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.
A pathetic shell of a man shy milquetoast Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover) leads a lonely life caring for his dying mother in their dirty and decrepit old mansion where his late father's portrait (of Bruce Davison Willard in the 1971 original) hangs in gloomy watch over his urn of ashes no lights are ever on and rats are overrunning the basement. He's got a miserable desk job working for the cruel man who took over Willard's family business and who gives him nothing but grief day in and day out. When his mother orders Willard (whom she calls "Clark" as she hates his given name) to kill the rats breeding downstairs he not only can't bring himself to do it he goes so far as to make pets of them. Socrates gets favored-rat status inspiring resentment in Ben a huge black rat that Willard requently and unceremoniously throws into the basement by its thick tail. But befriending them doesn't end there; when Willard discovers that he can psychically command his new--and quickly multiplying--friends to do things like "tear it up " he employs this four-legged army to exact revenge upon his enemies. Willard's control is short-lived however and when jealous Ben takes charge of the rat pack nothing can stop the roiling hordes from "tearing up" whatever--and whoever--they want.
Crispin Glover (The River's Edge Back to the Future) was born to play seething manic Willard. Sadly Glover is one of Hollywood's most underrated actors no doubt because he chooses off-putting movies and characters like these that are devastatingly funny pitiable and abhorrent all at once. Here he delivers an ace performance as a troubled young man who gradually slips down the slope of madness into utter dementia. Ultimately Willard is as awful as anyone else yet the gut-wrenching emotional roller-coaster ride Glover takes us on creates a weird empathy for this antihero as his snarling features twist from doubt to anger to fear to sadness in the blink of an eye. R. Lee Ermey is a monster as Willard's boss Frank Martin; Jackie Burroughs as Willard's ghastly revolting mother is given some of the movie's funniest lines; and Socrates and Ben (rat? CGI? Chinchilla?) bring it home.
Written and directed by Glen Morgan (screenwriter Final Destination X-Files) Willard is a fascinating character study made even more so by its subtext of betrayal. The term "rat" can be used to describe one who betrays and everyone in this movie is a "rat " so to speak: Willard's family is betrayed; Willard's parents betray him; Willard betrays his animal friends; Willard is betrayed. The only non-"rats" are in fact the furred-and-whiskered ones who repulsive as they may be are loyal until given reason not to be. The production values and editing are outstanding the script is tight some of the lines are laugh-out-loud funny and the blacker-than-black humor will appeal to the sort of people who won't mind watching a kitty cat meet its demise to Michael Jackson's schmaltzy "Ben." That said animal lovers beware: Even though you know it's not real Willard contains some horrifying scenes. Still despite the vile turns the movie takes you have to hand it to Morgan who is unafraid nay eager to go there. You on the other hand may not be so willing.