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.
In questioning a detective Wednesday, the attorney for accused wife killer Robert Blake suggested police were sloppy in handling evidence and in allowing an author to be present during a search of the actor's home.
Gerald Schwartzbach questioned James Gollaz, a member of the LAPD's renowned robbery/homicide unit, about his actions after the May 4, 2001, shooting death of Bonny Lee Bakley, 44. Bakley was killed as she sat in a car in Studio City, waiting for her husband to return from a restaurant where they had just dined.
Gollaz, whose job the next day was to collect Blake's clothing for gun shot residue testing, may have contaminated that evidence, Schwartzbach suggested. The detective acknowledged that he allowed all the clothing to be placed in an empty Xerox box taken from the police station.
Gollaz also testified that he did not remember asking Blake if he was wearing the same clothes that morning as he had the night of the murder. "I hoped and assumed it was the same clothing,'' Gollaz said. Under intense cross-examination, Gollaz acknowledged that he made no effort to separate the clothing, then kept the open box in the trunk of his police car over the weekend before taking the articles to be booked into evidence. Had GSR already been on the box, or in Gollaz's trunk, it may have been transferred to Blake's clothes, the attorney suggested. The detective's hands and trunk were never tested for GSR, Gollaz said.
But on redirect, Deputy District Attorney Shellie Samuels scoffed at the notion that GSR is transferred easily. "Does gun shot residue jump?'' she asked Gollaz. "I don't know,'' he responded. "You ever hear of it jumping?'' "No,'' he said.
According to coroner's reports, the GSR found on Blake's hands and clothing could have come from something other than the murder weapon. Schwartzbach also asked why ex-Los Angeles Times reporter and author Miles Corwin was present for the search at Blake's home in Studio City.
"Search warrants do not authorize private citizens to participate in the execution of searches in the private residences of persons, correct?'' he asked the detective. Gollaz said he was unsure about how the law pertained to observers.
At the time, Corwin was in the process of gathering material for Homicide Special: A Year with the LAPD's Elite Detective Unit, a book that chronicles the Bakley murder investigation, among other cases. Also testifying were three LAPD patrol officers who went to the crime scene soon after the homicide.
Officer Samer E. Issa described a "very emotional'' Blake who "was vomiting'' as the officer questioned him about the events of the evening. "Throughout the conversation he did mention his wife was in the illegal porn business and she had asked him to bring his gun....'' Issa said. Issa said Blake told him he had bought the gun for her protection because someone had tried to kill her two years earlier in Arkansas. Blake told him that when he remembered he had left the gun in Vitello's, an Italian restaurant where the actor and his wife had dined, he ran back to retrieve it, then returned to find Bakley, who "appeared to be sleeping with some blood coming out of her mouth.''
When Samuels asked Issa if he thought it strange that Blake volunteered that his wife worked in the porn industry, Schwartzbach objected and Superior Court Judge Darlene Schempp struck the question from the record. Officers Walter Grant and Oswaldo Pedemonte recounted how they transported the witness Blake to the North Hollywood police station and were later instructed by their watch commander to put him in an 8-by-8 holding cell.
"He was very upset and panicked and I believe he told me he was claustrophobic and he couldn't be locked up in a small area,'' Grant said. The officers opened the door for Blake and an ambulance was requested. Paramedics left after checking Blake's blood pressure, the officers said.
Schwartzbach showed the officers an adult detention log from the night of the murder indicating Blake was held in the cell from about 11 p.m. to midnight. "That's a room where you routinely place suspects, correct?'' asked Schwartzbach. "One of many, yes,'' said Grant.
Blake is charged with murder and two counts of solicitation of murder. Prosecutors believe he killed his wife after having been turned down twice after asking others to do it. Earlier, a waitress who said she had served Blake "hundreds of times'' said the actor seemed to be "having a heart attack'' when he walked back into Vitello's after his wife was shot.
"His appearance had changed dramatically,'' Robyn Robichaux said. "It frightened me. I thought he was having a heart attack,'' Robichaux said. "He aged 50 years in 10 to 15 minutes.'' She said the "color had left (Blake's) face, he was white as a sheet, he looked like he was out of breath.'' Robichaux testified that she noticed nothing unusual about Blake's behavior during dinner. "You observed no animosity or hostility with Ms. Bakley when they were at the table?'' asked defense attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach. "No,'' she responded.
Also Wednesday, a busboy being trained at Vitello's the night of the killing testified that he never saw Blake re-enter the restaurant the night of the killing. But Ricardo Sida, then 15, acknowledged he was not paying much attention to who entered and left the restaurant. Sida did say that busboys were taught to check the floors below the tables while clearing. In his opening statements, Schwartzbach said Blake's gun fell onto the carpeted floor as Blake stood up to leave dinner.
"Part of the instruction you received was to check the floor?'' the prosecutor asked. "All the time, check the floor ...,'' Sida said. But Schwartzbach got Sida to acknowledge that he was just beginning his training at Vitello's the night of the murder and would not know whether those orders about checking the floor were always followed.