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.
It was a Fast moving weekend at the box office as Universal's The Fast and the Furious sped away with over $41 million.
The PG-13 action drama pulled into theaters with a high octane ESTIMATED $41.6 million at 2,628 theaters ($15,830 per theater).
Fast, which only cost $38 million to produce, appears to be well on its way to a very profitable $100 million in domestic theaters.
Fast's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide or limited release this weekend.
Directed by Rob Cohen and produced by Neal H. Moritz, it stars Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster.
"It's the eighth all-time June opener and Universal's sixth highest opener ever," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning. "And it ranks in the Top 25 of all time openers in history, which is a lot to say for a little film that cost $38 million. It's Rob Cohen's biggest opener and Neal Moritz's biggest opener."
(Exhibitors Relations Co., a film industry statistical research firm, lists The Fast and the Furious as the seventh best June opener if estimates hold.)
Pointing out that Fast is playing in 2,628 theaters, which she felt was the perfect number of theaters for it to open in, rather than in 3,000-plus locations, which has become typical for summer releases. "This is a lesson that you don't need to be in 3,500 playdates to do a huge gross," Rocco said. "I want to point out to filmmakers that if you're not in (over 3,000 theaters) you can still have a blockbuster."
Focusing on Fast's high speed launch, Rocco observed, "Obviously, the grosses speak for themselves as an indication of the enormously successful opening that we've had. What I'm absolutely excited about are the exit polls. To see an excellent rating for all [demographic] categories come in at 60 percent where the norms are 35 percent is extraordinary. The core audience [which is the under-25 group] is 68 percent excellent. These are enormous exit polls.
"The Top Two boxes [excellent and very good] is 89 percent. Now remember, you're taking into consideration [in this score people who are] over 25 years of age. For the core audience, it's 91 percent. The Definite Recommend is 71 percent and 78 percent for the score. It's unbelievably impressive."
Rocco noted that the exits were done Saturday night, "so we're not just getting the must-see people who go out on a Friday night. These were polled on Saturday night. That's what's so amazing to me. The breakdown of the audience last night was 55 percent male and 45 percent female. That's not heavily loaded to males. And it was very ethnically mixed. It was 50 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, 10 percent black and 5 percent others. So it had a good ethnic mix. And it bodes well for today's business between kids being out of school and Sunday being a good day for films [that play well to ethnic audiences]. That's why we're counting on the business being extraordinary today. There are no [major televised] sporting events to interfere with us.
"I'm just so excited for Rob Cohen and Neal Moritz. And I have to commend our production group and Scott Stuber (co-president of production). This was an in-house developed project. Scott found an article in Vibe magazine about streetcar racing and he developed this. So it's kudos to the production group. Our marketing, distribution and production people have proven -- and this is just a further example -- how we can tap into a certain culture. We did it with Bring It On. We did it with American Pie. And now we've done it with The Fast and the Furious."
Focusing on the film's release, Rocco commented, "The distribution strategy was absolutely perfect. In an environment where it's almost a must that you find 3,000 playdates, we've just proven that 2,600 playdates gets the job done as well as any film opening with over 3,000 playdates. That's not to say that we won't have 3,000 playdates on other films, it's just to say that you go with the flow and do what the marketplace demands of you."
Rocco also tipped her hat to Universal Pictures vice chairman Marc Shmuger "for having the enthusiasm and the drive to convince us to move it from March or April to the summer. After the second test screening, Marc looked at everybody and discussed with the filmmakers the fact that this would be a perfect summer programmer."
Rocco noted that at the time she believed Fast was going to be hit and felt she needed it on the studio's spring release schedule. "Marc had the vision and the guts to say, 'We could do it, team. Let's move it to the summer.' The only date that we felt comfortable with was this date, which was sandwiched between Tomb Raider and A.I. I have to give him a lot of credit for having that vision and the faith.
"I like to space out all my hits and we needed a film in the spring. But everything that Marc said made so much sense that we moved it. He convinced us, so we found this date. We knew we weren't going to go on the Tomb Raider date (or) the A.I. date. We had Jurassic Park 3 set for mid-July, so we didn't want to go there. This was the only reliable date that I could pick. And I didn't want to go earlier and cut into The Mummy Returns."
20th Century Fox and Davis Entertainment's PG rated comedy sequel Dr. Dolittle 2 kicked off in second place to a solid ESTIMATED $26.71 million at 3,049 theaters ($8,761 per theater).
