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.
Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.
Did Hollywood have anything to do with the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement? The whole thing seems a little bit convenient. Last month saw the behind-the-meltdown docudrama Margin Call and the sci-fi metaphor In Time. Now we have Tower Heist a comedy that pits the blue collar staff of the Trump Tower against a thieving Bernie Madoff-esque tenant. The movie's an Ocean's 11 for the 99% with a sense of timeliness that makes the simple plotting and wisecracking that much more effective.
Ben Stiller stars as Josh Kovacs overseer of all the goings-on at the Tower. He wakes up before dawn and heads home after sunset spending his day catering to the occupants of the ritzy apartment complex and managing his eclectic crew—including former Burger King cook Enrique (Michael Peña) Jamaican maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe) and his slacker brother-in-law Charlie (Casey Affleck). The crew's greatest concern is multi-billionaire Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) the penthouse resident Tower board member and thanks to attention paid trusted friend of Josh.
Trusted...until the FBI busts Shaw for stealing millions including the Tower employees' pensions.
Like all good tower heists Josh's titular harebrained scheme is prompted by a drunken night out with lead investigator Claire (Téa Leoni) who tips the irked manager off to Shaw's hidden stash: a possible eight-figure sum hidden somewhere in his apartment. In pursuing the American dream of revenge Josh recruits his slighted co-workers along with distraught former-millionaire Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) and Josh's childhood friend-turned-thief Slide (Eddie Murphy). Together the motley crew concocts a plan to retrieve what's rightfully theirs—all while sinking Shaw in the process.
Tower Heist isn't as slick or intricate as the Ocean movies but its straightforward take on the crime genre is strengthened by Stiller Murphy and the rest of the cast's ability to inject ridiculous humor into sympathetic characters. When Josh realizes his decade spent commanding the operations of the Tower were for naught he wigs out marching up to the top floor to beat the crap out of Shaw's priceless convertible (it was owned by Steve McQueen in case you were wondering why anyone would keep an antique car on the top floor of a building). Not entirely realistic but relatable which sums up every over-the-top satisfying scenario these characters find themselves throughout the film.
Most importantly Tower Heist delivers on the funny. Playing the straight man is an art and Stiller's one of the masters (although you'd never know it from his Night at the Museum shtick or wackier roles like Zoolander) riffing off his co-stars while giving them ample time to be complete weirdos. The movie is being touted as a comeback for Murphy but he wisely steps into a supporting role delivering on his character's manic charm while never trying to steal the spotlight. The one who really steals the show is Broderick whose clueless neurotic Fitzhugh can't help relapsing mid-heist into memories of luxurious trips to Greece.
Credit goes to director Brett Ratner who cranked out three Rush Hour movies and an X-Men threequel while never really nailing down what it takes to make a group dynamic work. Here he pulls it off finding the right beats to make Tower Heist funny and thrilling. There are moments during the actual heist scene set during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade that cause quite a stir—a rarity in today's run-of-the-mill thrill rides.
Tower Heist is the definition of a cinematic softball avoiding risky choices and utilizing each actor to their previously known (and successful) traits without feeling lazy. As the holidays roll in and families look for something they all can enjoy Tower Heist delivers a little something for everyone. Except maybe Bernie Madoff.