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.
Critics, for the most part, are saying "no thanks" to a second helping of American Pie. "Forced and predictable," huffs Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News. "Calculated, cynical and, worse, not funny," grouches Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Disingenuous and manipulative," chimes in Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. "A limp biscuit of a movie," scowls Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post. Several critics acknowledge that they found some scenes in the movie funny but go on to remark that those scenes generally brought to mind similar ones in the original. Elizabeth Barchas in the Boston Globe, for example, writes, "The sequel is so ridiculously raunchy it's hard not to laugh at times, but the inherent problem in American Pie 2 is that there's nothing especially new about it." Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times likewise remarks that he "had a good time" watching the movie but then observes that "it's about the same characters [as appeared in the original] and the elements of surprise and discovery are gone." [One thing that also remains the same as the original is the R rating, and while most critics are predicting that the film is certain to be a big draw at the box office this weekend (it will "perform brilliantly," Joe Morgenstern predicts in The Wall Street Journal), Bob Strauss of the Los Angeles Daily News isn't buying their forecasts. The R rating, he notes, "is now being strictly enforced at theaters throughout the land. Studios have more or less agreed to stop promoting such fare directly to kids and younger teenagers."]
Critics who often exhort filmmakers to be more daring have generally concluded that director Baz Luhrmann energetically did so with Moulin Rouge but often with dire results. "This is a flabbergasting piece of work, nakedly out there, willing to risk looking foolish because it is so in love with the head-turning possibilities of the film medium. And, inevitably, foolish is what it sometimes looks," comments Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. "A bold attempt to resuscitate the movie musical, Moulin Rouge is a sometimes glorious, sometimes disastrous folly," writes Jonathan Foreman in the New York Post. Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times concludes: "This movie is simultaneously stirring and dispiriting ... Mr. Luhrmann's directing style is almost a brand of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He has too much to say and grows faint over the prospect of getting all of the thoughts and ideas and words and production numbers out of his head." Similarly, Bob Strauss in the Los Angeles Daily News finds the movie to be "undeniably lovely. Every frame of it is clever (often too, by half). It's certainly energetic/exhausting," but Strauss concludes that it is "overwrought with design elements and fast cuts." The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern writes that since watching the movie, "I've been doing the can't-can't. Can't believe the spectacular craziness of what I saw, can't convey the full folly of this opulent, gleefully decadent phantasmagoria." But Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News concludes that despite its shortcomings, Moulin Rouge is a rouge-hot success. The film, he writes, "is an audacious, snappy visual and emotional feast of dishes both familiar and fresh. It's the first really good movie of 2001."