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.
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Imagine wearing the heaviest winter clothing, sitting in the hot tropical sun all day and having very little water. This is the plight of seven polar bears who travel with a circus in Puerto Rico--but not for long, if Scottish actor Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge; Black Hawk Down) has anything to do with it. He has written an open letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton on behalf of the charity People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), requesting the polar bears be transferred to an accredited zoo in the United States.
McGregor became interested in polar bears when he hosted a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary about the arctic animals last year. "Polar bears are intelligent animals who are specially adapted to freezing weather conditions," the actor wrote in the letter.
She knows what she did last summer. Singer/actress Brandy (I Still Know What You Did Last Summer), 23, is expecting her first child with her husband, producer Robert Smith, whom she secretly wed last summer. The baby is due sometime in July.
Comic strip feline Garfield will be staying at home these days. Garfield creator Jim Davis has decided to sell his private twin-engine Dassault Falcon 20F-5 jet since he no longer needs to travel as much as he used to. The jet is being offered for $7.6 million and is advertised as "an aircraft fit for a fat cat."
An unidentified woman decided The Rosie O'Donnell Show was as good as any place to flash her breasts. On Thursday's live show in New York, the woman opened her blouse as the camera panned the audience before a commercial break. When the show resumed, Rosie quipped, "A crazy woman...is now with security, waiting to get into the Montel show."
Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert announced Wednesday he will undergo surgery to remove a cancerous growth on his thyroid. "I am told this type of tumor is slow-growing and not aggressive, and that my prognosis is excellent for a quick and complete recovery," Ebert said in a statement. The movie critic had similar surgery in 1987.
A French court Thursday turned down a Catholic group's request to ban a poster designed by Oliviero Toscani for the independent film Amen. The court ruled the image, which blends a cross with a red swastika, fairly depicts the subject matter of the film, examining how the Vatican's silence during the Holocaust made it partially responsible for the millions of Jewish lives lost.
A Venezuelan actor, Juan Carlos Diaz, who has been harassing singer Gloria Estefan and her music mogul husband, Emilio, for two years, was arrested Thursday for allegedly trespassing on the couple's mansion on Star Island in Miami Beach. As well as trespassing, Diaz has publicly accused Emilio of making unwanted sexual advances toward him, while the music producer, who has denied all charges, has filed a defamation suit against the troubled actor.
The California Supreme Court Thursday overturned the state's "Son of Sam" law preventing criminals from selling their stories for profit, citing its violation to a criminal's state and federal First Amendment rights. This decision came about after Barry Keenan, who kidnapped Frank Sinatra Jr. in 1963, challenged the law, which was preventing him from selling the rights to his story to Columbia Pictures for $485,000.
British actor John Thaw, best known for playing the gruff Oxford sleuth Inspector Morse in the BBC TV series Inspector Morse, died Thursday in Wiltshire, England, from cancer of the esophagus. He was 60. Sheila Hancock and three children survive Thaw.