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.
This is one of those Rocky-style films in which the climax is built-in. We know there's going to be a fight where the underdog goes up against the big bad champ. It's the rest of the movie that needs to keep our attention and luckily Undisputed does a decent job save a few scenes that could have been cut. When the world heavyweight boxing champ George "Iceman" Chambers (Ving Rhames) is sentenced to 6 to 8 years for rape he is sent to the newly built Sweetwater Maximum Security Prison in the Mojave Desert. Of course he vehemently denies the charges rages at his lawyers to find a way out of this mess and is generally in a pretty foul mood. In fact he bullies and pushes people around just about wherever he goes including Monroe Hutchens (Wesley Snipes) who as Chambers finds out is the reigning undisputed prison boxing champ--10 years running. Hutchens is a hero of sorts to the rest of the prisoners and this doesn't sit well with the Iceman. Seizing a glorious opportunity to make some serious cash longtime inmate and mob boss Mendy Ripstein (Peter Falk) sets up a boxing match between the two. He lures Hutchens into the ring on the promise of prize money to send home to his sister and three kids. For Iceman it's the chance to get out on special parole via mob ties to the parole board. For both it means a fight to the finish by London Prize Ring rules -- no referee lighter gloves and the last man standing wins. So who'll be king of the hill?
The fact that Rhames' Iceman is more than a little reminiscent of real-life boxing champ Mike Tyson and the legal woes he suffered a few years back is certainly not lost. Yet Rhames infuses his character with a certain intelligence and a lot of cocky bravado. When he is on the screen you can't take your eyes off him partly because he takes up half of it with his hulking mass. It's also kind of fun to see Rhames playing the baddie again although not quite as malevolent as Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. Snipes also puts in a compelling performance as Hutchens who was on his way to being a boxing champ himself before he lost his cool in a crime of passion and wound up in prison for murder. Hutchens doesn't say much but quietly waits out his sentence making Japanese temples out of toothpicks. His character however comes alive when he is in the ring and for a man of little words Snipes looks good dealing out the punches. The supporting characters are hit and miss. Falk seems sorely out of place among all the hoodlums and just a little too senile to be believable as a tough-nut gangster. Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit) however as Hutchens' crony Ratbag lives up to his character's name nicely. Other inmates Jon Seda (Selena) as companion to Ripstein and Wes Studi (Last of the Mohicans) as the Iceman's only ally are also both memorable in small parts.
Action director Walter Hill best known for his '80s hits 48 Hrs. and The Long Riders seems to be trying out some new techniques in his older years. Without going for the typical opening credits Undisputed launches the audience right into a boxing match. Hill alternates between black and white and color to make his points but the most unique technique is how he introduces the characters. As each new character comes on screen they are immediately freeze-framed with titles detailing who they are when they were convicted and what they were convicted of. Doing this isn't necessarily a key to the story but you get to the point where you want it just because you are actually curious in finding out what crimes they've all committed. The film only drags when Rhames and Snipes are not on the screen and of course all the fancy camerawork really only pays off for the big finale. Watching these two animals duke it out in a cage is as exciting as you'd expect. Maybe not quite as bloody as say the ring action in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull but fun nonetheless.