The 1998 original -- inspired by the 1967 musical -- opened the weekend of June 26-28, 1998 to $29.01 million at 2,777 theaters ($10,448 per theater). In its second weekend (July 3-5), the original fell 32% and placed second with $19.68 million at 2,871 theaters ($6,853 per theater). It went on to gross $144.2 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Steve Carr and produced by John Davis, it stars Eddie Murphy.
"I'm looking at the overall weekend and I can't believe it -- it's up [over] 40 percent from last year," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said Sunday morning. "It's astonishing. How much can a market expand? What it says is that there's enough pictures that they do want to see. You're looking at five movies over $10 million. It's just amazing."
Looking at Dolittle's opening weekend, Snyder noted, "We were up 16 percent from Friday to Saturday. I was looking for a little bigger bump, but I guess there's just so much business out there. I was also looking at Atlantis and Shrek, which are family movies [like Dolittle]. They did almost $24 million between them and with our $26.7 million, you're looking at $50 million in family movies. It was a terrific weekend and I'm thrilled with our number. I believe we'll be around all summer with it."
Some observes had expected Dolittle to open in first place, which Snyder said had looked likely until this week's tracking data became known.
"If you had asked me that two weeks ago, I would have told you I thought so, too," he said. "As of this week, you could see the heat building on the teenage movie. One thing about teenage movies is that the kids have to get in there immediately. Dolittle you can see this week, next week, the week after. When it comes to teenage movies, (you've got to be there right away), which is why it goes down from Friday to Saturday. [Fast] was off 10 percent, which is not a big drop on such a huge number, but it's indicative of the teenage moviegoing habit vs. family [audiences]."
Looking for a long run on Dolittle, he added, "We'll be talking about it in August."
Paramount and Mutual Film Company's PG-13 rated action adventure Lara Croft: Tomb Raider fell sharply in its second week by two rungs to third place with a less sexy ESTIMATED $20.2 million (-58%) at 3,312 theaters (+4 theaters; $6,099 per theater). Its cume is approximately $84.2 million, heading for $125-130 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Simon West, Tomb stars Angelina Jolie.
"I think it's $125-135 million, in there somewhere, if it continues along this same pattern that X-Men did, which frankly it's just virtually mirrored every day as far as percentage drops," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "Actually, on Thursday X-Men dropped 10 percent from the Wednesday figure and we were flat with Wednesday, so we were a little bit on the positive side. But the percentages have been virtually the same. They were down 57 percent their second weekend."
Buena Vista/Disney's PG rated animated feature Atlantis slid two pegs in its third week, but held well with an ESTIMATED $13.2 million (-35%) at 3,071 theaters (+60 theaters; $4,298 per theater). Its cume is approximately $44.3 million.
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, its voice talents include Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Cree Summer and Leonard Nimoy.
DreamWorks' PG rated computer animated blockbuster Shrek dropped two notches to fifth place in its sixth week, continuing to hold strongly with an ESTIMATED $11.0 million (-16%) at 3,007 theaters (-310 theaters; $3,663 per theater). Its cume is approximately $215.8 million on its way to $250 million or more.
DreamWorks said Shrek hit $200 million on June 19, almost exactly one month after its wide release on May 18.
"Crossing $200 million this early out puts Shrek in the kind of rarified atmosphere that would be a fairy tale come true for any studio," DreamWorks distribution head Jim Tharp said in announcing the milestone. "The film's success speaks volumes about how well this movie plays to audiences across every geographic and demographic divide. We are thrilled that moviegoers are not only continuing to discover the magic of Shrek for the first time, but are going back again and again -- and taking friends. The resulting word of mouth has been a big part of the box office success and should continue to carry it throughout the summer."
Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, its voice talents include Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow.
Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's R rated action thriller Swordfish dropped two rungs to sixth place in its third week with an OK ESTIMATED $7.7 million (-39%) at 2,660 theaters (-28 theaters; $2,900 per theater). Its cume is approximately $53.2 million, heading for $72-73 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Dominic Sena and produced by Joel Silver and Jonathan Krane, it stars John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry and Don Cheadle.
"It's sensational given the competition in our demographic the last two weeks from Tomb Raider and Fast and the Furious, these are great," Warner Bros. Distribution executive vice president & general sales manager Jeff Goldstein said Sunday morning.
Looking ahead to what looms as next weekend's big film, Goldstein reminded, "A.I. opens up Friday in over 3,000 locations."
