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.
Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) has one day and one day only to prove himself to his new partner Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) a 13-year vet of the LAPD narcotics division. Harris' years of hardcore experience on Los Angeles' meanest streets though have turned him into the same sort of criminal he's supposed to be putting away. At first it seems Harris intends to teach Hoyt his own brand of justice: that in order to catch the big fish sometimes officers must throw the smaller ones back. But as the hours slip away Hoyt learns just how bad his badass partner really is--Harris starts out as a taunting joker who just wants to give Hoyt a hard time but by nightfall he's turned into a full-blown monster bent on saving his own skin no matter what.
This two-man show is really a one-man show. It's Washington's game all the way as he bursts the almost priestly bubble of do-goodness that has surrounded him like a halo for most of his career with a sudden murderous burst of gunfire. In Day he is larger than life; clad in black leather and huge jewelry he towers both physically and psychologically over a scrawny goateed Hawke (looking like he just walked off the Reality Bites set) who tries valiantly to keep up with his Oscar-winning co-star. It's not that a perfectly wet-behind-the-ears Hawke doesn't adequately carry off the acting required for the situation he's in but really we're supposed to believe he hold his own in a fistfight-turned-deathmatch against guys more than twice his size? For his part Washington chews the scenery like it was his last meal as Alonzo goes from bad to worse but he sure makes it look fun.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Bait) used to direct music videos for artists like Coolio and it shows. Love the cool camera angles the warped POV shots the primary colors and raw soundtrack. And Fuqua's not afraid to show the L.A. streets at their worst. The first two-thirds are masterful work in character study as the line between good and evil becomes increasingly blurred. But by the final third the plot disintegrates getting hacky and waaayy contrived especially the "Hey! It just so happens..." coinky-dinks and a laughable ending that falls flat as a pancake and panders to an urban audience almost to the point of patronization. Most of this movie is so over-the-top it would be unwatchable were it not for its charismatic lead.