members will be returning for the recently announced fourth film: "I don't think anybody's doing it," he said, adding, "I know Shia [LaBeouf]'s not doing it. I don't think Tyrese or Rosie [Huntington-Whiteley] or anybody else is doing it."
But everyone's asking the wrong question. The RIGHT question is: does it even matter?
The answer is simple: no. Since the brand went from toys and cartoons to big Hollywood business in 2007, the property's main selling point hasn't been its actors - even the scantily clad ones - but rather its CGI components. The special effects. The Autobots. The Decepticons. Hell, even the Fallen was more important to the series' success than the ensemble cast that has returned to pick up easy paychecks over the last four years. The first film made stars out of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, but if those roles were occupied by other young unknowns at the time it would've been just as big a hit. Even having accomplished thespians like John Turturro, Jon Voight and, later, Frances McDormand in its roster was negligible; Transformers is about Michael Bay's visuals and the promise of unprecedented action.
In fact, I'm happy that Paramount, Bay and executive producer Steven Spielberg have decided to start with a clean slate. This presents them with an opportunity not unlike that which Universal had with its Fast and Furious films. In Fast Five, the franchise turned from its street-racing roots and utilized a heist plot that made it the top grossing entry in the series. Now, with two more films on the way, it's embracing the theme to change the very nature of a lucrative, decade-old property.
This isn't to say that a cast isn't necessary. We'll always need actual performers to give audiences a personal stake in the outcome of any Transformers flick, it just doesn't really matter who. It will be interesting to see who ends up fighting the good fight alongside Bumblebee and company, but it's not an issue worth losing sleep over. When the untitled fourth film hits theaters on June 29, 2014, three years will have passed since last summer's billion dollar hit Dark of the Moon, and while we'll all be happy to see Optimus in his Prime again, the human characters of the past will be a faded memory.
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