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.
War is hell. Any good soldier will tell you that. But Lt. Col. Harold Moore (Mel Gibson) wants his soldiers to know they are fighting not only for their country but also for each other. Moore and his right-hand man the tough-as-nails Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott) well train their men who include the idealistic 2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein) and the cocky helicopter pilot Maj. Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear). Moore's wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe) acts as the leader for the wives on the base helping them cope with what their husbands are about to face. When Moore gets his orders to go into Vietnam he knows it may be an impossible situation. He tells his men the only way to survive is to watch each other's backs--and that he'll be the first one in and the last one out. What he doesn't know once they get to Ia Drang is that his men are terribly outnumbered by the North Vietnamese. The bloody battle that ensues kills many men on both sides but thanks to Moore's sheer willpower and strategic know-how he and his men make it out to tell the story.
Besides some pretty lame dialogue in parts the performances are all solid. Gibson knows this terrain very well. Let's see this makes what the fourth war movie Gibson has done in his career? He's fought in just about all of them--World War I (Gallipoli) Revolutionary (The Patriot) apocalyptic (The Road Warrior) and well Braveheart--and now Vietnam. Moore is a just the kind of great combat leader we envision--strong fair emotional--and Gibson embodies him to a tee but it's just not much of a stretch. Elliot is particularly good as the grouchy Plumley delivering some of the only humorous lines in the film. Klein falls into his sweet-guy persona easily and turns on the sap when it's needed. Unfortunately this may be the only thing Klein will be able to do in his career. The always good Barry Pepper comes off as the most genuine as journalist Joe Galloway who witnesses these soldiers bravely fighting for their lives. Pepper isn't new to the war game either having brilliantly played the religious sharpshooter in Saving Private Ryan. The women are fairly wasted but Stowe and Keri Russell as Jack's wife have a touching moment delivering death telegrams to the wives on the base.
Based on the best-selling novel by the real-life Lt. Col. Harold Moore and Joe Galloway Soldiers is a war film through and through. Writer/director Randall Wallace (writer of Braveheart) once again teams up with Gibson to give the overall picture of what being a soldier is like juggling home and family with sense of duty. Yet the scenes on the home front turn into pure mush most of the time ("Daddy what is war?") and get very preachy ("Watch the back of the man next to you as he will watch yours and you won't care what color he is…"). Luckily we get to the heart of the movie quickly--the 1965 conflict in Ia Drang the first one fought between the Americans and the North Vietnamese. It's horrifying. It's gruesome. It's real--and we've seen it done a thousand times before. In this day and age where we've seen every known war played out in Technicolor on the big screen we have become desensitized by it. Soldiers does an admirable job but after seeing films like Saving Private Ryan or Platoon it doesn't hold up.