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 must be awfully frustrating for Robert Pattinson and everyone involved in movies with him to be hamstrung by studios that want to take advantage of his Twilight fan base. There's no other explanation for this fangless adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's classic novel about a mercenary young lad who beds society ladies for political leverage. Oh and because he can.
As Georges Duroy the titular bel ami Pattinson skulks sulks and glowers his way through Paris in the 19th century. The dirt poor former solider runs into a comrade from the war who is now a powerful newspaper editor; Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister) who takes pity on the filthy drunk tosses him a few gold pieces and invites him to dinner. Madeleine Forestier is the brain behind the operation and she advises Duroy to cozy up to the other society ladies as they're the ones with the real power. Duroy gets a gig writing a column for the newspaper which Madeleine actually writes for him and his career as a professional grifter begins.
The plot of Bel Ami revolves around the political environment of France just before its invasion of Morocco as much as it does Duroy's love affairs. It's a major motivating factor for many of the characters one that has been watered down or edited out to the point where it's almost an afterthought. This takes away a lot of the urgency and the sort of backstabbing deliciousness that one would expect from a piece like this. The stakes aren't that high until near the end when they come to a sudden head. Before that the story was meandering between Duroy's dalliances with a married woman and how he's scamming the newspaper.
Christina Ricci plays Duroy's lover Clotilde one of Madeleine's friends and although she's married there's no weight to the affair other than to show the supposedly sexy sex that has been both part of the movie's hype and it would seem its main marketing problem. Marketing problems are relevant here because they generally mean more and more edits are made until what was once a coherent movie becomes a confusing mishmash through little fault of those directly involved.
Their scenes are moderately steamy for an R-rated movie. They're obviously not appropriate for his so-called fan base but it's obvious that even before the Twilight franchise was nearing its run that Pattinson wanted to take a stab at actual acting. Although Duroy is a sh*t it seems unlikely that the final cut of the film is all that true to the book or even the vision of those involved.
That's a shame since Bel Ami looks lovely even if it comes off as occasionally goofy. Ricci is beautiful but her character is banal. The men are all fairly interchangeable cigar-smoking society types or ink-stained writers. The most memorable thing about Uma Thurman's performance is how elegantly she smokes her cigarettes and how she treats Duroy's lovemaking as if it were less interesting than a fly landing on her arm. As one of the society women that Duroy beds as part of his scheming Kristin Scott Thomas goes from a typically no-nonsense married lady to a mewling quim. Pattinson can't seem to find the right balance between rage and sweetness; it's actually impossible to tell who he's in love with when or why until he bursts out with statements like "I was the one getting f*cked!" Or was the audience?
Enigmatic and deliberate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy makes no reservations while unraveling its heady spy story for better or worse. The film based on the bestselling novel by John Le Carre is purposefully perplexing effectively mirroring the central character George Smiley's (Gary Oldman) own mind-bending investigation of the British MI6's mole problem. But the slow burn pacing clinical shooting style and air of intrigue only go so far—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sports an incredible cast that can't dramatically translate the movie's impenetrable narrative. Almost from the get go the movie collapses under its own weight.
After a botched mission in Hungary that saw his colleague Jim (Mark Strong) gunned down in the streets Smiley and his boss Control (John Hurt) are released from the "Circus" (codename for England's Secret Intelligence Service). But soon after Smiley is brought back on board as an impartial observer tasked to uncover the possible infiltration of the organization. The former agent already dealing with the crippling of his own marriage attempts to sift through the history and current goings on of the Circus narrowing his hunt down to four colleagues: Percy aka "Tinker" (Toby Jones) Bill aka "Tailor" (Colin Firth) Roy aka "Soldier" (Ciaran Hinds) and Toy aka "Poor Man" (David Dencik). Working with Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) a conflicted younger member of the service and Ricki (Tom Hardy) a rogue agent who has information of his own Smiley slowly uncovers the muddled truth—occasionally breaking in to his own work place and crossing his own friends to do so.
Describing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as dense doesn't seem complicated enough. The first hour of the monster mystery moves at a sloth's pace trickling out information like the tedious drips of a leaky faucet. The talent on display is undeniable but the characters Smiley included are so cold that a connection can never be made. TTSS sporadically jumps around from past to present timelines without any indication: a tactic that proves especially confusing when scenes play out in reoccurring locations. It's not until halfway through that the movie decides to kick into high gear Smiley's search for a culprit finally becoming clear enough to thrill. A film that takes its time is one thing but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does so without any edge or hook.
What the movie lacks in coherency it makes up for in style and thespian gravitas. Director Tomas Alfredson has assembled some of the finest British performers working today and they turn the script's inaccessible spy jargon into poetry. Firth stands out as the group's suave slimeball a departure from his usual nice guy roles. Hardy assures us he's the next big thing once again as the agency's resident moppet a lover who breaks down after a romantic fling uncovers horrifying truth. Oldman is given the most difficult task of the bunch turning the reserved contemplative Smiley into a real human. He half succeeds—his observational slant in the beginning feels like an extension of the movie's bigger problems but once gets going in the second half of the film he's quite a bit of fun.
Alfredson constructs Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy like a cinematic architect each frame dripping with perfectly kitschy '70s production design and camera angles that make the spine tingle. He creates paranoia through framing similar to the Coppola's terrifying The Conversation but unlike that film TTSS doesn't have the characters or story to match. The movie strives to withhold information and succeeds—too much so. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy wants us to solve a mystery with George Smiley but it never clues us in to exactly why we should want to.