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.
Set in late-‘60s/early-‘70s Harlem Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a relative nobody an underling driver existing well beneath his gangster mentor Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). But when Bumpy dies that all changes. Likewise street cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is small-time best known for having turned over a boatload of found cash out of the goodness of his heart. But in a way his status also begins to ascend around the time of Bumpy’s death. And so Lucas and Roberts both quickly rising through the ranks of their respective law-breaking and abiding hierarchies are on a collision course—each without the knowledge the other even existed. Frank doesn’t waste any time asserting himself once Bumpy dies and he will go on to become the only kind of drug peddler with a shot at staying power: opportunistic ruthless and not one to consume his own product. Lucas’ get-rich-quick scheme of importing Vietnamese heroin via U.S. soldiers’ caskets eliminates the middleman and nets him millions. But as is always the case one lapse in vigilance puts him at risk and Roberts is there waiting. Behold moviegoers the mother lode of acting duos—only we saw Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe together on screen 12 years ago in Virtuosity. Oh well. Truth be told the short time in which they share scenes has nothing on its buildup thereof but these two are a marvel in their own separate arcs. Denzel is the gaudier of them relishing his Scarface-sized villain even more than he did Alonzo in Training Day. It’s a top-notch performance to add to a career full of them and there are a plethora of scenes from which to choose for his Oscar reel. Crowe meanwhile isn’t quite as riveting as he was a few months ago in 3:10 to Yuma but that's partly because cinematic good guys always finish second in terms of watchability. And when the climactic confrontation nears Crowe dials up the tension a few notches. The marquee names though are but the tip of the iceberg in this star-studded affair which also boasts the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor (who recently co-starred with Denzel in Inside Man) Cuba Gooding Jr. Common Carla Gugino RZA John Hawkes Ted Levine and the legendary Ruby Dee. But Gangster’s (no longer hidden) gem is Josh Brolin currently enjoying a major resurgence. With apologies to Denzel Brolin’s deliciously hateful corrupt cop might be the best performance here. Ridley Scott--semi-legendary for his sci-fi (Alien Blade Runner) action (Gladiator) and feminism (Thelma and Louise)--is not the first director who would come to mind for a gritty talky urban period drama but he displays unforeseen versatility with Gangster. Nothing feels inauthentic here from the look of Vietnam-era New York City and its inhabitants to the documentary-style feel of the sparse action and it’s a surprisingly restrained effort from Scott that allows for such realism. Other filmmakers might’ve been tempted to deflect Gangster into shoot-‘em-up territory with say an action-centric take on the size of villainry possessed by Lucas but Scott does well in staying true to what this story is and is not about. And while there’s nothing especially groundbreaking or unforgettable about his effort Scott keeps the two and a half hours pretty compelling. Gangster’s unsung hero however is its real subject Lucas and his true story even more so than the one adapted by Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) from Marc Jacobson’s New York Times article. It’s a fascinating tale of everything that makes for good movies—race class money drugs corruption—brought to the screen vividly by a director who could potentially be in line for his first Oscar.