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.
1982’s Conan the Barbarian, starring the magical Arnold Schwarzenegger, was on heavy rotation in my stepfather’s VHS player when I was a kid. I’m not entirely sure why we loved it so much, but we surely loved it. I know it’s difficult to imagine a time when Arnold didn’t loom in the cultural landscape—even during his fallow days of Jingle all the Way, End of Days, Junior and Batman and Robin, he held special place in the celebrity pantheon. One that was a little silly, a little tough, and only marginally comprehensible. Annoyingly enough he had to fall back down to Earth when he played the role of a lifetime: the main character in a wildly staged takeover of the top office in California politics. Or a recall election. Or something. Anyhow, it told us all something that we already knew if we’d seen Arnold’s real silver screen debut in Pumping Iron that he’s an Austrian man with a plan.
But back in 1982, before The Terminator, before Predator and Commando and even before Twins, there came Conan. Conan. Oh, Conan. A pulp hero whose whole deal was that he was big and strong and didn’t mind cutting a guy from crotch to throat, ripping out his tongue and throwing it to the starving dogs in the corner. But he also has a bruiser’s intelligence, that kind of thick-necked thoughtfulness an MLB slugger brings to the plate. Most importantly, however, Conan has the physique of, well, a bodybuilder.
Enter Arnold. You can barely understand what he says. He has four facial expressions, and two of them are subsets of “grimace.” But he’s got huge pectoral muscles and some strange kind of intelligence lurking behind those deep-set eyes. He was born to play Conan.
Director John Milius was born to direct the thing as well. John Milius stories are legendary in Hollywood. In the 70s, asthmatic film geeks like Scorsese, spindly film geeks like Spielberg and radically socially awkward film geeks like Lucas could be both cult and box office heroes at the same time—but for all their success, they were still just nerds. John Milius was not a nerd. He was a badass and just to prove it he would carry a gun. That bad boy ruined many a Malibu party by pulling out his .38 and taking pot shots at the cocaine room. Okay, okay, Milius was rejected from the marines because he had asthma too, but the point is he wanted to join the marines. In Hearts of Darkness, the somewhat cloying documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now, Milius talks through a stuffed up nose about the heavily militaristic ending he’d written for the film. An ending like that would break the delicate moral artifact Francis Ford Coppola hoped to build, but it was perfect for the pulpy black and white of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian.
Of course Milius couldn’t do it all on his own. He had to enlist the similarly tough genuine veteran Oliver Stone. Togethe,r they reworked an earlier script into a lean, mean, fighting machine. They retained Howard’s almost Jungian terminology: Wheel of Pain, Riddle of Steel, Eye of the Serpent, Mountain of Power. That’s almost a map to the monomyth right there.
Together Stone and Milius honed the legend of Conan as the thinking man’s barbarian. A bloodthirsty bruiser with a wounded heart and a penchant for guerilla warfare, Che Guevara-style. Oh, and he’s a sex god. Did I mention he’s a sex god? I only point this out because one of the things he accomplishes is killing a evil cult leader’s gigantic snake-pet who previously killed his mom. And somewhere Freud facepalms.
The arc Stone and Milius craft for Conan is so classic and so strong that it manages to get us on his side even though we can’t really understand what he’s saying most of the time. Although when Arnold needs to land it, he lands it. The tag line of “Thief, Warrior, Gladiator, King” really does offer up Conan’s journey. I can only hope that the new one will do as well. I have my worries, naturally.
There’s a lot of talk about the new Conan movie and how Jason Momoa will be oh-so-awesome because he can act. Yeah, I saw Game of Thrones, and I saw him act, and he can sure act up a storm when he isn’t speaking English—which puts him on par with Arnold in at least one respect. But the point of Conan isn’t acting or back-story or all of those delicate emotional lines that filmmakers seem to want to draw nowadays. Conan is about big and mythic and broad lines that are really heavy and sharp and can probably cut a bad guy from—
—wait, wait, I’m being bugged by Conan. He’s literally staring at me right now. What’s that Conan? What is best in life? Conan! What is best in life? No no, I know this one.
“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”
That’s what’s best in life, Conan. Now go battle hordes of darkness.