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.
Mobster-turned-movie producer Chili Palmer (John Travolta) decides to shift over to yet other creative albeit dangerous terrain: The music industry. He's spurred along by the murder of his friend small-time music maven Tommy (James Woods) who leaves behind a beautiful widow Edie (Uma Thurman) and a massive debt to a dangerous rap music mogul Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer). Chili tells Edie about Linda Moon (Christina Milian) a gifted singer he decides to manage after seeing her perform. With her raw talent Linda has the potential to bail them out. But first they have to get her out of a nasty contract and abusive relationship with her former manager Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) his right-hand man Raji (Vince Vaughn) and his right-hand man a bodyguard with the unfortunate name of Elliot Wilhelm (The Rock). Complicating things are the Russian mob and a bevy of cops keeping Chili in their crosshairs. This all feels tacked on as the nameless accented characters serve the same purpose as robots in a science fiction movie--they can get blown away without sacrificing any stars or feeling any emotion (prioritize those considerations as you wish).
John Travolta who has barely aged in the 10 years since the first film is in top form in Be Cool. He lives up to the title and his character's name. No matter how dire the circumstances no matter how much he's outnumbered and no matter how many gleaming pistols he has aimed at him he never ever loses his even-keeled demeanor. But maybe that's the problem--because if Chili doesn't ever break a sweat then why should we the audience? Thurman isn't exactly showing her years either but has little to do as Edie. Vince Vaughn is the best he's ever been--he's amped up thinks he's black and sports a high-pitched laugh that is instantly annoying and hysterical. As Raji's gay bodyguard the Rock has a great time lampooning himself (at least the raised eyebrow bit) and revealing terrific comic timing. Cedric the Entertainer would have been better off as more of a reluctant menace to play toward his skills instead of against them. Even the young up and comer Milian does a nice job playing the ingénue singer. But have you ever thrown a party and realize that you've actually invited too many of your good friends? And you don't get to spend enough time with any of them? Well adding the following to the list above is: Andre Benjamin of the hip hop grou Outkast plays Dabu--a klutzy overeager trigger man for Cedric the Entertainer; the late Robert Pastorelli as a deli-sandwich eating hit man; Danny DeVito in a cameo reprising his character from the original; and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler playing himself.
Director F. Gary Gray's understated style and clarity is what made a movie like The Italian Job so entertaining. But with Be Cool that style is mostly absent. There is a flatness to the direction; specifically there are a lot of close-ups for one-liners and many scenes go on just a few beats too long (one that comes to mind is an otherwise funny scene where The Rock models impossibly gay threads for himself in a mirror). In some cases jokes are simply repeated instead of building. Those are heavy sins for a comedy. Plus the kind of breezy cinema that Be Cool and its predecessor Pulp Fiction have traded on has now become a little worn out. It's just not enough anymore to have a black-clad Travolta confidently stride across a room toward danger even if he does it better than almost anybody else. Or having charismatic tough guys oozes the cool all while discussing things like the merits of a Burger King sandwich. What's needed in Be Cool is a slightly fresher perspective. The convoluted plot with its meaningless table-turning doesn't help matters. It's a series of entertaining moments rather than a coherent movie.