Buena Vista/Touchstone and Jerry Bruckheimer Films' PG-13 rated three hour epic action romance Pearl Harbor fell two rungs to seventh place in its fifth weekend with a less explosive $7.0 million (-29%) at 2,668 theaters (-472 theaters; $2,618 per theater). Its cume is approximately $172.1 million, on its way to $200 million by late summer.
Directed by Michael Bay, Pearl was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. Starring are Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnet, Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight and Alec Baldwin.
20th Century Fox's PG-13 rated romantic musical drama Moulin Rouge held on to eighth place in its sixth week, continuing to hold well with an ESTIMATED $3.84 million (-24%) at 1,592 theaters (-492 theaters; $2,411 per theater). Its cume is approximately $43.4 million.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann, it stars Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.
"It's off (only) 24 percent and yet we lost 25 percent of our theaters," Fox's Bruce Snyder said Sunday morning. "I think something's happening there. (The cut-back in theaters) funneled the business back into the theaters that were strong."
Where is it going? "I've got to think we can get to $55 million and that will be delightful," Snyder said. "This is not an easy movie. It doesn't fit the cookie cutter molds that I'm accustomed to dealing in, so I'm delighted."
DreamWorks' and Columbia's PG-13 rated sci-fi comedy Evolution fell three pegs in its third week with a calm ESTIMATED $3.6 million (-46%) at 2,258 theaters (-355 theaters; $1,578 per theater). Its cume is approximately $32.6 million.
Directed by Ivan Reitman, it stars David Duchovny, Orlando Jones, Seann William Scott and Julianne Moore.
Rounding out the Top 10 was Columbia's release of Revolution Studios PG-13 youth appeal comedy The Animal, down three rungs in its fourth weekend with a quiet ESTIMATED $3.0 million (-48%) at 2,228 theaters (-513 theaters; $1,346 per theater). Its cume is approximately $51.3 million, heading. for $55 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Luke Greenfield, it stars Rob Schneider.
On the expansion front, this weekend saw Fox Searchlight's R rated drama Sexy Beast widen in its second week with a very sexy ESTIMATED $0.65 million at 57 theaters (+48 theaters; $11,426 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.97 million.
Directed by Jonathan Glazer, it stars Ben Kingsley.
"It's playing extremely well across the country -- from Boston to Houston to Seattle to Chicago," Fox Searchlight distribution president Stephen Gilula said Sunday morning. "I think what's happened is that the Don Logan character than Ben Kingsley has created is fascinating people. It's a larger than life character and people are really talking about it. It's almost like a Travis Bickel or a Hannibal Lecter. People are just mesmerized and they're talking about it.
"In New York, where we're in our second week, all of the four theaters went up this weekend, which is just excellent. We're adding another 21 markets this week and we'll go to over 100 theaters and we have additional cities (that we'll be adding) every weekend in July. We're going to get to 150 to 200 theaters."
Focusing on where it's playing best at this point, Gilula noted, "It is not crossing over yet into the pure commercial suburbs. But our suburban runs in New York were actually quite good. We seem to be the art film or the limited release film of the summer so far. (Fine Line's) Anniversary Party is doing pretty well, in addition."
Asked where Beast is heading, Gilula replied, "I hesitate to give you a number yet in terms of where we're going to end up, but I think we'll get past $5 million, which for us on a small film will be just fine.
"Even in a mega-summer, there's an audience out there that really seeks out alternative sort of smart film entertainment. It is not a monolithic market, at all. There are audiences that are out there all year long always looking for all kinds of movies."
Fine Line Features' R rated comedy The Anniversary Party went wider in its third week with a still encouraging ESTIMATED $0.62 million at 85 theaters (+69 theaters; $7,335 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.2 million.
Written and directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, its ensemble cast includes Jane Adams, Jennifer Beals, Phoebe Cates, Alan Cumming, Kevin Kline, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Parker Posey and John C. Reilly.
Lions Gate Films' PG-13 rated drama Songcatcher expanded in its second week with an uninspired ESTIMATED $0.06 million at 13 theaters (+6 theaters; $4,630 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.12 million.
Directed by Maggie Greenwald, it stars Janet McTeer and Aidan Quinn.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $14.33 million, up about 42.34% from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $100.69 million.
This weekend's key film gross was up about 10.97% from last weekend this year when key films took in $129.15 million.
Last year, Fox's opening week of Me, Myself & Irene was first with $24.21 million at 3,019 theaters ($8,019 per theater); and DreamWorks' opening week of Chicken Run was second with $17.51 million at 2,491 theaters ($7,028 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $41.7 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $68.3 million.