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.
CBS won the first week of the May sweeps, powered by its hit reality show Survivor II: The Australian Outback and its coupled drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The two shows scored second- and third-place finishes respectively, behind an episode of NBC's E.R., which saw the return of Sally Field. CBS averaged an 8.4 household rating for the week with a 14 share. NBC, no longer feeling the drag of ratings for its XFL football telecasts, was close behind with an 8.2/14. ABC, which placed two editions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in the top ten, was third with a 7.1/12, followed by Fox with a 5.7/10. Meanwhile, NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw set a modern record by maintaining the lead among network newscasts for 52 consecutive weeks.
The top ten shows of the week according to Nielsen Research:
1. E.R. NBC, 17.5/29; 2. Survivor II: The Australian Outback, CBS, 16.6/27; 3. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS, 14.4/22; 4. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (Sunday), ABC, 12.0/18; 5. West Wing, NBC, 11.9/19; 6. Millionaire (Tuesday), ABC, 11.7/20; 7. Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS, 11.4/17; 8. Law and Order, NBC, 11.3/19; 9. The Practice, ABC, 11.2/18; 10. Friends, NBC, 10.9/19.
TALKS BETWEEN WRITERS, PRODUCERS CONTINUE PAST DEADLINE
Negotiators for the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers stayed at the bargaining table for nearly three hours past the 12:01 a.m. expiration of their contract, then announced that they would resume their talks at noon Wednesday. Although spokespersons for both sides said that the current contract had not been formally extended, the fact that the WGA negotiators did not call for a strike authorization vote appeared to represent a de facto recognition of a day-to-day extension. It also suggested that the two sides may be nearing an agreement. Each side, however, declined to say whether progress was being made. "We are working very hard to reach an agreement," Writers Guild spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden told reporters at the end of last night's (this morning's) session.
NBC CHIEF QUERIES PRODUCERS ABOUT "THE SOPRANOS"
In what was regarded by executives at HBO as a slap at their most successful program, NBC President Robert Wright has written to several top producers asking for their views about the impact of The Sopranos -- "a show which we could not and would not air on NBC because of the violence, language and nudity." The letter was accompanied by a tape of one Sopranos episode that included sex scenes and a violent beating of a prostitute. HBO Chairman Jeff Bewkes told the New York Times, "I take exception to his implication that there in inappropriate content on the show. I feel it's unjustified. It's hard to understand what he's trying to do." Wright told Wednesday's Los Angeles Times that his goal was to provoke a dialogue about where network programming is heading.
GM AND NEWS CORP TO CONTINUE DIRECTV TALKS
The board of directors of General Motors said Tuesday that they wanted to continue talks with News Corp about merging Hughes Electronics' DirecTV with the media giant's Sky Global Networks. GM is the parent company of Hughes.
AUSTRALIA TO AIR "SURVIVOR" FINALE EARLY
Australia's Channel 9, which has been airing Survivor: The Australian Outback about a week after it is seen in the United States, will carry last week's episode followed by the finale only hours after the American telecast Thursday night (Friday in Australia). Executives of the Australian network had feared that revelation of the winner in the Australian press would discourage viewers from tuning in.
ROBB SURFACES -- WITH EXPOSE -- AT "INSIDE"
David Robb, the former Hollywood Reporter journalist who quit his job last week in a dispute with the publisher over an investigative article he had written about the trade paper's gossip columnist, has found an outlet for his work: the online media magazine Inside . Robb includes allegations in his article that Reporter columnist George Christy accepted numerous favors from persons and companies that he wrote about -- particularly Steve Stabler and Brad Krevoy of Motion Picture Corporation of America and Destination Films. He claims that for years Christy received free office space from the now-defunct companies valued at $1,000-$1,250 per month and that although his credits appear in listings for five films produced by Stabler and Krevoy, Christy is nowhere to be seen in any of them. Inside announced Tuesday that Robb will be covering the actors' and writers' guild negotiations for the Web site.
THROWING A CROWBAR INTO THE WORKS
Government and industry lawyers told a federal appeals court Tuesday that unless the panel upholds a ruling barring the distribution of a computer program that breaks the industry's encryption code aimed at preventing DVDs from being copied, perfect digital copies of movies could be uploaded onto the Internet and distributed worldwide. The program, called DeCSS, amounts to a "digital crowbar" for copyright thieves, Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Alter told the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. However, Stanford University Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan, who represents Eric Corley, the operator of an Internet hacker site that published the code, shot back: "The government is trying to impose strict liability for having a crowbar, whether you're a carpenter or a thief." Corley and others have contended that DeCSS is essential for watching DVDs on many computers that are not equipped with the Windows operating system -- but that it is impractical for bootlegging them on the Internet.
BRITISH WRITER "IMPRESSED" BY QUICK DEAL WITH DREAMWORKS
A British sci-fi writer says that he was "impressed" when he received a phone call from DreamWorks offering to buy the film rights to three novels that he had written as a trilogy. Terry Pratchett told Britain's Guardian newspaper that DreamWorks plans to use the books -- Truckers, Diggers and Wings, together known as the Bromeliad Trilogy -- as the basis for a computer-animated film to be directed by Andrew Adamson (Shrek). "You've got to be impressed when someone from the studio phones up from Hollywood one night and turns up for lunch in Wiltshire, England, the very next day," Pratchett said. DreamWorks principal Jeffrey Katzenberg commented, "There are few authors whose work lends itself to animation as well as Terry Pratchett's."
BRITISH FILM COMPANY GOING AFTER HOLLYWOOD
Britain's commercial Channel 4, whose FilmFour movie division has turned out such moderate low-budget hits as Trainspotting, The Crying Game and Elizabeth, announced Tuesday that it is altering its strategy and will begin producing more expensive films featuring major British and American stars. Channel 4 CEO Michael Jackson said Tuesday that the company is launching 4 Ventures Limited to attract investors in the company's film business. He said that it has already signed Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Andie MacDowell, Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris and Ian Holm for forthcoming projects, including the upcoming $22-million production of Charlotte Gray, based on the Sebastian Faulks novel and starring Blanchett and Crudup.
WILL "BRIDGET" BECOME BRITAIN'S BIGGEST HIT?
Bridget Jones's Diary retained the top spot at the British box office for the third consecutive weekend, earning $5 million to bring its total U.K. gross to $30.1 million, the British trade paper Screen International reported Tuesday. (The film had grossed $36.8 million through Monday in the United States) British analysts projected that the film will eventually eclipse Notting Hill as the most successful British film in history. (Notting Hill earned $43.5 million in Britain and $116 million in the United States.)