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’s 1585 and Elizabeth Tudor (Blanchett) is well into her third decade as Queen of England slightly older but just as exquisite—and just as wary of the enemies at her gate. Led by Spain’s Philip II (Jordi Molla) a fundamentalist Catholic movement is sweeping 16th century Europe and they view Elizabeth as a Protestant heretic. Philip and his supporters have rallied round Elizabeth’s exiled Catholic cousin Mary Stuart Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) waiting for their chance to usurp the Virgin Queen’s throne and restore Catholicism in England. The queen’s trusted advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) keeps the wolves at bay but Elizabeth is in constant danger. She finds some comfort in the company of her favorite lady-in-waiting Bess (Abbie Cornish) as well as the dashing explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) whom Elizabeth sees not only as an intellectual and spirited equal but also as a way to glimpse into the unexplored globe’s infinite freedom—something the Queen can never have. But when an assassination plot goes awry Elizabeth shifts her energies back to her country setting off a chain of events that will change the course of history. Just like the Queen Elizabeth herself Blanchett is also slightly older but wiser and even more poised and beautiful than she was playing the Virgin Queen the first time in the 1998 Elizabeth. That film helped put the actress on the map and gave her her first Oscar nomination—and a second nomination for playing the same character shouldn’t be far behind. Blanchett gives this enigmatic queen such flawed humanity. She’s all at once regal sarcastic knowing jealous and loving—and above all a true queen to her people. Although The Golden Age is clearly Blanchett’s movie the supporting cast is also superb especially Rush whose aging Walshingham isn’t nearly as aggressive as he was in Elizabeth but still formidable and Owen as the charismatic Raleigh who clicks in more ways than one with Blanchett. By God Queen Elizabeth needed a real man and if Raleigh had had any royal lineage she may have married him. Instead she has to pawn him off on Bess--played sweetly but blandly by Cornish (A Good Year)--and live vicariously through them until their union gets the better of her and she banishes them. Elizabeth is a woman after all. Morton too does an admirable job as the doomed Queen Mary heaving breasts and stoic resolve to her ultimate demise. As with his original Oscar-winning Elizabeth director Shekhar Kapur clearly loves the splendor and pageantry of the 16th century royal court and serves up another visual treat with The Golden Age. The costumes are once again spectacular as are the sets. The battle between the British navy and the Spanish Armada is particularly stunning especially as a victorious Elizabeth stands on a high bluff wind blowing looking into the horizon at a sea of burning Spanish ships. Highly effective. Kapur isn’t very subtle in his depiction of the bad guys either. King Philip is almost Golum-like walking in a weird way mumbling and constantly rubbing his rosary beads. At any moment you expect him to hiss “My precioussssssss.” Creepy. But where Kapur’s Golden Age fails is in its pacing. While the first Elizabeth was intriguing in the making of a queen Golden Age plods through Elizabeth’s anxieties and insecurities even if Cate Blanchett is riveting in almost every frame. Things only really get going when Elizabeth forgets about being a lonely woman and gets her head in the war game. There’s also the fact that the masses may have had their fill of historical movies about this time period—from HBO’s excellent Elizabeth I (which is in essence the same story) to even Showtime’s The Tudors. Chalk this Golden Age up to bad timing.