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.
On September 6 the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival kicks off, bringing with it a bevy of A-list star power and some of this year's biggest, buzziest movies, not to mention early Oscar contenders. The festival, now in its 37th year, will present 372 films over the span of just 11 days. So which films playing at the world's second most prominent festival (right behind the incomparable Cannes) should movie buffs be paying closest attention to? We've narrowed them down: Argo: Ben Affleck's movie about the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis has taken off first in the Oscar race. The film by Affleck, who is pulling double duty once again as star and director, already earned raves at the Telluride Film Festival, making TIFF audiences even more eager to see what the ensemble drama has in store. (In addition to Affleck, Argo stars Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Kyle Chandler, and Alan Arkin). A good showing at TIFF could give Argo an even bigger boost. Over the past few years, Best Picture winners The Artist, The King's Speech, The Hurt Locker, and Slumdog Millionaire all picked up steam in the Oscar race after a warm reception at TIFF. To The Wonder: Affleck is part of not one, but two of this year's can't miss films at TIFF. The actor stars alongside Rachel McAdams (also pulling a TIFF double-header with Brian De Palma's Passion) and Javier Bardem in the drama about a man who returns to his hometown after his failed marriage to a European woman. But it's not the marquee stars that are drawing attention to the project, but its elusive Oscar nominated director Terrence Malick. His sixth feature comes just one short year after his masterpiece Tree of Life was released, making it the shortest amount of time Malick fans have ever had to wait for one of his films. So you'd better believe this will be one hot ticket at TIFF. The Master: Paul Thomas Anderson, another brilliant filmmaker whose projects are few and far between, but always worth the wait (it's been five long years since the glorious There Will Be Blood) also has a film at this year's TIFF and, boy, does it look like a total knockout. (We've had chills just watching the trailers and clips). PTA's already intriguing The Master which is totally not about Scientology stars Philip Seymour Hoffman (also starring in buzzy TIFF feature A Late Quartet) as a the leader of a religion that is not Scientology. Did we mention it's not about Scientology? No matter, this one is not to be missed. Seven Psychopaths: Martin McDonagh's first full length feature, 2008's bloody good black dramedy In Bruges was not only a critical darling (it earned McDonagh an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Colin Farrell a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical) but quickly earned status as a cult favorite. His follow-up Seven Psychopaths — stars Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Gabouey Sidibe and re-teams him with Farrell — is a dark comedy about a dognapping scheme gone awry in Los Angeles. Hey, at least they're not in f***ing Bruges. Cloud Atlas: One of this year's most anticipated films has fans of David Mitchell's beloved book of the same name waiting with baited breath. How will The Matrix masters The Wachowskis possibly be able to pull off the multi-layered, centuries-spanning tale for the big screen? The ambitious undertaking stars Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving, among others. Eager moviegoers will find out at TIFF if the 164 minute running time (!) can match the intensity of the five minute-long trailer. The Silver Linings Playbook: No matter what there is to make of David O. Russell's off-screen antics, he has undeniably capture the attention and admiration of movie buffs and critics alike with works like Three Kings, The Fighter, and I Heart Huckabees. The Oscar-nominated writer/director's latest, Silver Linings Playbook, stars hot commodities Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as two people grappling with mental health issues. The quirky dramedy could be the indie breakout of the fest. The Iceman: Ariel Vroman's The Iceman — pun completely intended — looks downright chilling. Based on the haunting true story of notorious hitman Richard Kuklinski, the film stars an Oscar-primed Michael Shannon (as Kuklinski), an unrecognizable Chris Evans, and an eclectic supporting cast that includes James Franco, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, and Stephen Dorff. The Iceman cometh to TIFF and festival attendees would be wise to goeth. The Impossible: While The Impossible isn't the only natural disaster film to play at TIFF (Aftershock does as well) nor is it the first to broach trying to capture the horrors of the devastating 2004 earthquake and tsunami (a story line Clint Eastwood's Hereafter dealt with the tragedy) but Juan Antonio Bayona's telling of an amazing true life story of a family during the disaster won't be one to miss. Starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, The Impossible will be a certified tearjerker that could very well capture the attention of the Academy as its starts its journey on the festival circuit. The Perks of Being a Wallflower: No, it may not be an Oscar contender like some of the other TIFF features, but like fellow TIFF entry On the Road, Perks is a beloved novel finally being brought to the big screen. With young talent like Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, and Emma Watson (in her first post-Harry Potter effort) on board, positive early buzz on Perks could turn the adaptation of Stephen Chbosky's book into a sleeper hit. Plus, with all the heavy fare playing at this year's fest, Perks could be a welcome, and much-needed, break for moviegoers. Much Ado About Nothing: We know, we know, haven't we seen this before? Sure, Shakespeare's classic has gotten the big screen treatment before, but never one that's a modern retelling from none other than Joss Whedon. Whedon, who is already having a banner year with The Avengers, is using some of the best actors from his arsenal of classics (including the likes of Nathan Fillion, Fran Kranz, Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, and Clark Gregg) for the black and white flick. Movie geeks — assemble! Honorable mentions: Be sure to keep an eye out for some of these year's other must-see TIFF films including Cannes' Palme d'Or winner Amour; early Best Actor contenders like John Hawkes in The Sessions and Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt; early Best Actress contenders Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone and Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina; Lee Daniels' foray into noir, The Paperboy (yes, that one with Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron); the Blue Valentine reunion of Ryan Gosling and director Derek Cianfrance in The Place Beyond the Pines; David Ayers' latest cop flick End of Watch starring Jake Gyllenhaal; West of Memphis, the latest documentary on the always compelling West Memphis 3 case; and the film kicking off the fest, the mind-bending Blade Runner homage, Looper starring — who else? — Joseph Gordon-Levitt. [Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]More: Toronto Film Festival 2012: 'On the Road', Michael Jackson Documentary 'Bad 25' Added to Lineup Toronto Film Festival 2012: Films From Affleck, Redford, Malick Among the Lineup 'Cloud Atlas' Collides Past, Present & Future in an Epic Six Minutes — TRAILER