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.
Having recently moved to England from America with his large family young Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig) is finding it difficult to adapt. But it isn’t so much the culture shock or calling his mom “mum” that’s giving him trouble—it’s the fact that he is a warrior and doesn’t yet know it. He is tipped off to the weirdness after witnessing two policemen hot on his trail for purchasing what he thought was a pendant for his sister (Emma Lockhart) morph into black crows. That pendant turns out to be one of six crucial “signs” in need of finding and Will turns out to be the last of the Old Ones fit for the job—as he is informed by fellow Old Ones Merriman Lyon (Ian McShane) and Miss Greythorne (Frances Conroy). Will’s success is mankind’s only hope of warding off the evil Dark whose goal is to defeat the Light and steal their free will; it’s your classic battle of Dark vs. Light. With each passing day Will becomes more adept at sensing new signs but he only has five days to do so before the nefarious Rider’s (Christopher Eccleston) skills reach their peak which will be bad news for everyone. If there were never a Daniel Radcliffe by whom all fantasy-protagonist performances are now measured youngster Alexander Ludwig (of The Sandlot 3 fame) might not seem so stiff—fine inept. But in The Seeker Ludwig struggles with the already tenuous special-effects sequences let alone with trying to carry the movie to franchise-dom. While it’s rare to find the young actor whose charisma trumps his inexperience—a la Radcliffe or even Macaulay Culkin circa 1990—Ludwig comes off more like a kid in a candy store than on a movie set and no editing-room fixes can help. Elsewhere the actors’ stakes are lower and the results mixed. McShane utterly incapable of a bad performance is leaps and bounds above all of his numerous costars. It’s too bad the former Deadwood actor starring as the most vocal of the Old Ones didn’t rub off on any of his younger costars; it’s also too bad he accepted a role well beneath him much like August’s Hot Rod was. McShane’s fellow Old One and HBO casualty Conroy (Six Feet Under) shares a similar venerability but she ditches it the second she wields a sword in a vain attempt to go medieval on our collective heiny. We could’ve used more of Eccleston (28 Days Later) as his wry alter-ego doctor but he spends most of his scenes obscured as the villainous Rider. In most modern fantasy flicks the grand-scale action scenes are where the magic’s at with their bank-breaking special effects and/or productions; in The Seeker such scenes expose the movie as a thrift-shop version of its more deep-pocketed genre brethren (i.e. Narnia Potter Lord of the Rings). It’s not only that the look of the action is less imaginative but also its conception: Each time Will must retrieve one of the signs there is seemingly no difficulty in doing so and thus zero suspense—like a bad video game. That could be because director David L. Cunningham (TV movie The Path to 9/11) seemingly wants the movie to play out like a video game instead of like Susan Cooper’s beloved novel The Dark Is Rising whose story was somewhat tweaked by screenwriter John Hodge (Trainspotting). On the bright side the lush snow-covered English village in which the movie is set is rich and evocative. In fact everything looks great and will keep viewers’ attention throughout the early part of The Seeker. But unlike its aforementioned contemporaries the movie takes a nosedive when it’s supposed to most enthrall us.